Two students reflect on how they felt when they arrived in a new country. Beatrice (22) moved from Ghana, Africa to Belgium nine years ago. She’s now in her third year of International Business and Trade at the Thomas More College in Mechelen. Leaving Ghana is hard for her. Also Abdel (23) moved for his study 18 months ago from Morocco to Germany.
‘Nine years ago I came to Belgium with my brother, my dad lives here with my step-mother. My mom is still in Ghana with my big brother and my baby brother.’ Beatrice came to Belgium to study but leaving Ghana was hard. ‘My parents are divorced and my dad took us and my mom stayed with the other two. I was crying, I was crying because I don’t know about Belgium. In Ghana we only know mostly about the Netherlands and not about Belgium. So I was crying for days because I was gonna leave my mom and my baby brother behind and I was heartbroken,’ says Beatrice.
According to Ad Vingerhoets, clinical psychologist and professor at the Tilburg University, homesickness is a type of reactive depression similar to mourning and lovesickness, a result of a very specific situation. ‘There are four levels when it comes to homesickness. You can look at what people are feeling: they feel depressed. Then there is the physical level, you can see that they can’t sleep or eat. Next is the behavior level, which means that they are often apathetic, they don’t feel like doing anything and they can’t concentrate. Lastly, there’s the cognitive level where people idealize the home situation.’
When Beatrice arrived in Belgium, it was snowing. ‘I came in November when it’s super cold and I had to start school. We came on a Wednesday and the following week we had to start school. You just put on winter jackets, you get your scarf, your mittens and you’ll be fine. It doesn’t snow in Ghana, so that was my first time seeing snow but the atmosphere and feeling were completely different. I loved it because there where new people but I was also devastated, I was crying and I wanted to go back to Ghana. I didn’t mind that much when I arrived in Belgium but when I was leaving Ghana it was hard.’
‘In Belgium, I have to make an appointment with my friends because they’re busy, I’m busy, we don’t get together a lot.’
Vingerhoets explains that being homesick can be different for everyone. It can occur right after you leave your home country, it can take a while before you start feeling it, but it can also start before you leave. ’You even have anticipation homesickness, that is homesickness before they leave. To give an example: someone told me she was very homesick, but that was before she left and when she was gone she had no problems at all.’
Abdel was born in Morocco and last year he moved to Germany to study mechanics. He explains that he isn’t suffering that hard from homesickness, he still misses a few things. ‘The first hard thing was that I miss my mom and family but technology makes everything easy. Now we can call and video chat so it’s like we’re there. I don’t even miss my family a lot because we call like once in two or three days. I miss the beach in my city because they have no beach here. I also miss the people, because they are social and you can make friends fast. We don’t need time to trust like most Europeans. And I also miss that we do not rely on the material stuff. Money here is everything but where I grew up it wasn’t too important.’
A whole different culture
Besides her family, Beatrice misses the good weather, the food, and the fun. ‘In Ghana, you have many friends that you can go out with. Just talk and not do anything and it’s super fun but in Belgium, I have to make an appointment with my friends. They’re busy, I’m busy, we don’t get together a lot.’
In Antwerp are a few African shops, so Beatrice can cook food from home. ‘I cook a lot. I even cook for my classmates at times. For Christmas, they gotta come to my house, but it’s not the same feeling. You can cook but not everything is the same. Christmas is gonna be super cold here and in Ghana it’s gonna be sunny and hot.’
For Abdel, Germany is completely different than Morocco. ‘I wasn’t happy about a lot of things in my country which I find here that are very cool. I was angry with my country with a lot of things. But socially my country is a lot better. Foreigners are always welcome and here in Germany, they are really cold with foreigners and stuff. What I miss about my country, sometimes you feel like you’re not in your country, you will always be a foreigner.’
After all this time?
It’s been nine years since Beatrice moved to Belgium, but from time to time, she still feels homesick. ‘I have days, like yesterday I was super tired, I had presentations, the group works. I wish I was back home and just enjoy the good weather and just have fun and not have to stress so much. I think like difficult moments I miss home.’
Homesickness can be very different for everyone, Vingerhoets says that research sometimes shows that women would be more bothered by it than men. ‘But it could be that men feel a bit tough, in the past during wars there were soldiers who died from being homesick. There is a psychiatrist who used to make a distinction between what he called hondenheimwee (dog homesickness), so someone who suffers from this who misses people and then kattenheimwee (cat homesickness) would miss a physical home.’
When it comes to children, there is a difference between homesickness and separation anxiety. ‘If your child goes to stay with grandpa and grandma and he has to cry then the question is often: what happens if mum or dad also stays with grandma and grandpa? If the problem is solved, then it is separation anxiety, while if the problem remains, it’s homesickness. That is a subtle distinction because do you miss specific people or do you miss the physical home situation?’
‘If you have friends, you’re gonna feel less homesick but sometimes when you’re alone you’re gonna have these feelings.’
Achieving your goals
Vingerhoets explains that there are plenty of examples of top athletes. ‘There is a well-known football player in the Netherlands who was homesick and had to return without playing the game.’
But homesickness didn’t stop Beatrice. ‘In the beginning, I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to eat. But now I’m getting used to it. I’m like ‘you know what, I just take a moment and be alone’. Or listen to music, hip hop or Afrobeats, and just do what I have to do but now it doesn’t stop me.’
Abdel has a lot of passion for his studies. ‘If you have friends, you’re gonna feel less homesick but sometimes when you’re alone you’re gonna have these feelings. But I’m okay, I have a passion so I’m following my passion and I’m doing my best. I don’t have serious homesickness I’m just busy so I forget about everything.’
How to deal with it
Beatrice deals with being homesick by being alone. ‘I cry a lot when I miss home and I don’t always wanna cry. Then I just take a moment to be alone. I don’t even watch movies from Ghana anymore. But when something is in the media a lot, then I try to follow. But I try to distance myself from that so I don’t get more homesick so I don’t pay attention to that.’
But people close to her can help. ‘Don’t remind me of the stuff back home, because I miss that a lot. Let’s try and have fun so I don’t feel lonely or feel like I need to go back but don’t treat me like a baby. just act normal, let’s have fun, let’s concentrate on studies and everything will be fine.’
Vingerhoets agrees with Beatrice’s statement. ‘Try to normalize a bit. If you’re having a hard time with the fact that you have it and if you also have the idea that adults think of everyone as so childish that you are even more embarrassed or something comes from me, it’s a lot more complicated. And that also applies to children, when they are somewhere and they express homesickness and they notice that their mother is also sad because of that then that is also an extra burden. And then it becomes a lot more complicated.’
‘It’s more a matter of dealing with it and not doing anything about it.’
Vingerhoets recommends distractions to help cope with homesickness. ‘Being active can help a little. We also know that it especially comes up at times when there is no distraction, just before you go to sleep or in the morning when you wake up. You can try to soften it, but if you know that it sticks out at those quiet moments, then you can anticipate it. So it is more a matter of dealing with it. Not doing anything about it, that is almost impossible. You can prepare yourself by taking something from the house to which you are attached, although you have to make sure that you do not have someone who is also upset by your nostalgia.’
Beatrice concludes that it’ll not be easy but it will work out. ‘Try not to focus on the fun that you used to have because it’s not gonna be the same here, it’s different. So just try not to focus so much on that and try to adapt to the new environment and the new system you’re in and you will be okay. Just get ready to be surprised, get ready to be treated differently at times and get ready to cry and miss all the fun and stuff you used to do back home. Get ready for everything so nothing can take you by surprise.’
Are you planning on moving abroad? Or just curious about different cultures? Our team from Being Away From Home will tackle some interesting articles for international students. Check our previous article: Column: I’m 22 years old and I moved 25 times.
Text and photos: © Aram Van den Eynde