Homesick in Hong Kong

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We're right in the middle of the Hong Kong holiday season, midway between Christmas and Chinese New Year, and I've been feeling a little homesick.

I've been an expatriate for over 14 years now. Homesickness is an aspect of expatriate life many of us don't talk about that much; it seems weak and unsophisticated to admit we worldly types sometimes long for the familiar. Nevertheless, it's a fact of expatriate life. If you move to a different country and don't feel homesick sometimes, you're not human. I expect even North Koreans who've escaped their hellish homeland feel homesick once in a while -- and maybe feel it just as often and as deeply as any other expats.

When I first moved to Hong Kong, I didn't have serious trouble with culture shock or homesickness. I had an exceptionally easy transition into life here: I was leaving an ambivalent-at-best stint in graduate school, so I didn't feel like I was going to be missing much. I had no serious emotional attachments outside my immediate family, who I'd not lived near in several years anyway, and some grad school friendships that weren't particularly deep. I was contracted to teach English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the job turned out to be pleasant and relatively undemanding. A flat, complete with two American flatmates just about my age, was provided, and other young expat teachers were available to form an instant peer group. Although the pay was minimal, it felt like a swell deal, because it was.

So I had no soul-wrenching adjustments to make, no regrets about making the move, and no obvious reasons to be homesick. But homesickness isn't rational. No matter how well you study the four stages of culture shock (or however many the psychobabblers say there are these days), no matter how well you've organized your move and the day-to-day logistics of your new life, you're going to feel homesick sometimes. And it's unlikely you're going to be able to predict or control when those feelings are awakened.

I found that homesickness came to me in flashes, and still does. I guess I had more of these flashes in years gone by, but I'm not sure their frequency has dropped all that much. I find they're sparked by all sorts of things. Sometimes they make obvious sense, like when I receive a letter or phone call from my parents or siblings in the States, or when I'm here in Hong Kong at Christmas, and I can't help but recall Christmases past in my snowy homeland.

But others come without warning. The other day, for example, I was checking some emails on a mailing list comprising the members of my high school graduating class. We had our 20-year reunion this past May, and one of my classmates set up this list, which has been wonderfully active. I was reading a thread about people getting their winter activities organized. I can't even recall which message set me off, but all at once I had a piercing vision of a entirely different life I might have led, as I looked out the window in my house next to the fireplace, to see a December sunset backlighting the snowdrifts swaddling my yard. I believe it's nothing to do with envy, this vision -- it's homesickness on an almost metaphysical level.

Such visions usually pass as quickly as they appear, so dealing with them isn't that hard. A little misty-eyed interlude, and you're good to go.

But many expatriates struggle with much more serious homesickness, especially, I think, those who've been sent overseas less than willingly by their employers, or who accompany spouses who are eager to go overseas, but who are far less enthusiastic themselves. I've never experienced homesickness on this level, but I know people who certainly have. They are very unhappy. Petty annoyances are magnified into outrages. Difficulties with language or transport or grocery shopping are crises of the first order, insuperable barriers to feeling comfortable. Conversations with a truly homesick person turn inevitably -- and usually rapidly -- to news or reminiscences of the homeland.

I'm no psychologist, but it seems to me that although some people with deep homesickness may get over it eventually, most simply don't. Their unhappiness usually drives them back to their home countries as soon as possible.

I'll end with a suggestion: those of us who consider ourselves to be 'well-adjusted' expatriates can be more than a bit impatient with those who are truly homesick. We are tempted to scorn their inability to adapt to a culture we've embraced. But it's entirely possible -- even likely -- their problems have little to do with Hong Kong. In fact, it wouldn't matter if they'd been transplanted to Shangri-La itself. They're simply missing home.

Comments

homesick for different homes

It's funny, I'm seldom homesick for my 'homeland' in any serious form except when I'm there and then it aches a bit. But I do get those flashes you're talking about. But it's not consistently for any one country, sometimes it's for Spain, sometimes for Luxembourg, sometimes for Holland, sometimes for Switzerland, Brazil, Italy.  It depends on the context - like music or some food or seeing a picture of a happy time or people you're missing, or the feeling of the cold wind in your hair while cycling through a forest in a cold day ...