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Dealing with home sickness | Heimweh?

Missing home?

Foreign students travelling from one culture to another in the hope for a better or different type of education will often find themselves in a seminar room being ‘prepared’ for what is to come by a benevolent Professor, who, having seen the exhilaration and suffering of newcomers trying to integrate throughout their study period, will try to bestow upon them the understanding of what it truly means to move to and experience a foreign country.

Ideally we all would have a similar introduction. After all, even if we haven’t moved here for the reasons of education, we’re all here to learn and bring with us certain expectations and hopes for our stay in these new surroundings.  In a conversation with a friend who had moved recently, she confided to me that after having initially felt really excited at being in the “Big Apple”,  a couple of months later she had become so homesick that her stay here was in danger of coming to an abrupt end – and with that, so was her marriage. She was considering the idea of packing up her kids and returning home, without her husband whose contract here was to last another three years. She no longer found any excitement at living here, her yearning for the familiarity of everyday routines, ease of communication, similarity of raising children, habits, values and even food, had become so strong that she regularly dreamt of landing in Munich airport, walking into the Bierhaus there, where her friends and family were waiting, ordering a ‘Hefeweizen’ and her favourite meal, often waking up at precisely the moment she was about to bite into a succulent piece of ‘Schweinebraten’.  Shortly after, over a hot cup of coffee, I told her I had felt much the same way and only recently had started feeling more adjusted and able to enjoy the differences, finally finding a niche within which I no longer felt my ‘foreignness’ so intensely . This was after about 9 months of having lived here. We started comparing notes and soon realized that our emotional ups and downs had occurred loosely around the same time periods; bizarrely even our thought processes had been so similar, underlined with feelings of guilt and self-doubts at not being able to appreciate living in a place often referred to as ‘the city of dreams’, a city so many had come to seek both fortune and fame, a city of ‘a million opportunities’. I decided to do a little research among my other friends, some of which had lived here much longer. Sure enough, many, even those that now called New York home, remembered a similar adjustment period, punctuated with varying degrees of conflict, self-doubts, intense loneliness and often even anger at themselves (for not being able to integrate ‘fast enough’) and ‘others’ (for the perception of not letting them integrate).  A brief internet search on the topic of cultural integration soon revealed a fitting graph with a wonderful academic-sounding name: The U-Curve of Cultural Adaptation


The U-Curve of Cultural Adaptation in CityKinder German Blog CityExperten

Source: Liu 2008

While I would rename the stages to 1 ‘Wondrous excitement’, 2 ‘Disillusionment and disappointment’, 3 ‘Gradual adaptation and adoption’ and 4 ‘I found my niche!!’, it was truly comforting to have found something that more or less described the emotions of my experience as a newcomer (and that of many others that I had talked to) and normalized them, thus transforming my (or our) individual experiences into a more collective phenomena facing many, if not most, nomads travelling away from familiar ground.

Thus, as a fellow nomad, my message to you is this: if you are currently going through a phase of disappointment, disillusionment and other insecurities you cannot explain, this may well be a stage in your individual U-Curve. Before long things will feel different and your search for a niche in this pulsating city will be fruitful – in fact the need for a return home may become less and less immediate and suddenly you will find yourself becoming truly ‘bi-cultural’.

References: Liu, C.h. Lee, HW “A proposed model of expatriates in multinational corporations”, Emerald 15, (2008)

Tara Kielmann is an Anthropologist with a background in International Health and Development. Having moved numerous times throughout her life, her move to New York presented several unexpected challenges which roused her curiosity in the phenomena and process of cultural integration in the Western World.


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