Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Being Nostalgic


Kim, Mijung


The purity of nostalgic memories

It is a late, lazy morning. The sun is already high and I can feel it’s going to be scorching today. I look out the window. People seem to have already started their daily routines. I hear the sputtering of a delivery motorbike. The familiar sound of traffic in the distance. Women with colorful sunshades pass by my window. I see an old man on the deck of his house yawning and fanning his face. I feel a gentle breeze. My skin is soaking the humidity of the air. Yes, this is the summer of home. I have returned home, the place that embraces me so softly. Mom’s voice breaks the indulging silence of this moment. “Mijung, would you want to put your pictures from Canada in the album?” Since I made a homecoming from my long absence, she wants to fill the missing time with my pictures. She says she would look at the pictures when she misses me. I feel sorry that I am going to leave her again for another academic year in Canada. Why does life have to be so complicated? If only I could be the child again I once was.


I open the drawer. There is the recent album for my new pictures. But my eyes are drawn to the familiar cover of our first family album. Drawn into the mood of homecoming, I take the album and put it down on the tea table, carefully as if I handle a relic from an ancient cave. I sit down and gaze at this old faded album. I touch the cover with tender and slow motions. It is bound in glamorous purple color. I love the grace and nobility of the cover. I remember the time when I was lying on my stomach beside mom, stroking the velvet with my fingertips. The memories come to me of the glimmering lights, piles of black and white pictures, floor design patterns, the smells of boiled potatoes, and mom’s delicate hands’ decorating the album.


I hear a whining voice. “Why am I not here in this picture? You took my sisters there, but why not me?” The voice is mine as a child. I used to ask this question over and over again just to hear mom’s wonderful apology. She always said to me with a lovely smile and hug, “Because! You were not born yet. You were still in my tummy.” Oh, I loved that moment of hearing my mom explain how she carried me, waited for me, and welcomed me when I was born and when my pictures entered the album. I look again at the cover. The velvet may have lost its surface shine but it has gained a depth of memories. I put my nose close to the fuzzy cloth and paper and take a deep breath. The old album smells like time itself. The memories arrive with the primacy of purity. I remember only nice things. I smell the innocence of my childhood. I think that I am experiencing nostalgia.


But how helpful is it to call my experience nostalgic? “Nostalgia” is only a word, a concept.  What can the word tell us? Not much perhaps, except that there is the etymological memory of the origin of the word itself. Nostalgia is composed of nostos which is derived from the ancient root nes-, meaning “return home, homecoming” and the suffix algia is from algos, meaning “pain” (Klein, 1979, p. 500). Nostalgia was first used as a medical term, denoting homesickness as a debilitating disease that accompanied nausea, loss of appetite or even severe hallucinations. But now nostalgia refers more generally to a missing feeling about our lost experiences. According to the Oxford dictionary, nostalgia is a “sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past” (2002, p. 972).


is it nostalgia that pulls me gently into this wonderful fuzzy remembrance? Can a photo album arouse nostalgia? Or is nostalgia the mood that I am in when I look at the old album? Can any childhood memory turn nostalgic? I ask my friend Kelly to recall the best memory of her childhood:

As a child, I lived for my bike and for a park that was close to home. The very best part of the park was the hills and open space located at the other end of the park.  The hills provided incredible bike experiences.  I pedaled as hard as I could to get to the top of the hills, then took my feet off the pedals and coasted down. And when I reached the bottom, I’d spend the time and effort pedaling and climbing back up again. On a summer’s day the sun would be so warm and lying on the big grassy hill and watching the sky was truly amazing. The sky was big and blue and full and you could see forever. On a windy day racing down that hill with two scarves (one in each hand) and coming down the hill I was a bird, flying faster and faster; or sometimes I was the wind racing through the grass and the leaves and the trees but always there was that tremendous sky–big and blue or big and gray or big and snowy–but always big and open and really, really wonderful.

Kelly’s memories of her childhood days are obviously pleasant and joyful. But are they nostalgic? From Kelly’s account itself we cannot really know if she experiences her childhood memories in a nostalgic manner. Like many people, Kelly has pleasant childhood memories, but if she were asked whether she would wish to go back to those days, or if she was offered to bring those experiences into the present, she may in fact be reluctant. Even though we had a happy childhood we may not want to go back to it. Not all joyful memories of past times are therefore nostalgic. Only if Kelly experiences her memories as a longing (such as homesickness–something to retrieve, regain, or return to) do they become nostalgia.


If nostalgia is a longing, what do we long for in nostalgic memories? Or better, how is this longing experienced? What mode of being of these memories makes us helplessly captive in the longing feeling? In Kelly’s story, the child was perfectly herself within the joy. There can be nothing to add. The memory itself is ideal. I yearn for the moment; the moment of perfect happiness of a little child being loved by her mother. Remembering the lovable memory, I miss the moment.


When I am nostalgic, I see the perfect purity of the memory. I feel my true presence in the moment of the memory. My full engagement in the nostalgic moment blocks all interruptions from the outside. I lose track of the present time and space. I exist only in the pure moment that nostalgia caters to me. There is neither defect nor blemish in the memory. No falsity. No pretence. No ruefulness is lurking behind. There is only the truth of the moment, the perfect joy. I experience this thrilling purity of being in the moment of nostalgia, the uncontaminated core of memories. I long for this perfect purity. In this, nostalgia is irresistible.


How is it possible that a memory can be that perfect and pure since I know my senses and memory skills have limitations? My logical sense doubts this idea of perfect purity. I know that our memories tend to be selective. We may remember some things and not other, less pleasant experiences. On the one hand, I know that what I remember is not exactly how life was in the past. On the other hand, I cannot doubt the truth of this memory. I cannot deny that I long for this unreally real and untruly true perfectness of the past as it is given to me in the vivid experience of my memory. How can this perfect purity still exist in spite of all the efforts of doubts, logic and reason? Why am I still nostalgic about my possibly false memories? No matter how my logical sense tries to understand this ironic sense, nostalgia comes along with my memories and conquers my reason. I look at the pictures and I feel nostalgic again. Nostalgia is an experience of meaningfulness that reason cannot touch. Nostalgia goes beyond my reason. It creates its own territory, the sacred place that nothing–no act and no ideology can reach and change. It keeps its purity untouched, uncontaminated, and unruined.


The sense of lack: Pains of nostalgia

I open the first page of the album. I flip page after page. It still has its old order. I see the pictures of my parents, their wedding, family picnics, my sisters’ graduations, my first day of school and my brother’s first birthday. I see a picture of me standing on the stairs in our old house. My forgotten dog, Zenny is wagging his tail beside me. I see the biggest snowman in the yard that my sisters and I ever made. My heart is full of inexpressible longing. That time is gone. But I miss those days so much. I can never go back to that time again. Past time will never be present time. The present never stops in its forward movement. The irreversible nature of time seems so cruel. I feel overcome. I glance at my mom. She looks weak and old. I feel sorry for her. I feel too grown up for her. I wish my mom to be young again so that I do not have to worry about her. I wish to be back to that time when I could simply enjoy life and feel carefree. What are these bitter-sweet thoughts that fill me now?


We nostalgically recollect wonderful memories; therefore, should our experience of nostalgia itself also be just as wonderful and pleasant? However, nostalgia seems to come at a price: it pains to know that these are only memories. I see myself as I am now. I see time passing so quickly and irrevocably. I feel sorry about these losses. Am I sentimental? I experience regret and sadness in this nostalgic moment. How do these uneasy feelings lurk in nostalgia?

I see a child skipping rope in the street, and I pause and smile. I see a youthful bounce, the commanding rhythm of a rope-and perhaps a memory. I recognize this rhythm. Times do not change. When the child stops, I still feel the snap against my feet. Regret fills me. I wish I could revisit the old school playground. But then I come to myself. My childhood place is thousands of kilometers away. It is not likely I would see it again as I knew it. I turn away from that child and resume my walk. I saw a child, a rope, a game. Sight and sound collaborated to make me feel the rope against my feet. Then I saw regret, nostalgia. Then I went on my way. (van Manen, 1986, p. 16)

Memories are experienced in the present but only as a past. We experience nostalgia with/in our memories of the past. Nostalgia is a longing for then, for what is not here and not present in the now. When we remember nostalgically these past memories, we wish we could relive or return to those good days once again. Compared to our present time, the time in the past seems to us so much freer, more energetic, more affectionate and more perfect. We yearn for those moments but we know they are irrevocable. Nostalgia can only confirm that the separation with something that we value and long for cannot be bridged in our present. It is an unfulfilling longing. We sense the lack. We sense the impossibility of retrieving the lost time. We feel regret. We feel pain.


However, it is not easy to point out what exactly pains us in our nostalgic moment. It is not the same regret that I may feel about many other things that I recall from the past. I can be regretful about having made a wrong decision, I may feel regret having eaten too much, or I may feel pain at the memory of having had a conflict with a dear friend. Or I regret that I cannot see some of my friends as often as I used to see them in the past. But these qualms are not necessarily given in the mood of nostalgia. How different is the regret of nostalgia from the regrets that are commonly experienced. It seems that the regret of nostalgia has to do with a feeling of sorrow about a “lack” that we experience.


In the moment we are about to gain what we long for, we lose it. How can we gain the joy of the pure memories that look so close but are still far away? How can we fill the gap of nostalgia between the past memories and present remembrance? Of course, our predicament is that we can never bridge the gap. The lack can never be filled. The regret of nostalgia is this feeling for the sense of the lack: the unfulfilling and unfulfillable gap for which we helplessly long but end up with futility. Yet, we start longing for it again.


Nostalgia as longing for home: The impossible homecoming

As a person who crosses the borders several times, I consistently experience nostalgia for home. When I am in Canada, I miss home in Korea. I miss the air, food, music, and even television shows in Korea. I miss the language with the familiar alphabets and sounds. I miss the places where I used to hang out. I missed the corner stores and the noise on the street. I miss the comfort that home catered for me. I can be free from the tension of being a foreigner. No nervousness that a stranger feels. No frustration of mistaking in English. At home, every thing seems so perfect to make me happy, energetic and confident. I can feel the security of home. My mind is dreaming about homecoming. I feel homesickness. I long for home.


So I made a homecoming to Korea. It felt like it was the happiest time in my life. But strangely, as time went by, my homecoming didn’t exactly turn out to be what I expected. I began to realize that my home was not the same home that I had longed for. The home of my nostalgia is perfectly pleasant, however, my actual home is less than perfect. I gradually became irritated by things like the humid scorching summer air, the heavy traffic, and the crowds on the street. I realized how easily I had forgotten all of those things that I used to dislike. Familiarity became boredom. I missed my privacy. I missed the anonymous aloneness, which I used to experience as loneliness. Soon after returning home to Korea, I started missing my home in Canada. I felt nostalgic about the dry air, the blue sky, the foreignness and diversity of Canada. I experienced a reversed homesickness. In the meantime, my application for further study at a Canadian university had been successful and I left to Canada for the second time.


I knew I would be happy to be back in this place that I missed for so long. However, I also knew my visiting could not satisfy the longing of my nostalgia. I wondered whether my homesickness could never be cured by going home. How could it be? I missed home so I came home. Then what else do I need more to get over my homesickness? Why am I still missing home even though I am home? What kind of home am I longing for? What is this endless longing? Haven’t I learned my lesson? Why does the home of my nostalgia seem so perfect and pure?


I realize that I yearned for “the home” that had been romanticized, and idealized in my memories. It was not the place that I used to dwell in but the creation of nostalgia. It was the imaginary creation of nostalgic homesickness that would offer the perfect security, comfort and trust where I could rest my body, heart and soul. The home of nostalgia has already given me a norm that I use to complain about the present about the way that life has taken unsatisfactory turns compared to the perfection of the past. When reality is so harsh and inexorable, I look for the nostalgic home to escape and hide myself. The home of nostalgia is always a better place than the present home in which I dwell.


Given that nostalgia for homecoming is a longing for a place that is now seen as the centre of my world, where I would want to stay forever, but that I can never succeed to find, nostalgia alienates me from home. What is living like in a place where nostalgia always affects my being? How can I truly belong to this place, imagining myself in another world? How can I be a true dweller in this place while longing for another? Have I become homeless? This alienation pushes me away from my real place toward a nostalgic home that I long for but that I can neither recognize nor dwell in. That truly wonderful and lovable home always slips away from actual existence.


I keep flipping the photo album. One page after another. My mood changes. The more closely I look at the photos, the more vivid the memories I excavate. Some pictures capture happy moments but others look just so ordinary and plain. I find that ugliness and harshness come along with some of the pictures. There were some unpleasant memories too.


There is an envelope stuck between two pages. I open it with curiosity. As soon as I see the first photo, my hands feel weak and my heart starts pounding. I feel a bit of dizziness. These are photos from my dad’s funeral. I look up and glance at my mom with nervousness. She is watering her plants on the balcony. She glances back at me and asks, “Are you done?”  I answer, “No, mom, no.” My voice is shaking so I make my answer as short as possible and I take the album to my room.


My heart gets heavy and I feel myself weeping. It has been several years since my father passed away but the pain is still there. I am frustrated by my tears, upset with the person who took these pictures. I don’t want to think about my dad’s death even though I know the reality well. I want to deny his absence. I am not sure if I want to see these pictures. I push them away and squat down.


It is true that dad passed away. I feel his absence. I miss him a lot. But why does it seem like it were the first time that I heard of it? My bodily tension, emotional breakdown, denial… It is such an irony that I am struggling with the acceptance of reality. It seems that I am fighting for the nostalgic moment against reality. I want to deny reality so that I can indulge myself in nostalgia. I want to remember my home with dad’s smiles and healthy body, not the weak and lean body suffering from cancer.


I look at the pictures again. The grave, the coffin, the grieving relatives and friends, my family in funeral garments, the tears and the January coldness… The memories are still painful but I am slowly calming down. I lie back on my bed, my head on my arms, gazing at the ceiling. It is as if images from the past are drawing by like clouds in the sky. I see my dad snatching a flying bat that had flown into the room, he shows the animal to me. I hear my dad’s voice. I hear our laughter. Memories come rushing in. I see his careful movements of clipping his toenails. Why do I remember things like this? All the recollections seem to present themselves with their own meaning. I sit up and look at the album again. In these photographs my dad is alive. His strong body seems so close. I miss him.


The vulnerability of nostalgia: Sharing nostalgic memories

I hear mom doing the dishes. Chiiiiii, water sounds, clattering dishes… chiiii… I wonder how she swallowed her tears over dad’s absence in this very place where she had spent years and years with him. I wonder how she has handled the long absence of her daughter in this empty room. Suddenly I miss my mom. I want to talk about my nostalgic feelings. I come out of the room with the album. “Mom, uh…” I call her and pause. The splashing water, mom’s busy hands, and the kitchen sink sound so trite. For a moment, I feel strange to bring my nostalgia to her. So I mutter, “What picture do you like most among these?” I put my pictures from Canada on the table. It is not what I wanted to ask. Sharing my nostalgia seems inappropriate at this moment. I feel separated from my mom, as if I just woke up from an emotional dream and found her preoccupied in her own work, in her own world. Is it ever possible to share one’s nostalgia with others? If so, under what circumstance can we do so? A Korean proverb says, “If we share our happiness, the happiness will double. If we share our sadness, the sadness will become half.” Does the proverb apply to the delicate sharing of nostalgic memories? What category does nostalgia belong to? Is it either one or the other? Or both?


The poster for an antique show announces, “Memorabilia, Antiques, and Nostalgia. Come check out the amazing collectibles.” This advertisement reminds me of the collectors’ markets that I visited in Canada. Many artifacts looked so foreign to me. I am interested in them because of their age and uniqueness. But none of these curiosa infects me with nostalgia. Can one feel nostalgia regarding objects that are not associated with personal memories?


Sometimes we unexpectedly find ourselves in a situation in which we share our nostalgic moments together. For instance, when someone talks about his/her own childhood memory, it reminds the others of their childhood memories. Then people get slowly drawn into a nostalgic moment together. “Do you remember that we used to play hide and seek when we were little?” “Oh, yea. I remember that. I was very good at finding weird places to hide. One day, I was hiding inside a huge box and nobody could find me. I was waiting and waiting and finally fell asleep. When I woke up, it was already dark. Oh, mom was so upset with me. She thought I was missing.” “I used to play rope-skipping a lot. I used to do double-skipping and cross-skipping. Nobody could do better than I did.” The conversation goes on with richness. We remember our old playgrounds, games, and friends. We may have dwelt in different times and places but we can share our childhood memories together. It seems that there are universalities of childhoods we all lived through. And they allow us to connect to each other. Our nostalgic narratives turn collective as if we have made a large nostalgic quilt with so many different patches of memories. We share moments of childhood (playing games, friendships) in a nostalgic mode. We experience the purity of nostalgic being in such moment of sharing.


However, some nostalgic moments are too fleeting to grasp. Others are too private to share. Sometimes, our minds are too far away from each other. Imagine a situation where one is indulging oneself in feeling nostalgic while sitting on a sidewalk café. The person sitting at the next table is preoccupied reading today’s newspapers; some people are engaged in a conversation; others are busy talking on the phone–everyone seems to live in a different dimension of the world. Even if a friend unexpectedly shows up and joins for coffee, it is not easy to share one’s nostalgic feelings with the friend. There is a fissure between the world that a friend has brought and the solitary world of nostalgia in which one lingers.  It is quite a challenge to invite someone into my nostalgic moment. Nostalgia cannot be shared through a one-side spontaneous initiation. It does not work to say, “Let’s be nostalgic for a moment.” To share nostalgia, we need a time that is ripe for unfolding our hearts and memories.


Sometimes sharing nostalgia may strengthen relationships. It may encourage us to appreciate our past. However, sharing can also break the pure moment of happiness of our memories. It may result in unexpected disillusionments and disappointments. Theresa talked about her moment of sharing memories with her sister.

One day my sister and I were talking about our childhood. I told her what I remembered and how much I missed it, looking for her engagement. My sister looked at me and said, “Oh, no, no, no. That’s not what happened.” She said that she knew what really took place and proceeded to tell me what exactly happened at that time. She is probably correct since she is older than I am so she must have had a better memory. But I was so hurt. My wonderful nostalgia was shattered. I regretted that I brought up the things from our past. I would have liked to believe them the way I remembered them. But now I will forever doubt. So, I don’t talk about my childhood memories with my sister any longer. It is better to keep memories to myself. I do not really care if they really happened or not. Some of my memories are beautiful and I like to keep them as they are. Nobody will take those away from me.

We see things at different angles. We recognize things in different ways. We experience things from our own perspectives. Therefore, we remember different bits and pieces of our shared past. When Theresa and her sister shared their childhood memories, Theresa’s nostalgic moment was broken by the narrative of her sister’s. The purity and beauty of her nostalgic memories were unveiled by the harshness of “reality.”


Being nostalgic about here and now: The perfect happiness of the present

Can we feel nostalgic about the present, the here and now? The author Milan Kundera (1997) describes such moment, when Chantal, the protagonist of the novel Identity wonders about her sense of nostalgia of missing the lover who is still with her:

Nostalgia? How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present? (Jean-Marc knew how to answer that: you can suffer nostalgia in the presence of the beloved of you glimpse a future when the beloved is no more; if the beloved’s death is, invisible, already present.) (1997, p. 41)

Chantal, who has lost her beloved child during birth, is living with the anxiety that she might again lose her beloved one, Jean-Marc. Remembering the painful experience and imagining another loss in the future, Chantal already feels nostalgic about the present moment as a missing past in the future. “One’s present is constituted as such as a moment of integration in which one appropriates past possibilities and projects future ones” (Burch, 2000). When Chantal was projecting her present into the future, her past memories reflect a possible future on the present. She experiences her present as only a bridge between past and future that consistently and rapidly dissolves. Such is the nature of lived time.

The future is: that which comes, as it comes to meet me now. The future is “to come. Past and future are not two absolutely separated regions touching at a highly remarkable zero-point, the name of which is the present. Both have a present value, they lie contained in the present moment. The past is that which was as it appears to me today, the future is that which comes as it comes to meet me now. (Van den Berg, as quoted in Winning, 2000)

Chantal misses the present happiness in front of her eyes. The uncontaminated purity of being in the present scene already has become the past in the glimpse of the future. She feels uneasy and nervous about the ambiguity and uncertainty that the future brings. She feels nostalgic about this moment right here and how. Given that our nostalgic longing occurs when the present is not as pleasant or satisfactory as our past, it is indeed possible that we feel nostalgic about the present when the present moment is perfectly happy and nothing can be better than this.


Young is a foreign university student who describes a moment in when she was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of regret.

I look around the classroom, the desks, chairs, windows, lights, my teacher and classmates. All of them seem to fit so comfortably together. I remember my nervousness during the first class at this university. How shall I introduce myself to the others? What if they cannot understand my English? Where should I sit? How can I call my teacher by his first name? Everything was so challenging for me. But I do not remember when the strangeness disappeared. Amazingly I am sitting here today with comfort, familiarity and attachment to this environment. I have come to love the tone of English, the freedom of the atmosphere, the comfort with friends, and the dynamics of the class discussions. Then suddenly I remind myself that I will soon have  to leave this place to go back to Korea for good. I know I have to leave all of this behind when I go back home. I look around me. I already miss my friends and this world so much.

When the present is experienced with such perfection, the uncertainty of the future may be fear and anxiety. The time goes by irrevocably. Alphonso Lingis says,

My future and my past become mine, are possessed, held in presence, in the contraction of the anxious present. My future is no longer a present still absent, still remote, but a possible that affects me already immanent, weighing on the present; my past is no longer a present passed away, bygone, but a being that has come to pass, come to be in me, definitive and irrevocable. (1989, p. 116)

We want to dwell in this moment longer but the present disappears too quickly.


I am watching my mom, sitting at the kitchen table. Her hands are busy rubbing bowls and plates. She talks about a song that she learned at the singing class yesterday. She seems so exhilarated. Then she hums and her body slightly follows the rhythm. Her wrinkles, her rough hands, her voice, her hair, her legs, her clothes and her movements… At this moment, my mom is truly with me. And yet I still miss her. Stop the time. Seize this moment as firmly as I can. But it is not possible. That is the providence of time. I know we come to this world once and then go back to the place that we came from. I learned it from my dad. This feeling makes the present even more beautiful and precious. Oh, I wish time would slow. I wish I could freeze this moment. However, it slips away as the sand slips from my hand that tries to seize it. Nostalgia witnesses my anxiety.  I add my pictures from Canada to my family’s new album. I look at mom. “Mom, I am done. I think, tomorrow I am going to visit dad’s grave to say hi to him.”


Nostalgia is still very hard for me to articulate and yet it is something that is deeply meaningful and something that we may treasure. As I am possessed by nostalgia, I “see” certain moments and modes-of-being in time. While knowing the dull pains of nostalgia, I helplessly fall into nostalgic moods from time to time. Walking down the street, watching the snow fall, listening to certain songs, smelling coffee aroma from the street corner café, and watching an old movie, I suddenly may plunge into nostalgia. I may feel sentimental, bittersweet, anxious, regretful, and sometimes even sad. I may feel sorry that time flies. But sometimes I also enjoy the experience of nostalgia about some things in the past or present. Foucault once said, “It’s a good thing to have nostalgia towards some periods on the condition that it’s the way to have a thoughtful and positive relation to our own present” (Martin, Gutman, & Hutton, 1988, p. 12). Feelings of nostalgia are not only passive or quiescent. They can be positive and optimistic arousals to transform our living. Nostalgic memories do not have weaken or discourage me. Rather, they may strengthen me and give me courage to live with gratitude and responsibility for what life offers me. Thus, nostalgia can be a gift for a deeper understanding of being. Through nostalgic memories, I learn the importance of my relationships with family and friends. I learn to love my present. I learn the value of time. I learn to understand my “self” in the nostalgic moment. Nostalgia can be a blessing to make our lives splendorous. Sometimes, I long for nostalgia.




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Kundera, M. (1997). Identity. New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

Lingis, A. (1989). Deathbound subjectivity. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Martin, L. H., Gutman, H. & Hutton, P. H. (1988). Technologies of the Self. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Pearsall, J. (ed.) (2002). Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Winning, A. (2000). Homesickness. Retrieved on March 15, 2003.