Redefining Homesickness: A Personal Essay

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As contagious as COVID-19 has been and as prevalent as this season’s flu feels, I’ve noticed that college students often deal with a different affliction that seems just as pervasive: homesickness. Some range exists between the milder and stronger cases, but many college students are experiencing this affliction for the very first time. In fact, HAP, a health care provider based in Michigan, found that more than 30% of college students experience low-level homesickness. The figure for freshmen experiencing severe homesickness stands at about 69%.

But, what is homesickness? Breaking down the word seems pretty straightforward: home and sickness. Except, that breakdown doesn’t capture the spirit of the word quite right. After all, the word doesn’t mean that one is sick of home, as the intuitive interpretation of the combination might imply. Neither does it mean that one has a sickness from home. Moreover, the inclusion of the word home makes sense, but the inclusion of the word sickness less so. Sickness, as defined by Oxford Languages, means “the state of being ill” or “the feeling or fact of being affected with nausea or vomiting.” While I know many people who miss their family, few people, if any, have been physically affected with homesickness the way that breakdown might suggest.

As it turns out, languages have somewhat mixed results in finding better terms for homesickness than English. Originally, the word homesickness comes from the German word Heimweh, translating directly to “home pain” or “home woe”. This breakdown captures the meaning of the word a bit better. Oxford Languages’ definition of pain, “mental suffering or distress,” at least somewhat accounts for the term’s emotional sentiment. The Italian phrase nostalgia di casa, meaning to have nostalgia for home, fits the bill perfectly. But, like English, some languages are less precise when it comes to naming this life experience. Nostalgia or añoranza, the terms closest to the word homesickness in Spanish, simply mean to long for something in the past, but neither word has anything to do with home itself.

This kind of analysis of the word homesickness itself may seem pedantic or nitpicky, and there is certainly an argument to be made that it is. But as I thought about why the imprecision of language bothered me for this specific word, I realized that my annoyance stemmed from the basicness of every definition that I found. They neither captured the causes of homesickness nor contained the ways to go about fighting it. This is a lot to ask of a definition, I know, so I sought to find a definition of homesickness that accomplished both myself.

I started at the place that seemed most logical, asking one basic question: What does it mean to be homesick? As I asked myself and those around me that question, I found that it breaks down into two categories.

First, being homesick means to feel the absence of the things from home that we took for granted: to miss speaking a mother tongue everyday; to miss the intimate familiarity with the layout and architecture of a hometown; to long for spices and dishes that just aren’t the same; to leave inside jokes with old friends unsaid. Every afternoon, I return home from classes and walk through the front door of my new home. Every afternoon, I am reminded that my sisters will no longer greet me with a hug and my parents will not press me for the details of my day. Every afternoon, I am reminded how I took the little routines of home for granted.

Second, being homesick means to regret the things from home that we realize we didn’t take full advantage of. On a call with my younger sisters, I found out that they don’t spend all that much time together since their schedules got busy with school. They delivered the news with an air of nonchalance, like it was a natural and insignificant step in their relationship. For me, however, the 350 miles of distance between college and home has provided the right type of perspective to be a little sad and a little regretful about that kind of development. What hurts the most, I suppose, is that I recognize that I did the exact same thing when I was there. But I know that they won’t be able to fully appreciate my sentiments just yet. Nonetheless, it’s those types of calls that make me regret not sharing more nights that smelled like movie night popcorn with them. It’s those types of calls that make me regret not braving a little more sunburn and a few more bug bites to squeeze in just a couple more afternoons of volleyball at the park with them. It’s those types of calls that make me regret not making more kitchen messes while baking delicious cookies with them.

If the true meaning of homesickness is to feel the absence of what you took for granted at home and to regret the opportunities missed from home, then a basic prescription such as more calls home may not be enough. Though you can’t change what you already took for granted and you can’t travel back in time to avoid regrets, you can move forward differently. On top of keeping in contact with loved ones back home, fighting homesickness means to be present in your daily life, do your best to appreciate what you have around you and minimize the regrets you’ll be left with.

Fighting homesickness may look a lot like hugging your friends a little more than you used to, having a spontaneous day out or letting the people around you know that they are important to you.

In redefining homesickness, we don’t have to explore the word’s German roots, and we don’t have to find the alternatives that the romance languages provide. In redefining homesickness, we instead have to remind ourselves of the things that we value most, lest we fall into the trap of taking them for granted or having regrets once more.

Contact Lucas Yen at [email protected]

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