December 30, 2015

How to be homesick

A few months ago on a flight back from London, I sat next to a teenage boy who was going to New York City for the very first time. He was born in India, spent his whole life in Goa, and was traveling to the U.S. to start college. There was so much I wanted to tell him about New York, freshman year, living away from your parents for the first time, and being homesick—but he was super-excited and I didn't want to scare him. So, instead, I asked him about his pending computer science coursework and we talked about the weather.

I know most of my friends (and my family) think I'm super-weird for spending the last week of December on my own in Hanover. None of them have said anything to me about it, but I can tell. After all, who in their right mind spends New Year's Eve alone in the tiny town (pop. 11,000) where she went to college 20 years ago?

Well, the logical reasons I'm in New Hampshire are the following:
— I left holiday booking way too late and didn't figure out whether I could even leave New York until right before Christmas
— I wanted to get out of the city for a few days, but didn't want to make a whole production out of it
— I can't drive, but wanted to be in the country, and (ditto above) didn't want to make a whole production out of it
— I wanted to be somewhere easy and familiar, where I wouldn't feel the pressure to sightsee
— I wanted a travel experience that would circumvent all major transportation hubs
— I wanted to stay in a really nice hotel for not a lot of money
— I wanted to be somewhere wintry, not sunny, because it's been so warm in New York all season; also I'm a little fat right now and wanted to wear sweaters, not swimsuits

The illogical reasons I'm here are more abstract. When I first got to Hanover, a college freshman in the fall of 1995, I wasn't at all prepared. Sure, I'd been to sleepaway camps (math sleepaway camps—we're first-gen Asians, that's how we roll) three-to-six weeks at a time every summer since I was 12, but I'd underestimated how much of a city kid I really was. And I was pretty flip about the whole college thing—big deal, I thought, freshman year, middle of nowhere. I didn't even go on an outing club trip before orientation because there were 27 kids in our entering class from my high school—I figured I already knew 2.7 percent of my year.

But that fall and winter were tough. I remember waking up one morning, turning on the radio, and hearing the broadcaster announce that outside, with wind chill, it was minus-70 degrees. That winter I got mono and was laid up in Dick's House (that's what the Dartmouth infirmary is called—best. name. ever.) for two weeks. And for the first three terms, I was still pretending to make pre-med work. It didn't. I think I got a C+ in chemistry (unrelated/related tangent: My freshman writing seminar prof gave me a C that fall and told me I had no aptitude for writing). As a whole, freshman year was not one of my brightest moments.

But, as it turned out, a shitty first year at school is just like so many other beginnings and unfamiliar circumstances that can feel new and impossible at the start. After a summer at home, I came back up to Hanover in sophomore year and everything was better—and kept getting better, month after month, year after year. Now, looking back, I wouldn't change anything, not even the mono.

After college I moved to Cairo (that's right, Egypt), and I went through somewhat of a similar adjustment process. Then there was grad school in England, where at first I didn't feel like I belonged at all and, later, found the first place in the world where I've ever felt completely at home, surrounded by like-minded people.

What I've learned about homesickness and/or adapting to new environments is that coping comes in stages. When uncomfortableness first sets in—somewhere in between the novelty wearing thin and your mind starting to panic from feeling trapped—the easiest thing to do is to nest: eat foods, create superficial experiences, and surround yourself with objects that remind you of home. Me, I try to find Chinese food wherever I go. In most cities, I'll look for a pub or coffee shop to make a ritual out of visiting every day (also, wine and coffee are my panacea).

In the mid-term of homesickness, the most important thing is to find or build a community of like-minded people around you. That was the key for me at St. Martins—I found some of my best friends in the world to this day within six weeks of starting the MA, we all wound up living together a few months later, and they completely shaped all my strongest memories and emotional ties to that city and those two years.

Eventually, if you're lucky, in most cases, the more new environments you experience, the more the idea of 'home' expands and redraws its borders. Sometimes it's weird how that can manifest: for me, for example, Oxford just smells right. And while I love London, Cambridge, Bath, and Brighton, as soon as my bus or train pulls into the Oxford station, everything in my body relaxes and I instantly feel correct. That's it: correct.

It's OK if a place doesn't turn into home, no matter how much you try. Living in Cairo was hard for me—I was a young kid, super-naive, super-sheltered, and sort of just wound up in the Middle East by accident after college. I cried every single day for the first three months even though I knew I wouldn't quit and go home early (because I'm not a quitter). But then I remember waking up in my apartment in Zamalek on December 1 and everything was all of a sudden A-OK. And I was really sad to leave when my contract was up in mid-2000. I visited a few times in the years afterwards. But even though I love Cairo (and, to this day, Aswan is one of my favorite places on earth—I'm always trying to get back there), I still have complicated feelings about my time in Egypt (though my hangups are mostly due to the person I was in my early-20s).

I'm 38 this year and what I've noticed is that (1) I finally feel like an adult. I think most of my friends who got married and had kids started to feel like proper grown-ups when they hit those social life landmarks (marriage, parenthood), but without experiencing those external changes, I've often struggled with identifying contextual markers for my own adulthood. (2) I have a very strong attachment to place. I've always felt so lucky to have been able to travel for fun as much as I do. In the last few months I've been to Mexico (twice), Alaska, South Dakota, England (twice), San Fran, LA, a bunch of places. But there are cities I'm drawn to over and over again, where I'll blow way too much money just to be there for a long weekend, walk around town, breathe the air, eat a meal, buy a book. Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed with nostalgia for a place—not necessarily the people (I hate school reunion weekends, for example, even though I always always attend)—especially if my experiences there involved a sense of personal struggle.

Anyway, tl;dr, that's why I'm in Hanover for New Year's. It's snowing outside, I've already been to every single store and restaurant two or three times this week, I don't know a single person in town right now, and it's so great, the best. Home, a sense of place, has changed and evolved so much for me over the past 20 years—and, right now, this is only place on earth where I want to be.