Expat life – homesickness and living abroad during a pandemic
Living and working in a foreign country is not at all uncommon nowadays. Singapore is especially a popular destination for people from all over the world from all sorts of professional backgrounds. It can be a personal choice or a necessity to go abroad for work. But in almost every case, one will feel homesick at some point.
Homesickness is defined as distress experienced because we are away from what we consider to be our home. We probably feel uncomfortable or insecure with where we are and long for the things we remember and are used to. Usually, people who have little to no experience of being away from home or who expect little from the new environment and have a negative first impression tend to feel more homesick. It can lead to a more severe case of homesickness if a person has low (perceived) control over the nature and the timing of parting from home or if a person is more rigid in general. Common symptoms of homesickness can be feeling angry, nervous, sad, isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, anxious, experiencing low self-esteem and low self-worth, lack of appetite, concentration problems or sleep disturbance. Some may find themselves just missing something from home and feeling insecure at the beginning while settling in, but others can feel severely impaired.
Dealing with homesickness
First of all: being homesick while transitioning from your home to a foreign country is absolutely appropriate and part of the process. We usually feel physically and emotionally uncomfortable when we find ourselves in a new environment, because we don’t know anybody, anything or anyplace. At least yet. So, in order to get through the transition process, it helps to make the unfamiliar increasingly familiar. You can start with exploring your neighbourhood first and frequently visiting places, e. g. a café, a supermarket, a park or a food stall. This way you will stay active, which can help create a new normality.
Staying in touch with your family and friends can ease the pain of being away from home. Especially with all our technological possibilities nowadays, it is very easy to keep up with what is going on back home. At the same time, you should limit the time spent with your “old home” and take your time to explore and create your new home, too. Otherwise, you may get stuck in your ideas of home and in a nostalgic feeling instead of staying in the here and now. It is better to be aware of being homesick than avoid the feeling of it. By being aware, you can start thinking about what you need to feel better. Maybe even write a list of things that you need to create a new home environment (e. g. find a hobby, build new friendships) and help you feel better (e. g. cook your favourite dish, go for a walk, meditate).
Meeting new people and building new connections can be especially difficult. Singapore offers the possibility to meet people from all over the world, but as an (working) adult you need to put much more time and effort into it than during school, when most people form friendships naturally over time and shared experiences with their peers. Social media helps: you can find groups for people who are also new to the city, or groups with shared interests (e. g. book clubs, cycling groups). There are even apps to find new friends, similar to online dating apps. Even if you need to do something on your own, try doing it outside (e. g. taking your laptop to a café). By surrounding yourself with other people (and potential new friends) you will feel more connected. This can help in decreasing the intensity of homesickness. Over time this will also form new attachments and help us feel at home in a new environment.
COVID-19: a new unique challenge
When the pandemic hit in early 2020 it brought a new challenge to people living abroad. Those who had just moved to a new country had much less opportunity to meet new people and find new routines. People living alone struggle with this situation in particular. Those who lived abroad for some time already may have been confronted with the reality that they are truly away from home. This realisation can also activate homesickness, even when you may have already adjusted to your new home a long time ago.
We all had to accept the pandemic as a new restriction to our lives. Since travelling is usually part of being an expat in Singapore, expat life clearly changed. Additionally, it became more difficult to visit friends and family back home because of quarantine measures or even closed borders on countries that have not contained the virus as well as Singapore. Paired with concerns about job security and/or the health of family and friends back home, feelings of homesickness, sadness, anger and insecurity surely were (and still are) common for people living abroad. To cope with these new challenges during the pandemic, you can try the ideas for handling homesickness mentioned above. In addition, you can limit your exposure to news and information about the current situation and new restrictions both in the country you live in and your home country. This helps you to stay in the here and now and prevents you from getting lost in worrying thoughts and fears about the future. In view of potentially another round of tightened measures it can help to stick to set rituals in everyday life (e. g. self-care, meditation, reading) and doing hobbies outside, like jogging, so that you at least see other people instead of being alone at home.
Whether there is a pandemic or not, humans are very successful in adjusting to their circumstances. Feeling homesick is signalling a transition from a familiar place to a new environment. It tells us that we need to put a little time and effort into getting acquainted with the new situation. And this new situation can initiate the development of new skills, new interests and new connections. It can be a possibility to grow.