The last couple months have thrown me quite a few emotional ups and downs. Starting in late May, I found myself irritable, unhappy and oddly discontent. I found this unhappiness a bit confusing because I couldn’t really put a finger on why I felt that way- it was more like I had an annoying itch under my skin that wasn’t going away.
Before you travel abroad, well-wishing people always give PowerPoint presentations and shove pamphlets in your hands describing the emotional cycle of culture shock and disillusionment. They all talk about the valleys and the hilltops and discuss strategies on how to cope with homesickness, culture shock, etc. With my work for Valpo’s Office of International Programs, I’ve even been that person! So yeah, I’ve heard it all many times- only problem is that I’ve never really experienced it.
I’ve never been homesick before. And I normally am pretty good at staying happy and present being wherever I may be at the time. Maybe it’s because my parents sent me away to summer camp when I was small or maybe it has more to do with the fact that I’m just a pretty independent person, but yeah, I don’t get homesick. Sure, I miss my family and friends, and I really do place a lot of importance and value on the physical presence of my loved ones in my life, but I guess I just don’t need to see them every day, week or even month to be reminded of that.
Went away to college? Nope, not homesick. Studied abroad in Namibia for four months? C’mon guys, it wasn’t that long. Spent a summer working in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee? I was having too much fun in the woods to miss home.
But I guess, this time around, it’s been different. My life here is pretty normal. I’m not having grand and new cultural experiences everyday. I’m not climbing mountains every other afternoon. And I’m definitely not sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and continuously busy like I was at Valpo. So, over the past couple months, I got homesick. I guess I should have been expecting it, but it took me some time to recognize the symptoms. Crankiness? Yep. Unhappy? Sure. Spending way too much time looking through old pictures from home on my computer? Yes. Pretending with Sarah that the characters from the TV show Friends were actually our friends? Well, maybe I shouldn’t even admit to that one.
In all seriousness, those few weeks were pretty tough on me emotionally. I was approaching the five-month mark and that was uncharted territory- I’ve never been outside the US and away from family for that long before. My time at school began to drag as exams started and our days were filled with only grading, proctoring exams or babysitting the younger students while they “studied”. I was struggling to find a sense of community and began to doubt my friendships and connections here in South Africa. Back home, my friends were finishing up semesters of college, grad school, and internships, and I didn’t like that their reunions didn’t include me. At one point, I even made a Valposad playlist. Pathetic, I know.
One thing that I love about South Africa is its vibrant culture that is so full of energy and passion, and the kindness that I see in its people that gives me hope for its future. However, as June came around, the problems of South Africa began to overshadow all the good the country has to offer in my mind. Confronted daily with the debilitating problems so present in this place and the inefficiency of a government that has done little to improve the lives of its people, I began to lose hope. I couldn’t stand it anymore- I could feel the weight of so much that was going so poorly in South Africa and it made me weary. Then, Sarah and I experienced firsthand the violent crime that plagues this country. Our car window was smashed in while we were driving in Joburg and Sarah’s purse was stolen- it was terrifying. I was already tired and homesick and frustrated and then this happened. For a while after, I was constantly afraid. I know these things can happen anywhere in the world, but they happened to me here. So, sadly, it changed me. It changed the way I saw my life and my role in South Africa. Throughout June, I learned to adjust and cope with my nerves and my fear, but I was just coping, not moving on.
Then the second term ended and sitting before me was a whole three weeks off from school. Let me tell you, I was ready. I needed to get out of the Vaal and away from my frustrations and fear. Relief came in the form of a trip exploring the Eastern and Western Capes of South Africa with my very dear friend from home, Katie Kirsch. I saw again the beauty of the land and the people who make up South Africa. I met wonderful new friends who welcomed me immediately into their communities and I found peace. I felt safe as I walked down both new and familiar streets and felt myself shedding my fears and doubts with every step I took. I talked for hours with a friend who knows what a sunset over Lake Michigan looks like, who knows how good a draught from Kalamazoo’s Bells Brewery can be, who also knows where to find the best live music in Chicago, and most of all, who knows and loves me enough to give me a kick in the rear so that my cranky and scared self could gain some perspective and move on.
I needed to realize that all my experiences, both good and bad, are part of my life here in South Africa, and really, are part of my life anywhere I go. I needed to throw away my feelings of entitlement and realize that my momentary struggles are nothing compared to what many people around the world feel every day. My South African friends all have their own stories of pain and loss, but they continue to have a constant joy that is so powerful. What should allow me to view this life any differently? In a way, it’s strange because I can choose to leave this situation at any time- because of my privilege of being a middle class American, my life back home is comparatively safe, easy, and comfortable and if I wanted it, I could easily run back to it. However, I am blessed in that I can choose to live somewhere else and with that choice, comes the need for perspective, for empathy and for humility.
These last few weeks have shown me how much I love love LOVE living in South Africa. I am enriched and made better because I am lucky enough to live here. Yes, sometimes it’s still frustrating and it’s not always easy, but that’s just part of life. And I am so glad that my life is here and now in this beautiful country that I am blessed to call my home.