In my time on Discord with the “Study Lions” community, I’ve had the opportunity to meet medical school aspirants who hope to study abroad. A worthy and inspiring goal. Often, I am asked how I coped with leaving home during my adventures in becoming a midwife. The underlying question being, how I coped with the homesickness?
There were four times I felt what is termed homesickness. When I left home for college at 18, when I moved to Mexico at 23, when I left my country at 28, and then I left my husband (with his blessings) at 60.
WHAT IS HOMESICKNESS?
Homesickness is a term that describes a feeling of loss and grief often because of the discomfort of being in an unfamiliar environment. Many people first experience this during a sleepover at a friend’s house when they were very little or from going to camp when just a few years older. Even though the camp was fun and meeting new people was eventually a good thing, in the beginning, it is fraught with insecurity and fears, not to mention tears.
Originally, I thought I was immune to homesickness because, from the time I was three years old until I was fifteen years old, I moved in with my maternal grandparents in Michigan. That was more than 26 hours by car – 1777 miles to be exact. I would pack a huge suitcase – including my favorite rocks, my favorite pillowcase, and a few special things I knew I could not replace. Alone, I would board a plane in late May and my mother and brother would drive up in August to bring me back to El Paso. We spent a few weeks together at my grandparents and then we would drive back over four days.
I HAD A ROUTINE
My grandparents would pick me up at the airport and within days I would fall into the routine. I remember Sunday evenings were phone calls home, I remember camp, I remember going on trips with my grandparents to national parks and picnics at the lake. I do not remember being homesick.
I had great correspondence with my best friend from home. We wrote letters every week. Yes, we actually wrote letters, with an actual pen to paper. I started my summers with the library and checked out the same book every year to start the summer, that classic, 101 Dalmatians.
In the first week, I signed up for swimming lessons at the high school my mother went to, only two miles away. I would bike there for the classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the entire summer for morning swimming classes. My grandfather and I would spend the first few days of summer getting my bicycle in working shape. He would spend this time teaching me mechanical skills and the virtue of hard work. I would walk to his dentist’s office every afternoon to “pick him up” for lunch and we would walk back together. On Wednesday evening, my grandmother and I would drive to a church in the neighboring community. On Sundays, we would drive all over the state of Michigan on some adventure. On Saturday mornings, we would walk with my grandfather to the post office and pick up the mail. Every year it was the same routine. I did not have a lot of friends; I can remember two that I met on bike rides.
I relate all these memories because I figured that I had it mastered. I knew what to do when I left home. I had a system. I knew what to do so I did not get sad or lonely or “homesick.” At least so I thought.
HAVE A PLAN
I graduated from high school and I moved to Michigan. I would be attending college in a small town about an hour from my grandparents. Piece of cake, I knew what I was getting myself into, I knew Michigan and if I got lonely, I could go visit my grandparents. Two weeks before I arrived my grandparents sold their house and moved to Arizona. Whoa, so much for backup, but I wasn’t worried, I had a plan. Exercise, work on meeting new people, join a few college clubs, go find out about the little town I was moving to, keep up correspondence with my friends and family, and figure out a routine. I did all that, and more, and I cried myself to sleep for weeks. These people were so cold, and I did not think they liked me. They all knew each other, and I did not know any of them. I was alone. I was convinced I would die alone. I was calling home every day and stalking my friends from home by phone. I was a mess, and my plan was not working.
After the first week, I got a job doing the watering system at the college – I was responsible for making the grass greener and I could set up my time schedule. Simple. I started the water systems at 8 pm and had the entire campus watered by midnight. And I didn’t have to talk to anyone. I was not happy. Then I met Randy, who was going on the same travel study program that I would be going on in the fall. We decided to buddy up on studying to help divide the work. I want to make it clear that Randy was never my boyfriend, he was just a dear friend and he reached out because he saw I was sad. He helped me remember that there were good people everywhere. He introduced me to his family, and to a group of like-minded folks. I started getting invited to dinners. Then I started organizing picnics and swimming outings at the local river. I started exploring and found a favorite pizza place and the best local coffee and donut shops. As a group, we went on trips to the nearby university that had a “real” library and would spend the day researching and walking the campus and eating at great new restaurants. I got busy, I got productive, and I didn’t die. Today, I still have close friends from my time in Michigan.
LEAVING THE COUNTRY, BY BUS
I returned to El Paso to finish my undergraduate degree and went to live in Parral, Chihuahua Mexico. This was much closer than Michigan even if it was in a foreign country. I was only 11 hours by bus from home. Totally doable. If I had a repeat of the Michigan blues I would just come home for a weekend. At least that was the plan. I went to Parral to teach English as a foreign language. However, my ethics got in the way. I could not figure out why this group of folks should have to learn English so they could work in a local American factory. The factory had an American supervisor who could not be bothered to learn Spanish. I was outraged and lost my job almost immediately because I could not keep my mouth shut. I was in a foreign country; I had lost my job and I had no place to live. I knew I had to find a way to stay – I was too proud to return so quickly. I also knew it would be so easy to go home. I got a place to stay immediately and started teaching neighborhood kids English. I knew I had to get busy and start being productive.
KNOW YOUR GOALS – REMIND YOURSELF WHY YOU LEFT HOME
I wrote down my goal for coming to Mexico. I needed something to focus on. Yes, I wanted to learn Spanish, but I wanted something more. I wanted to prove to myself I could take care of myself and not be homesick – even if it was with lots of help from others. Yes, I was learning to be humble. I worked on language skills every day. I also worked on figuring out ways to be more independent. How could I stretch myself a bit more? I moved to the mountains for a few months to a remote town that was very traditional. It was a few hours by bus from Parral, so even farther away from home. I was testing myself, but I never felt lonely there because of the routine where I literally did not have the time to get lonely. I still made sure to keep my connections with home.
KEEP CONNECTED AND GET BUSY
I had active correspondence with family and friends. I called home once a week. I set up a daily walking routine through downtown Parrel. I made friends and learned how to cook beans.
I stayed in Mexico for 11 months. I was 23 and had just graduated from university. I will never forget what I learned during my time in Mexico as a young woman. It was during that time that I learned that Midwifery still existed and that there was a midwifery school in my hometown. I improved my Spanish, by living with several host families. I survived bed bugs, read the entire book, “Donde No Hay Doctor,” experienced walking in circles around the plaza with the girls while the boys walked the opposite way, flirting with eyes and smiles. I went to my first Mexican wedding in the mountains where the entire town showed up, ate tortillas that were made by hand—not a machine. I enjoyed my very first “gallo” where a group of young, good-looking, albeit drunk Mexicans, serenaded me at my bedroom window. I ate my first chicken soup made with a chicken from the family’s chicken coop. I stared at a chicken leg in my chicken soup for an embarrassingly long time. I went on my first train trip through Copper Canyon. I danced the Salsa with a local cartel guy. No, I did not know that when he asked me to dance! Mexico was an adventure and I only went home twice during my time living there. I had some homesickness at the beginning, but I was starting to get the hang of this being away from home thing.
MASTERS PROGRAM IN NEW ORLEANS
I was 26 when I left home for New Orleans. I had an old Dodge Dart that was an Army-beige color that ran until it didn’t; at least it got me, my luggage, and my favorite rocks across the state of Texas. I moved into a traditional shotgun apartment and lived alone for two years. I met friends through my religion which socially kept me sane. I had a great time exploring New Orleans and the local environs. However, the real thing that saved me from homesickness was my Master’s program. I had to study more than I had ever studied in my life up to that point. I was running myself ragged. I got into my school routine and then my weekly routine. Yes, I called home every weekend. A sister student and I went out every Tuesday night to explore different restaurants and after two years we still had pages of listings we never got to. I joined a few weekly study groups – we didn’t talk much except about what we were studying. And I went out of my way to meet the students from Africa because that is where I wanted to go next.
HELP OTHERS TO HELP YOURSELF
Something interesting happened in New Orleans that short-circuited my homesickness. I was meeting folks who were desperately homesick who were from the opposite side of the world. So, I would take them to the zoo where they were amazed to see animals from home, and I would take them to coffee shops and ask them to tell me about their home, and I would ask them to show me on a map where they were from, and what their hopes and dreams were when they returned home. By helping them, I had no time to feel homesick.
One of the hardest times when I was in New Orleans was when my grandmother passed. I drove home with a friend I met in New Orleans and was sad because I had not been there when my grandmother passed. That was one of the hardest things for me. I promised myself I would do my best to be with my parents when they passed. I was able to do that decade later and thank my grandmother for putting that in my heart.
THE FARTHEST PLACES MAY TEACH YOU THE MOST
When I went to Tanzania two years later, I simply planned on getting homesick, which I had finally figured out was just another aspect of culture shock. I knew things would be strange, and I knew no one there. I also knew there would be folks from my religion there and took comfort in that. I also knew there would be no weekend visits home. Tanzania was on the opposite side of the planet – we were talking some miles, 9340 miles to be exact, and a lot longer with airport layovers. I left home with huge boxes of supplies and still brought my favorite rocks from home. I would give myself a few weeks and figure out my routine and start my adventure. It was easier this time. I worked at a school and the teachers all looked out for each other. I took a Kiswahili course and invited a Tanzanian woman to move into my house. I hired her to keep my house clean and to teach me Kiswahili. Hadija is still a dear friend.
At one point I stretched my comfort zone and went to a very remote part of Tanzania. It was at the invitation of some folks I had met. I ended up being very alone, with malaria and forgetting any Kiswahili I had known and wishing I was at home. Once when I had typhoid fever and malaria at the same time I ended up in the hospital. I would go in and out of delirium. I later read in my journal that I had written, “It is clear I will not die, I cannot die, my mother would kill me.” Almost everything else I wrote was dribble. I once again was testing myself. I learned that making friends is a valuable thing. Friends can help when family is not around.
BREAKING BREAD WITH FRIENDS
I met a lot of folks traveling through Tanzania on safari. Some of them would end up staying for a few weeks, months, or even years. A lot of those folks would experience culture shock and homesickness. I remember one fellow from Tamil – India. He loved his food spicey hot; Tanzanian food is not known for its flavor. He would carry a small plastic container of red hot chili powder that he would add to EVERYTHING. Once I added too much ginger to some vegetables at dinner and I was embarrassed because it was inedible. Raj however scooped it up and thanked me profusely as I cooked just like his mother – he did not add one grain of red chili pepper to that meal. Aha, a revelation. Food and breaking bread, just like when I was in New Orleans, would heal the sadness of distance from familiarity.
REMEMBER TO CALL HOME AND MAYBE EVEN WRITE A REAL LETTER
When I was in Tanzania, I had correspondence with 60 people. I received mail every day. My father was the most prolific and I treasured his letters. Correspondence took patience as it took three weeks to send a letter and three weeks to receive a reply. Now, no one writes a letter. I would have loved email when I was there, but there is something to be said about receiving a letter from home. I would think that receiving a letter from someone who had left home would be very special as well. The telephone was incredibly expensive and was reserved for a monthly call home and emergencies only. At one point my brother got cancer. I was told not to come home as it was all under control. I broke the monthly rule at that time and although not homesick, I wanted to be at home. My experiences in East Africa molded me into who I am today. It is the farthest I ever lived away from home.
HAVE A PLAN TO COME BACK, BUT DON’T BE SURPRISED IF YOU STAY
I married my best friend Owen when I returned from Tanzania. I had a son, David, the year I was in Midwifery school. I started going on trips to Cuauhtémoc when I was 58 years of age. At 60 after many long discussions and with his blessings, I left my husband and moved to Mexico. The original plan was for me to live in Mexico for two years, get some women trained as midwives, and get back home. The plan also included me coming home every few months interspersed with a few visits from Owen. This place was after all only about 4 hours from the border.
I had visited Cuauhtémoc a couple of times; I had done a few births and had an apartment in the year before I moved to stay in Mexico. I spoke to my husband every night at 9 pm. I spoke with my father every Tuesday and Friday at 11pm. However, I spent way too much time watching movies online…a sign of depression for me. Over time I started getting clients and started teaching herb courses online. I was busy and even forgot to call my husband for a couple of nights because I was so occupied with projects.
The first month officially staying in Mexico I hosted 16 folks from the US for a herbal clinic that served 230 people over 4 days. I started the midwifery school and officially opened the birth center. I also paid for and participated in renovating the house I was renting before these events. I stayed busy and I kept up with my phone calls to my husband and my father. I had no time for homesickness.
PETS AS FRIENDS
After being in Mexico for 5 months I got a dog. I did not realize I was not sleeping very well until after I got the dog. Tucker became my buddy. He got me up in the morning, made me take him for walks, and insisted on going in the car with me especially on long trips. At the time the cartels in Chihuahua were active and it was not always considered safe to travel. Tucker and I had many adventures. He was my protector, my companion, and made living at the birth center more like home. I had missed my dogs more than anything, well except I missed my husband more. I recommend getting a pet if you are feeling homesick with the understanding that this is a commitment that will last years not just during your stay at college or during a 2-year job commitment. When you go home you take the pet with you. Tucker was a keeper.
The project took on a life of its own and I was committed. It became very clear the birth center, now the free-standing birth center, at the hospital was a long-term project and I needed to figure out how to stay. After some visits and many long talks, Owen moved to Mexico and within a few months we moved to our farm, and he is now very happy. All our pets moved here with him, and we are now a family with a new home.
IT IS AN ADVENTURE TO EMBRACE
I hope these stories help you during your journeys. I am confident that homesickness gets better as with the case in any grief. It is not a joke feeling so sad and alone. It is however a signal that you need to get a job done. Find a way to get involved, get busy, and remember why you moved away from your home in the first place. Write a letter – a real letter to someone who will write you back.
There are new people and places to discover no matter where you are. Start simply finding a new place to eat. Ask an acquaintance to help you find a new place to eat. Invite that acquaintance to have dinner with you – your treat. And cook your favorite meal and share a story and have them share a story with you. Enjoy your adventure and someday you too can write an article encouraging others and reassuring your readers that it always gets better.