One of the things that we all have to deal with as expats in the first few months of relocating to a new place is that "fish out of water" feeling, that feeling of unfamiliarity when you walk down the street, walk into a mall or drive around the city. It's the feeling that makes you long for where you came from, and for familiar sounds, places, and faces. This feeling lasts longer for some than others.
Twice in my life now I have had to deal with that feeling. The first time was when I left Kenya many years ago. It was my first time out of the country and away from my family. Even though I lived with my older sister, I remember a lonesome existence in the first few weeks. Everything was new and should have been exciting, but I just did not identify with the place. The streets felt lonely, the social gatherings felt forced as people struggled to understand my accent, and I found myself many a times longing for my life back in Nairobi.
This all changed after talking to a friend of mine who had migrated to Canada before me. Over the phone, he told me that it was up to me to make the place my home, to train my brain to recognise the place as somewhere where I belonged. He gave me a few tips, but the one that resonated with me the most was that you had to start by identifying a place in that neighbourhood where you would visit frequently, whether it was a restaurant, a gym, or a mall. I decided to pick two places. I chose a library, and the nearest mall.
While I waited for certain paperwork to go through to allow me to start to work and study, I would get up at least twice a week and go to the library. I became a member and this allowed me to borrow books, movies, and basically anything I wanted. I would walk the same route daily and would stay there for at least two hours. Within no time, the librarian started recognising me and we went from polite nods of acknowledgement to friendly small talk.
After a few weeks, I changed the route I took to the library and started exploring short cuts. This way, I discovered other interesting places in the neighbourhood such as an antique shop, a small museum, and a bakery. I would make it a point to go into these places on certain days and I found that this gave me the confidence to talk to people and make friends. The fact that they recognised me made it easier for me to feel at home. Within a few months, I expanded my horizons and found myself starting to enjoy the city. Even though I missed home, I started calling Pittsburgh "home away from home"; and for about twelve years, it was my city.
Naturally, when I left Pittsburgh for Sydney, the same feelings of loneliness and unfamiliarity were there, but being a bit older and wiser, I knew what to do. Having taken up yoga in Pittsburgh, I decide to find a yoga studio in my suburb. I made a point of going three times a week. Because of my love for books, I joined the local library as soon as I could. When the yoga studio announced that they had an evening get-together at a local vegan restaurant on my first day, I decided to be bold enough to go. Sure, in the beginning it was awkward but I kept going and with time, the conversations got easier, and I even made some friends.
It has been a little bit over two years now since arriving in Sydney. The other day as I walked home after taking my son for a walk, I was debating which supermarket to stop at and buy some groceries. Out of nowhere, I had this flashback moment of days when I had no idea where anything was, when I would get so lost, and I used to feel so detached from the place. Now I cannot walk for more than a kilometer without running into a familiar face. I still miss my family and friends in Pittsburgh and Kenya but for now, Sydney is my home.
So, to people who struggle with homesickness and longing after moving to a new place, my advice is this:
Maggie Hari was born and raised in Nairobi Kenya. After high school she went to college in the US and worked there for many years. Recently, she has relocated to Sydney, Australia, where she currently lives with her husband and little boy. Maggie enjoys reading, writing, hiking, running, yoga, travelling and has recently taken up swimming. She also likes meeting new people and enjoying a good conversation over good food, wine or coffee.
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