On Homesickness and Long-Term Travel

A recent article in Smart Set caught my attention. Reviewing Susan J. Matt’s history of homesickness in America, Jessa Crispin uses the subject as a springboard for her own travels and nostalgia. “I was there simply to test the limits of my leash” she notes, telling us about her first prolonged trip abroad. A return several years later left her feeling disoriented  – the city had changed – and longing for an intense connection to the Ireland of her memories, a place that might not have existed other than in retrospect. Crispin’s review resonated with me, enough so that I shared it with a few of my friends who are also living abroad. In turn, sending the article sparked a series of in-depth and thoughtful conversations with these fellow travellers. We started writing to one another about our own memories of places, about what longer-term travel does to an entrenched worldview. And then the questions began. How are we different than we were when we set off? Have our values changed? Have the ways we relate to people (and things) shifted over the years? And can we really get homesick when we technically have no fixed address?

homesickness and travel in chiang mai
One of my favourites from Thailand: a tree at dusk near Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Can ‘modern nomads’ feel homesickness if they travel with no base?

From one short article, our email exchanges sprawled outward into existential questions about life and happiness, about what home means and about the choices we each made to end up where we did. We finally capped off the communication when we realized we could go on for days – there was work to be done after all! While I tend to speak to these friends often, it was wonderful to take a much deeper look at our respective lives, and learn more about one another in the process.

So what did they say?

One friend noted that while some places are big enough to absorb memories and return to, others aren’t; the smaller places are indelibly tied to a memory or a former version of himself, impossible to recover. When he found himself in those smaller places again, it felt jarring, as though the prior iteration – the person he remembered –  was the one that should have reappeared. But of course people change, and intellectually he knows that is the case. Another saw his life as a series of Russian dolls, starting with a splash of colour and radiating outward, new dolls over the old, each representing a place lived, a lesson learned. “You are constantly out of your comfort zone” he noted “until you’re not.” Another friend said she stopped trying to understand why she felt homesick despite having no city or place that felt like home. It was only when she returned to North America and was asked to explain her choices that she panicked, quickly picking one of a few favourite cities to say “this is the place for me.”

On my end, I certainly do think we leave a part of us in each of the places we visit. There are repercussions to doing this with frequency, too – if you keep leaving parts of yourself around the world, what’s left to leave? And is there a way to go back eventually and collect all the pieces? Crispin acknowledges that there are advantages and repercussions to the yearning for elsewhere, trade-offs that are deeply personal to each of those who move. For me, they lie in the lack of stability and traditional societal goals: having one home, having a physical community around you that remains more or less the same. (I say physical because technology enables us all to have perpetually accessible communities.)  When I think of my friends at home, I do envy the consistency of their interaction. In turn, they envy my wandering. Grass is greener, and all that. But I suspect none of us would trade in the lives we’ve built for a different one.

As homesickness goes, when I think of these last years I feel wistful for nothing and everything, all at once. The good and the bad are each knotted together into a safety net, trapping anything that falls between. What stands out above all else is the perfect storm of moments when everything aligns – people you care about, helping others, a place you love, delicious food, learning learning – so much learning. If that’s not happiness, I don’t know what is. Perhaps it’s temporary, claiming that happiness as my own, but it happens often as I wander. As a result, I don’t have a wistfulness for a specific place or a specific person – though surely we each have memories that bring back those kinds of wistful feelings – but a more existential nostalgia for the confluence of Really Great Things.

* * *

I’m coming up on 4 years of travel. April 1, 2008 was the day I set off and if you had asked me then whether I’d be at it still, I’d have answered with a resounding no. This week, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen since 1998 who happened to be visiting Chiang Mai. He and I met in macroeconomics class and after graduation, we lost touch. How do you sum up almost 14 years of your life to someone who knew you just after high school? How do you frame the consequences of your choices when you don’t yet know where they will lead? In 1998, I hadn’t yet learned all these lessons about myself and the world, about adaptability and connection with others. Meeting this old friend brought all this and more to the forefront, sifting out what has truly changed in the intervening years and how my movement has moulded me.

My stories – the ones that I use to relate one situation to the next – are travel-related, and often coming from a completely different place than the norm. Cocktail hour at a party in London was testament to this; I struggled to make small talk when in my own mind half my stories started with “well, I was on the roof of this minivan with a goat…..?” or something similar.

These stories have changed me. Travel has changed me – which is not a guarantee. For some it doesn’t and there’s nothing wrong with that. And what travel is for me, learning a new language or skill might be for someone else. I acknowledge, too, that a good part of this metamorphosis is simply getting older.  But in reflecting on the last decade, I think that travel has been the primary driver of my change, and continues to give me perspective, to make me stronger and excited to live each day as fully as I can.

Overlooking Hong Kong, April 2010
Overlooking Hong Kong, April 2010

People love to slot others into categories, neatly filing way their interaction into a rolodex of prior conversations and thoughts for safe-keeping. As someone who lives a life of in betweens, I struggle to define my life choices in a comprehensive way to those I meet on the road. For the people at home, the initial backlash from quitting my job to travel has been replaced by a complicated mixture of kudos and confusion, an unspoken hat tip that I’ve survived this long without A Plan For Everything. The locals I meet in Asia are similarly confounded, but much more vocal in their reasoning. Why would I leave a very good job just to come and eat street food with them? In the eyes of much more entrenched cultures with stricter gender roles, what I’m doing is startling. “Where is your husband?” remains the question of the day.

In this feedback loop from East to West, the contrasts between both worlds are more apparent. The first time I came home for a few weeks, the reverse culture shock sent me into a deep depression. In subsequent returns, the differences are less jarring and yet more sharply defined. I’ve become an observer to my own existence in a way that I never anticipated, musing about my own temporary discomfort before I settle into my skin once more. The things I love about Asia – the energetic chaos, the ability to slide in sideways and create a life for yourself at whatever level you choose, the food (oh the food…) occupy a space in my thoughts at all times. And as the pendulum swings back from one continent to the other, I am relieved to find that I can adjust more easily each time.

Home is Everywhere

Home is New York, is Bangkok, is Montreal, is Beijing. I never thought of myself as a chameleon and yet here I am building myself a life premised on a talent for adaptability.

Coconut cinnamon smoothie from Pun Pun, Chiang Mai
Coconut cinnamon smoothie from Pun Pun, Chiang Mai

Crispin writes:

“My idea of home, the home I am sick for, is a mysterious, shifting place. The real reason I am worried about this, though, is that there are still so many cities where I want to live. There are cultural tics I want to pick up as my own, and I want to reshape myself in small ways through my encounters with the cities.”

I see myself in this sentence. I’ve learned over the years that even the most foreign and unrelatable place can feel like home, faster than I ever thought possible. So much to see and do, and overwhelmingly less time to do it. I continue on my path, a teller of stories and an eater of food, a person who lives a life of in betweens.

* * *

I will put up a separate post on April 1 about practical lessons learned from years of travel, but this was my attempt at shedding light on the emotional component. I get many questions about loneliness and homesickness, about whether I regret the path I’ve chosen. I will say this: even when sick or tired or lonely or when I’ve failed, I feel thankful and I feel lucky. Disparate places and people and smiles are always within reach, the macro view unfurling over the thousands of small, beautiful connections that comprise these last 4 years.

The big picture plan, as it stands, is as vague as it was when I set out. It’s as vague as it was in 2010 when I wrote a piece about the things that travel doesn’t fix. It does get daunting at times and where it will take me, I have no idea. But that’s ok. As I said to one of my close friends, those of us from nowhere and everywhere, all at once, rarely know. Those in one place also rarely really know, but it’s easier to handle the many questions when you’ve got a structured sandbox to play in. Though we might not have a sandbox, we have an adaptability; we find strength in the mysterious in-betweenness that defines us.

What is a place, after all, but a confluence of people you care about and routines you enjoy? It could be anywhere. “Where” is actually irrelevant so long as your mind is open to new experiences and your heart is open to love.


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