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Feeling at Home in a Foreign Land

Moving to a different country is an exciting adventure for many. But when the excitement fades, what is left is often loneliness and feeling out of place. InterNations member Maggie knows these feelings all too well and has some advice on how to overcome them.

One of the things that we all have to deal with as expats in the first few months of relocating to a new place is that "fish out of water" feeling, that feeling of unfamiliarity when you walk down the street, walk into a mall or drive around the city. It's the feeling that makes you long for where you came from, and for familiar sounds, places, and faces. This feeling lasts longer for some than others.

Twice in my life now I have had to deal with that feeling. The first time was when I left Kenya many years ago. It was my first time out of the country and away from my family. Even though I lived with my older sister, I remember a lonesome existence in the first few weeks. Everything was new and should have been exciting, but I just did not identify with the place. The streets felt lonely, the social gatherings felt forced as people struggled to understand my accent, and I found myself many a times longing for my life back in Nairobi.

This all changed after talking to a friend of mine who had migrated to Canada before me. Over the phone, he told me that it was up to me to make the place my home, to train my brain to recognise the place as somewhere where I belonged. He gave me a few tips, but the one that resonated with me the most was that you had to start by identifying a place in that neighbourhood where you would visit frequently, whether it was a restaurant, a gym, or a mall. I decided to pick two places. I chose a library, and the nearest mall.

Go Out and Explore!

While I waited for certain paperwork to go through to allow me to start to work and study, I would get up at least twice a week and go to the library. I became a member and this allowed me to borrow books, movies, and basically anything I wanted. I would walk the same route daily and would stay there for at least two hours. Within no time, the librarian started recognising me and we went from polite nods of acknowledgement to friendly small talk.

After a few weeks, I changed the route I took to the library and started exploring short cuts. This way, I discovered other interesting places in the neighbourhood such as an antique shop, a small museum, and a bakery. I would make it a point to go into these places on certain days and I found that this gave me the confidence to talk to people and make friends. The fact that they recognised me made it easier for me to feel at home. Within a few months, I expanded my horizons and found myself starting to enjoy the city. Even though I missed home, I started calling Pittsburgh "home away from home"; and for about twelve years, it was my city.

Naturally, when I left Pittsburgh for Sydney, the same feelings of loneliness and unfamiliarity were there, but being a bit older and wiser, I knew what to do. Having taken up yoga in Pittsburgh, I decide to find a yoga studio in my suburb. I made a point of going three times a week. Because of my love for books, I joined the local library as soon as I could. When the yoga studio announced that they had an evening get-together at a local vegan restaurant on my first day, I decided to be bold enough to go. Sure, in the beginning it was awkward but I kept going and with time, the conversations got easier, and I even made some friends.

Advice for Homesick Expats

It has been a little bit over two years now since arriving in Sydney. The other day as I walked home after taking my son for a walk, I was debating which supermarket to stop at and buy some groceries. Out of nowhere, I had this flashback moment of days when I had no idea where anything was, when I would get so lost, and I used to feel so detached from the place. Now I cannot walk for more than a kilometer without running into a familiar face. I still miss my family and friends in Pittsburgh and Kenya but for now, Sydney is my home.

So, to people who struggle with homesickness and longing after moving to a new place, my advice is this:

  1. Decide that the new place is home. Whether you are there for a month, a year or indefinitely, decide that you are going to dig your roots there. After all, home is where the heart is.
  2. Identify a place or establishment that you can frequent on a regular basis. This can be a gym, a library, a coffee shop, a bakery, or a bookstore. Alternatively, join an activity group or class. Here, the goal is to "fake it till you make it". In the beginning, you might not feel comfortable in these places. Especially if it’s a social gathering of people who already know each other; but keep showing up. When I first attended that get-together at the vegan restaurant with my fellow yogis, I was the girl sitting in a corner who no one wanted to sit next to because it meant they'd have to make polite small talk while they missed out on the really interesting stuff from the rest of the group. I was determined to make sure that the first experience did not deter me, so the next time they met, I showed up again and with time, I was able to join in the conversations. So, do not be discouraged if you are in the corner of the room holding a glass of wine. Show up again and again, and do not be afraid to start a conversation.
  3. Get to know your neighbourhood. Walk around a lot, or drive, and take different routes. This trains your brain to recognise the area, and once your brain recognises it, you immediately start to feel at ease.
  4. Learn the culture or the history of a place. I always find it fascinating when I learn certain things about my new home. Especially if you do it at the local library and have the librarian tell you a bit of history.
  5. And, of course, join and attend InterNations functions. You can’t go wrong with this.