Ask Polly: I’m Homesick But I Can’t Move Home!

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Photo: Ferenc Isza/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I'm an expat in New York and I'm feeling some major homesickness. A decade ago, I met an American and fell in love and got married, and we moved here because I was the one with the flexible job and my husband was still in school. It's been hard at times, but we now have a wonderful daughter together and New York has given me some good opportunities to do what I do (writing). The decision to stay here thus far has been based on the fact that my husband can get loan forgiveness if he does public work (on a crappy salary) for ten years — his loans are huge — as well as the fact that I've been able to cobble together a small but essential group of close friends from various places across the U.S. and "fit in" in some sense. I've always felt bad about having the discussion about moving home because my husband feels close to his family, and they are perhaps a bit needier than mine. My parents have lots of friends, as well as my siblings, and keep busy and happy. But having my daughter sparked the realization that we don't have infinite time; I feel bad my family doesn't get to see much of their niece-grandbaby in person, and find myself worrying about how many years everyone has left. "Babies are a miracle!" "Time is so fucking precious!" you think after having a baby. I'm very close to my family, but Skype and annual catch-ups aren't cutting it — I'm getting dangerously teary during kitten videos and when looking at any type of photo for too long.

The loan forgiveness is still a ways off, and I don't see a way around it because we just don't make millions. It was always going to be hard being the foreigner, and going through the subtle assimilation that a foreigner goes through when coming here, but I did it and now I'm tired of this culture. I'm tired of being misunderstood, of people taking jokes as serious conversation, at the daily gun massacres and hateful politics and cinnamon candles. I gave up all my capital in terms of friends, alumni (employers are not impressed by good foreign schools because they have never heard of them), and job connections when I moved here, and I find myself facing down further years in this city like a bitter sentence. When I go home, which is every year or two, I catch up with all my friends and family, and it's like I never left. It's basically paradise. I love every single damn person I left behind.

But how much of my homesickness is just the human fucking condition (I'm sure everyone in New York is homesick in some sense), and how much is profound, demanding to be acted upon? I get that, at home, you dream of adventure, and on an adventure, you dream of home, but life is short, and I'm missing out on major events and time with those I love the absolute most. I feel I have been sufficiently adventurous! On top of this, life in America is fucking hard. The average person "doing well" isn't paid nearly enough, the vacation days suck, and the mind-set is pointlessly competitive. I see my peers at home living comfortably, traveling the world on their ample holidays, eating well, working just enough, and enjoying the chill, happy vibe that is core to where I'm from. We could slot right back in tomorrow; I think it could be hard for my husband initially, but he loves my country, he would know lots of people, and he has interests that he could keep up if we moved. I just feel like I deserve a turn living my life again.

I've asked other people who aren't from here if they miss home and they act like I'm crazy. Maybe they're just dealing with it well, or maybe they have grown up to put sentimental flights of fancy aside. Not me, though. How on earth can I hold on for years more? I'm sad, and I know they say you can never go home, but I can! It's just 20 hours on a plane. Do you know anyone with a spare $200K?

Homesick Is the New Bushwick

 

Dear Homesick,

I get it, and I don't think what you're experiencing is pure sentimentality. Not remotely! When you miss home, you're missing the whole first half of your life, not to mention the people in it. I moved 3,000 miles away from home when I was 21 years old, and I feel like I've been trying to move back to North Carolina ever since. But here it is, more than two decades later, and I've missed so much! My dad died, my mother got older. I still long for everything about home — the thunderstorms, the tall trees, the humid air. Just the other day, I was driving through my neighborhood in L.A. and I thought, "Where the hell am I living? Why do I live HERE?"

I also understand disliking American culture, particularly right now. Who doesn't hate the daily gun massacres and the hateful politics and the cinnamon candles? Ask some of your American acquaintances how they feel about a harmless-seeming reality-TV boob transforming into a fucking Nazi before their eyes. It's chilling. But I also get annoyed by small things, like the blow-up Santa-Claus-on-a-helicopter in my neighbor's yard. Why does the whole world have to look like a fucking strip mall? And I hate the way the guy at the Coffee Bean asks me if I have any big plans for the weekend. What moron in corporate is forcing a teenager to pretend to care about how I waste my old-lady time? "Big plans, hell yeah! I've got cold beers in the fridge and two unwatched episodes of Homeland on my DVR. My old man and I like to yell ‘BRING THE CRYFACE!’ when Carrie's lower lip starts to quiver. That's our little game — among others, if you catch my drift. We got plans all right. Big plans." 

But every location on the planet has its particular indignities. All humans, everywhere, are prone to chafing provincialism and blind spots and moments of humorlessness. Many people, whether they're far from home or living next door to their parents, have a recurring feeling that they're swimming through a world they can't tolerate anymore. You have to try to take off your warped homesick goggles and see the world through clear eyes, with an open heart.

First, you need to have a long, tough conversation with your husband about how you feel. You have to lay bare just how overwhelmed you feel by everything — the big things and the small things, the people and the culture and your family and your daily life and everything. If your husband's loan balance really is $200K, that's a pretty gigantic obstacle in your path. I do wonder how many more years he needs to work at his crappy job and whether or not he likes his crappy job at all. Either way, you have to talk through every option. If you return home, what will he do for work? What will you do? Will he commit to moving once the loan is forgiven? You have to have a difficult conversation about whether or not you have the fortitude to stay in the States for a full decade.

Married couples, particularly with kids, have to get into the habit of talking regularly about how everyone's needs are going to get served. My husband and I reevaluate what's going on with us often: where we want to live and how we want to live. We talk a lot about what kind of a life feels sane to us. Sometimes figuring out a good solution takes sacrifices. We both wake up very early now so we can get our work done and trade off taking the kids to school and picking them up at 2:30. We agree that most people work too goddamn hard. We want to relax and enjoy our lives, and we're willing to give up a lot to do that. Staying lined up with your values and desires takes constant calibration.

But you also need to have less practical, more ephemeral conversations. These aren't groundbreaking summits on the state of your marriage so much as times to off-gas some of those accumulating cultural indignities you described earlier. Just the other night, I told my husband I don't want him to volunteer to be an assistant coach for our daughter's soccer team next year. There are practical reasons for this: Coaching takes a ton of time, it's stressful, he's never even played soccer before, and he doesn't really love coaching. But there are other reasons I'm personally conflicted about it. I don't love the macho fixation on team sports in my neighborhood. I don't enjoy watching a grown man shout at a field full of little girls. And did I mention that the coaches wear the ugliest bright-blue polyester shirt TUCKED INTO the ugliest high-wasted athletic shorts you've ever seen? Did I mention the long black socks? I know I sound shallow. Please imagine someone dressing your husband up as Pee-wee Herman, then having to watch Pee-wee yell at a bunch of kids while an audience of skeptical parents looks on.

I want us to be the skeptical parents instead.

I know this is not rational. I shouldn't care about the shorts. But I don't want to be the wife of the coach unless the coach loves coaching. I don't want to hear my husband's stressed-out voice yelling WHILE I watch my kid failing to make a single block as the goalie. It's too much for my system. 

This is pretty lame of me, obviously. But I had been biting my tongue all season and now that it's over, I needed to say, "Look, that was very generous of you, but please don't do it again unless you really enjoy it." And I also had to say, out loud, that sometimes I hate the suburbs and I hate men yelling at girls and I hate the ugly shorts. Luckily, my husband doesn't want to coach again, and I waited until we were both in a good mood to bring it up.  

I know we're pretty far afield now, but I want you to see just how sticky it is to admit to another person how their choices are affecting you. Even if you know you're being a little bit ridiculous, there are times when you can't JUST say, "I want to move back home in spite of our massive debt!" You also might need to describe how much you hate the sickeningly sweet smell of cinnamon candles.

It sounds to me like you've been holding this inside for a long time, Homesick. It's time to let it out. But you have to choose a time when you're both calm and relaxed. And you should start the conversation without expecting to solve every problem in one sitting. Solving problems should not be the point, at first. The first goal is to clear the air. You should both try to open your minds to both moving and staying in NYC. Throw out a lot of different options, and consider the costs and benefits of everything, even if some choices seem absurd. Even if you stay in NYC and nothing changes, it's crucial that you discuss it carefully and understand WHY you're making the decisions you're making. Feeling good about your life depends on feeling at peace with what you've chosen.

But you also need to adjust your attitude a little. Don't lump everything together. When you talk to your husband, you might add up mass shootings and bad conversations and giant student loan debts and cinnamon candles, the way I added up coaching and bad shorts. But once I let it all out, it's my personal challenge to keep an open mind and not view my community through a jaded lens. Every place has its drawbacks. Don't let your homesickness make you imagine another gun nut around every corner. Don't watch Trump on TV and burst into tears about your aging parents or your wasted life among lame Americans.

There are interesting, lovable people everywhere. Whether you move soon or resolve to stay for a few more years, you can't fixate on what you don't have all the time. That's a bad habit that you won't shake so easily even after you relocate. Life may be too short not to live where you want, but life is definitely too short not to live where you ARE. Almost everyone I know is homesick in some way. We all miss our parents and our childhood homes and a million experiences we can never go through in the same way again.

And then our parents die. And then our kids move away. Life is a series of losses. Look straight at the darkness of that. Feel it in your bones. And then resolve to do what you can with what you have. Map out a future that feels right. Write your mother a long letter. Skype with your friends. Then walk outside, take in the sights, smell the air, and feel grateful for everything you have. Let the cinnamon candles burn and the coaches in ugly shorts yell. Let the teenagers ask about your plans for the weekend, and let Santa ride his blow-up helicopter into the sunset. Say to yourself, "I will miss this, too, someday, when I live somewhere else. I'd better savor every moment of it."

Polly

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