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Ask an Expert Week, 25-29 November 2013
By Rachel Hynes.
My eldest daughter, aged 15, is one week into a 10 week student exchange to France. The homesickness and culture shock has hit hard. It is so heartwrenching being on the other side of the world, trying to comfort your very sad child.
I asked an old school friend if she would write my daughter a letter, sharing her experiences of homesickness as an exchange student 25 years ago. Her letter was so full of wisdom and advice, I thought I would share it here in case you one day find yourself with a homesick teenager.
Letter to a homesick teen
Your mum has told me how you’re having a tough time right now, and I thought my experience as an exchange student – especially dealing with homesickness – may help you a little.
I went to Norway as a Rotary international exchange student for a year when I was 18 (that was a loooooong time ago). I actually chose to go to Norway because it was the country the furthest away from Australia where they didn’t speak English. I was determined to go the full kit and caboodle while I had the chance.
Of course, this excitement to go to a non-English speaking country soon bit me well and truly in the arse, as I found that it was the worst part of being there. I felt so incredibly isolated. School was pretty boring (mostly) and parties were dull. Luckily for me, most younger people in Norway speak okay-ish English as they learn it at school. One-on-one with someone was good – they’d try their English out on me and we’d have a few laughs – but in a group situation it was terrible. Everyone spoke Norwegian and I felt lost and alone.
I also had terrible culture shock. Norway is a lovely, quaint country. Everything is as snug as a bug. Gingerbread houses, that kind of thing. And back in 1989, there was no immigration to speak of. It felt odd and insular. These people looked liked extras from that movie “Children of the Corn”!
Coming from a tiny outback NSW country town meant I felt like I’d been dumped on a different planet. I actually felt like a lumbering oaf! lol! The culture shock took a while to get used to, but I did get used to it. I slowly picked up Norwegian (I hadn’t learned any before I’d left Oz) and gradually found my groove.
The key, I think (and this will seem impossibly difficult right now) is to try to enjoy every experience in some way. Try to find pleasure in the little things, and don’t look too far ahead into the future. Ten weeks must feel like an eternity to you right now, but it will whizz by like you won’t believe. My year was over before I knew it, and in that year I met some amazing people. People I’m extremely close to now, 24 years later. I’m also married to a Norwegian guy I met while I was there! You won’t realise now, but you’ll meet people on this trip that will make a big impression or difference to your life and you’re really quite a lucky duck to have this opportunity.
We didn’t have email or Internet when I was in Norway – I had to hang out by the mailbox hoping someone had written a letter or sent a card. As the days went by, I lost interest in waiting for the mailman. I knew I’d be going home at the end of my year and I guess I made an unconscious decision that I’d immerse myself in it and try to get as much out of it as possible. I probably spoke to my parents on the phone (and it was a crappy, expensive phone line back in those days) about 2-3 times that whole year. Being away from my family made me realise how lucky I was to have such a wonderful support network back home. It made me appreciate them more.
When you’re feeling really crap, don’t beat yourself up about it. Be kind to yourself. It’s totally normal to feel homesick. I feel homesick even now (I’ve been living in America for the past 3.5 years). Sometimes I visualise (and you can laugh at me if you want to, because it’s kinda daggy) a tiny version of myself sitting on my shoulder. Sometimes I’d picture my mum sitting up there too. When I was crying and feeling absolute shit (excuse the French- but hey, I guess you’re in France!) I’d picture my tiny sensible self or my tiny sensible mum sitting on my shoulder and poking me in the side of the head saying “C’mon! I want you to enjoy this time. You deserve to enjoy this time! It’s going to be ok,” stuff like that. You need to remember too, that wherever you go your parents are there with you. Literally. They are part of you. Probably sounds mad, but it worked for me. It actually still works for me even now I’m 43.
Living in the US has had it’s tough times too. I’ve been back to visit my family twice since we’ve been here and when I spend time with them, it seems like no time has passed at all. They still drive me nuts and I wonder why the hell I missed them to begin with!!
What you should try not to do is isolate yourself. Don’t hide in your room. Throw yourself out there. Insist that people talk with you. Insist people show you around the sights etc. Don’t be shy about asking people to help you. I remember panicking about what to do with my dirty washing at my first host family’s house. I’d been there about 10 days and no one had explained the laundry procedures. Meanwhile my pile of dirty knickers was building up in the cupboard. In the end, I had to just ask about it. It was an enormous relief to have clean undies hahaahahhahha! Just ask, ask and ask some more. Not knowing what’s going on, or what the normal procedures are can cause a lot more stress than you realise and it’s just unnecessary. I hope I’ve been able to give some small kernel of comfort to you. Just know that you’re not alone in how you feel. So many others have been there and done that. This experience will teach you so much. I look back now and I feel so lucky that I did my year overseas.
Have you ever had a homesick child? What did you do to help?
Do you remember a time when you were homesick? How did you get through it?
All advice gratefully received.