By Thao Nguyen
It hurts. I never thought that it would, and I never imagined it would do so badly. It doesn’t cut you open like a knife. Rather, it eats at your joints and bones, it stings your eyes and it stirs your stomach.
What is it, you might ask?
I can remember, only half a year ago, I yearned so badly to go. To get out there, start my new and somewhat independently life. ‘There’s a new and clean notebook out there waiting for me to fill it up with new adventures and stories.’ It was going to be exhilarating and exciting, even if I had to do it all on my own. I would make it work regardless.
Now, half a year later, almost exactly four months since I left my home, I actually find myself alone. Durham is a strange place no more, and yet I am still a stranger wandering its cobbled streets. As if I am a tourist, someone who is only passing by. I told my sister that somehow my term time in university feels like a break from my normal life – from my real life. She laughed at me and pointed out the obvious: “University is your life now.”
Durham is a strange place no more, and yet I am still a stranger wandering its cobbled streets.
At first, I thought it was just how quickly time was passing. The last four months felt like one very packed month, and that perception leaves the novelty of moving to a foreign land lingering in my mind. To add to that, I have yet to find myself a group of close friends to frequently spend time with and thus establish a certain sense of inclusion or attachment. It’s not uncommon that I feel alone and foreign throughout my days.
Now, as the Lunar New Year approaches, a time during which people go home to their families to reflect and re-energise, I am beginning to think that there’s something more. It isn’t just about finding a place and falling into it as if you’re a puzzle piece finding a gap that resembles its edges – it is about whether or not you are at all ready to leave the box you came from. It’s funny to be hanging mid-air, far beyond said box before you start thinking about whether you want to leave, but hey, you’re just a young girl (or guy). You’re allowed to not think things through.
So what hurts? All this rambling and still, I haven’t told you. Well, that ache that plagues me from the sole of my feet to the cap of my skull, that weariness that flows from the marrow of my bones – it’s homesickness. It’s wishing you were at home, where you can basically give your parents a big hug and be held whenever you want. It’s wishing you can enjoy those meals that your palate knows so well. It’s wishing that you were in your city or your favourite beach, taking in the beauty of the country you came from. It’s hearing your mother tongue, your language, and it’s exclaiming in it without feeling strange, because everyone understands you.
That ache that plagues me from the sole of my feet to the cap of my skull, that weariness that flows from the marrow of my bones – it’s homesickness.
It’s a yearning for familiarity, for security, for affinity.
Don’t be alarmed – this sensation does not consume my every cell every moment of my existence. It comes in waves, as so many fellow emigrants have told me. Sometimes there’s a trigger – an old photograph, a special number on the calendar, the sight of foreign students walking and talking together. And sometimes it strikes spontaneously – when you’re working at your desk or when you’re brushing your teeth. Often, it’s when you’re alone, which I guess is a good thing. I have broken down in tears on more than one such occasion, and I am glad that no one witnessed that.
I should also remind myself that I do not need to worry. Not being able to fit into this new environment like a chameleon isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least it shows that I am capable of sparking and holding a fire, right? And after all, a chameleon only camouflages itself – it’s basically wearing a ginormous mask.
There is no shame in missing and loving my home, my country and my culture. It isn’t all right to give in to and wallow in nostalgia, but it’s okay to acknowledge it instead of burying it. To go on with my daily life and still feel the ache when it hits is a testimony to my strength and not my weakness.
To go on with my daily life and still feel the ache when it hits is a testimony to my strength and not my weakness.
So, yes, it hurts. I didn’t anticipate it, but I can handle it. And yes, I’m still an uncertain puzzle piece, hanging in the air, not completely willing to leave the old but am on my way to the new. I accept that it’s a process and will be patient with myself. I have no idea if you understand any of this at all but if you do, and you are an expatriate like me, and you feel the same, I hope knowing that you are not the only one aching gives you some comfort.