Off the beat: Finding my way home

Sometimes I am realistic to a fault. That’s not to say I never daydream or that I’m not adventurous, but I never seem to allow myself to make serious plans for the future, to avoid disappointment. Much of what I do is basically a last-minute decision — a combination of procrastination and impulse.

Coming to California was the same way. I lived in the same house in the same small Pennsylvania town my entire life before coming across the country to Berkeley. I had never even been to California before orientation, but I didn’t have any reservations about picking up and starting over after 18 years of the same.

When relatives and family friends back home ask me where I want to go after college (“Do you want to come back east, or are you going to stay in California forever?”), I tell them I’m not setting my sights on any one place in particular, since I’ll ultimately have to go wherever I can find a job. “Better not to get attached,” I tell them. That seems like the mature, reasonable thing to say, but it’s really just a coping mechanism. After all, I’m an English major whose goal is to go into print journalism — and newspapers clearly aren’t as plentiful as they used to be. Neither are jobs for English majors, although maybe they never were in the first place.

But there’s more to it than not wanting to get my hopes up on a vision of myself in a specific place and job in a few years’ time. The truth is, I’ve put a lot of effort into not getting attached to places in general. I never felt a very strong connection to the place where I grew up, and I always had the expectation that I would leave when I had the chance, as my brother and sister did before me. That I would miss my friends and family to a reasonable extent when the time came was expected, but it was nothing I didn’t feel capable of dealing with.

I was prepared for it to be hard to leave my family and friends and the seasons and greenness of the East Coast. I didn’t expect it to be as easy as it was. Beyond a few obligatory tears shed while hugging my parents goodbye, the foreignness of Berkeley dissipated almost immediately after I stepped off the plane with Joni Mitchell ringing in my ears.

And that’s normal these days, I suppose. People live such transcontinental lives that a few months spent away from home is nothing to lose sleep over. But for me, this transition was a milestone in my life, not just because it was the traditional “moving away from home and learning to be independent” experience every young person must go through. I took my own adaptability as proof that I was well-adjusted enough to not get hung up on something as trite as homesickness. To me, getting hung up on missing people or places was a sign of weakness. People who went home every weekend were just less mature than I was. Of course, Thanksgiving was a little hard, but Skype makes these things much easier nowadays, doesn’t it?

Maybe it helped that many of my closest friends from home moved away as well, and our breaks often didn’t really match up. I saw some of them for the first time in over a year over this past break and was surprised to see how little things had changed.

The first winter break seemed like an unending series of “So, how do you like it?” and “Is it hard being so far away?” but I enjoyed being able to tell people I loved the place I’d chosen and had no regrets whatsoever.

But now I wonder: Was it really emotional maturity and detachment from the idea of home that made the transition so easy? My outlook on homesickness began to change last year. I was only back on the East Coast for about a month collectively in 2012, and the vague sense of nostalgia that grew in me over the months spent away gradually made me realize that maybe my self-professed detachment from home was actually just a defense mechanism after all.

This semester, several of my closest friends are studying abroad, most of them living outside of California for the first time. Seeing them go through the same unfamiliarity brings me back to those first nights in my dorm room, the first Thanksgiving without my family. I was lying to myself when I thought I didn’t miss home.

It’s OK to admit that I miss fireflies, watching movies with my parents, arguing with my siblings and fried Pennsylvania Dutch food. Homesickness isn’t a weakness — it’s just proof that there’s a connection between who you are and where you come from, even if you never felt that bond while you were there.

Contact Adelyn Baxter at [email protected]