Susan Matt suggests that homesickness still afflicts the ‘new globalists,’ the cosmopolitans who would live ‘abroad,’ whether permanently or temporarily, away from home (“The New Globalist is Homesick”, New York Times, March 21, 2012). And technology, precisely by bringing them back into closer contact with loved ones and old haunts, and assuaging loneliness and longing, might actually be making things worse; it might remind them ever more acutely of just what it is that they are missing. This ‘new’ homesickness seems at odds with the foot-loose sensibility that is supposed to be the hallmark of the connected, wired, constantly traveling world. The homesickness which afflicted the immigrant in the past is ‘back,’ and it is ever more persistent.
I’m not sure that Matt’s statement below represents the discovery of a genuine novelty:
In nearly a decade’s research into the emotions and experiences of immigrants and migrants, I’ve discovered that many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed. Few speak openly of the substantial pain of leaving home.
It might be that academics are now paying more attention to homesickness, but conversations about it and the infection of migrant enclaves, conversations and sensibilities with relentless nostalgia has been an enduring feature of migrants’ lives and it has remained impervious to the passage of time. This new homesickness is not new at all; it is just being paid attention to. Those living the lives of voluntary exile have always felt homesick, have never feared talking about it, and have always let it be writ large in their emotional and physical responses to their new worlds.
Consider for instance, that alcoholism is a common problem among international students in American universities; that expat cinema, for as long as can be remembered, has been concerned with the longing for a mythical, displaced land; consider how much the dilemma of the torn, almost-schizophrenic, personality of the immigrant has been a feature of diasporic literatures. What are these if not manifestations of homesickness, permeating through the minds and bodies of immigrants?
It might be that the immigrant does not bring up homesickness in conversations with ‘locals,’ fearing these confessions might be viewed as evidence of dislike for his chosen home, a failure to assimilate properly, and reason to regard him as outsider in those conversational spaces. But elsewhere, in more welcoming climes, conversation all too easily returns to talk of home, of what remains behind, of the next trip, of the difficulties in reconciliation with two lands that leave them torn asunder psychically.
Matt is right to note that technology–whether it is because of the Skype call back home, the cable television channel in their own language or anything else like that–does not seem to help this homesickness. It cannot. It only serves to remind them that nothing can ever replace the felt sensation of place, the encounter with sounds, light, and smells, born of the imprint of childhood experiences long-ago sensed and internalized, that are a feature of physical contacts with ‘home,’ that tap into sensations long ago integrated into their minds and bodies. The phone call and the web cam will not tap into these; nothing quite replaces the walk out of the customs hall, past the immigration desk, out into the arrival hall, and the drive back ‘home’.