Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Homesickness as Quest

 

Nungu, Joseph

 

It is a cold Friday morning. I am a graduate student in Edmonton, Canada, and my laptop broke when I slipped on a patch of ice. Now I am in a hurry to get to a computer and finish up my assignments. I try to whistle some sweet tune, but I guess I am walking too fast and my whistling cannot keep up the pace so I give it up. Walking into the computer room I am thunderstruck! Wait a minute; something is definitely wrong here… I go back to the door and check the room number to make sure that I am in the right room. Indeed I am, but then someone has definitely changed a lot of things around here. Where there used to be bulky computer monitors now stand smart, shiny new and slim screens. Someone has adulterated my room without informing me! Well, in fact the room is for graduate students, but for the whole of last year I was the lone user of this room, and thus my attachment to its furnishings.

 

The assignment forgotten, I walk to the window. This was my favourite spot last year. I would sit up here hours on end, with nowhere to go but to sit here and write emails, make phone calls to my wife and family back at home, and generally stare as Edmonton went to wherever it went on a Friday evening! I snap out of my reverie and take a good view of Edmonton. It is all there as I left it when I was up here last year. There is snow every where, just as it was when I last stood here last year, in my first week away from home. At this window I spent many hours last year, staring at nothing but thinking about home. I missed home so much, I ached so much to go back home and be with family and friends. I spent many moments reliving memories of places visited and moments shared with friends and family. How I longed to go back and enjoy those moments!

 

I remember creating many scenarios about what I would do when I would go back home for holidays. I would, I envisioned, call all my close friends to my home in the village, slaughter a big goat and we would all sit and roast the meat under my favourite tree in the yard. In another scenario I would take my wife to all my favourite childhood places in the village where I grew up. We would visit with friends and eat fruits freshly picked, and at night we would sit outside and stare at the stars and listen to the singing of the crickets as we roasted maize on an open fire!

 

There are many cars on the street below. Their occupants must be driving home, or to some hotel or pub to have some fun before heading home. They must be oblivious of me standing up here. At the junction, down on the street, as they did exactly a year ago, the lights turn from green to amber, then red. A deep sadness engulfs me. All of a sudden, I want to go home. I am homesick! But this room is no longer homey. This time, however, I am not sure which home I need to go home to! Is it my home in Kenya, or is it my apartment in Edmonton where my family, who have since joined me, are waiting for me to go and take them out for a Friday evening treat?

 

Being-at-home

The quest to understand homesickness can only logically begin by attempting an understanding of the notion of home. Homesickness, most often, happens when one moves away from home. We may need to briefly engage the question what/where is home. One may indeed wonder whether home is a place, a feeling, a state of mind, or even a sense of being. The online Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines home variously, thus: residence – the place where a person, family, or household lives; family group – a family or any other group that lives together; birthplace – the place where somebody was born or raised or feels that he or she belongs; safe place – a place where a person can find refuge and safety or live in security.

 

The German word Heimat offers a richer understanding of the notion of home. Heimat allows for connotations such as home, homeland, and region (of ones origin). It also refers to one’s family home ( Haus / Heim ), and ‘being at “home”.’ Flusser (2003) says that this notion of Heimat is often accompanied by notions of nostalgia and even myth (p.1). Flusser adds that we are attached to the Heimat by many bonds, “most of which are hidden and not accessible to consciousness” (p.3). When these bonds are cut or disrupted the individual or community feels isolated and experiences pain, “almost as a surgical invasion of his most intimate person” (p.3). This is the pain and isolation that the Israelites experienced while in captivity in Babylon, as expressed in Psalm 137:

 

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

When we remembered Zion

Then on the poplars, we hung our harps, for there our captors

Asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion”.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

While in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I so not remember you

If I do not consider Jerusalem…My highest joy.

The memories of home made them cry. They felt so low, so disheartened that they hanged their music instruments on trees; the will to play music was simply gone. They felt doubly tormented when their captors asked them to play for them some songs. This attachment to their land exemplifies the notion of Heimat as homeland or region of origin. They were uprooted from their homeland and from Jerusalem, their holy city. To them, Jerusalem signified freedom, security, and, essentially, self-identity. It is this sense of security that they so much missed, and yearned for, that they found it impossible to play their music to their captors. To them, playing the songs they used to play at home, in Jerusalem, would be tantamount to betrayal. Their relationship with home was like a love affair. By playing songs of joy in a foreign land they would, in their opinion, be betraying that love. It is only at home where they could find that inner joy, a joy that excites the desire and will to play beautiful music. Being away from home, being away from this sense of security compromised their sense of identity, and, consequently, the spontaneity to play music.

 

In many traditional African communities, the notion of home is closely linked to ones ancestral land. Being at home or going back home therefore refers to ones journey back to their ancestral roots. The Judeo-Christian reference to death as going back home is also found in African communities. Indeed, in African communities, when a man dies he can only be buried in his ancestral home. An interesting land mark case in the Kenya High Court in 1987 puts this in clear perspective. In the case, a widow, Wambui Otieno, wished to bury her dead husband, a prominent lawyer, at their family home in the city, Nairobi. The husband’s clan members wanted the body buried at the husband’s ancestral home in the rural area. The court ruled in favour of the clan, with the judges adding an interesting semantic twist that an urban home was actually a house, and that home meant ones ancestral land, whether or not one had a house there (Gordon, 1995).

 

Nostalgia

Ask anybody what reminds them of home and they will most likely talk about “the smell of my mothers cooking, my bed, my piano, dinner time conversations, etc.” Hardly will people, even when they are far away from home, talk about their investments, vehicles or any grand projects as being close to their hearts when they think about home. Flusser says that the bonds that tie a person to their Heimat “extend beyond adult consciousness into childish, infantile, and probably even fetal and transpersonal regions, into memory that is not well articulated, barely articulated or unarticulated” (p.4). I like to think of this as nostalgia. The experience of Sarah speaks to this nostalgic attachment to things in her Heimat :

 

For the past few years of my life it seems that I have been unable to stay in one place. I had been working overseas and constantly travelling around. Whenever I was on an extended break, I would go back home, to the house where I had grown up. Two years ago, my parents moved to a new house in a different town. The first time I had stayed at the new house was for Christmas 2006. I was sleeping in my room and I had awoken in the middle of the night. I remember wondering what time it was and then becoming suddenly alert. There was something very different. The scent in the air was unfamiliar. Where was I? It felt like my bed but, why did I have a wooden headboard instead of the brass frame that I was so accustomed to? Why were all the walls blank when I distinctly remember covering the main wall of my room with posters during high school? Instead of my little reading lamp on the round night table I detested was an ornate lamp on a fancy night table. Then I remembered that my parents had moved. I laid there in the darkness reminiscing back to my old room. All the décor I had worked so hard on. How I would lie in bed and stare at my posters whenever I needed to calm down or let my thoughts drift. I looked around my new room with the moonlight filtering through a new window and new curtains. I felt like a guest visiting my parents.

 

Initially, Sarah had the sense that home was where she grew up, her parents house. Even when the parents have moved to a new house in a different town, her sense of home is still defined by her parents’ house. By going to join her family, she is going back home, or so she thinks! One would have thought that the experience of reuniting with her parents at their home would be satisfying for Sarah. Even though the parents have moved into a new house, in a different town, they have retained a room for her in their new home. Even though she identifies the room as “my room”, something is definitely missing! Her new room does not have the feel of “her room!” For Sarah, waking up in a strange bed in a strange room reminded her of her bedroom, her bed, and the identity she had carved into the room, those many years ago when she was in High school! The memory of that teenage bed, and the personal space that it defined, awakened in her feelings that are hard to define.

 

Strangeness

Homesickness entails feelings and experiences of strangeness, a lack of familiarity involving the most routine and taken for granted actions. In the case of Sarah, she wakes up and the room seems strange, even the scent in the air is different. Definitely, Sarah would have expected to experience different scents in her mother’s new home. But the smell she talks about here is not the smell of the house, it is the smell of the bedroom, the particular smell that she associated with her former bedroom, a smell that is now absent in this new room. The bed, too, does not feel familiar; the headboard, the walls, the reading lamp, and even the bedside table are all unfamiliar. It is this unfamiliarity that sparks memories of her bedroom, the bedroom that used to be “her” bedroom.

 

For April, born in Alberta but brought up in Prud’homme, Saskatchewan, home revolves, intimately, around her mother. “For me, home is wherever my mother lives,” says April in a matter-of-fact way. But as her story progresses, this conviction gets less strong when April realizes that someone changed her bed!

 

I had a simple bed since I was a kid. Somehow, I kept the bed even when I was a grown up girl in college. A few years ago my mother moved from our house into a condo. Well, that was sort of convenient since all the children have since moved on. When she moved into the condo a lot of our old furniture had to be discarded. One of the victims of this exercise was my sweet bed! I went home to visit soon after mother moved, and to my huge disappointment my bed was gone! I had to put up in the guest bedroom. I felt so out of place. I felt like a guest in my mother’s house. I felt so lonely lying there on a strange bed. It suddenly felt like I was in my auntie’s house all those many years ago, and missing home. But let me tell you about my visit to aunties!

 

I was five years old, and for some reason my parents took me to stay at my auntie’s home for five days. I know I was not forced to go, and I was really looking forward to playing with my cousins. But after one day, I really wanted to go home. I cried so much because I missed my mother. Then I remember my auntie saying, ‘you can’t cry because you are missing home. If all you do when you are away from home is cry, then you will not have time to enjoy yourself; then when you go back home, you will start missing the things you should have enjoyed here’. Those words did not make a lot of sense to my five-year old brain, but in later years, I have carried those words around with me as I travel around the world. I now try to have as much fun as possible wherever I go.

 

In all these experiences, there is a distinct absence of the familiar. It is that familiarity – the bed, the neighbourhood, the spaces that one has created for oneself – that one misses and yearns to go back to. Celine Dion, a famous singer, captured this sense of familiarity very aptly in a recent CTV interview on her world tour. She said, “yes, I miss home. I have taken my son and mom with me on this tour, so home is more or less with me, but yes, I still miss home, the familiarity, the stability and the comfort zone of knowing where you are.”

 

This lack of familiarity immediately marks out the stranger in any social grouping. Human beings are creatures of habit. Such habits are however socially and culturally constructed. It is this knowledge, acquired through acculturation, which helps one to operate within a social set up. Schutz (1971) calls this knowledge “trustworthy recipes for interpreting the social world and for handling things and men in order to obtain the best results” (p. 95). Anyone who has travelled to a foreign country will readily recall having problems with seemingly mundane issues like crossing a street. I have, for instance, lived in Canada for close to two years now but I always find myself looking the wrong way when crossing streets. This causes a constant frustration, arising from the fact that I feel vulnerable any time I have to cross a street.

 

The recipe that Schutz talks about, which the home environment provides, could also be seen as presenting a scheme of orientation. Homesickness is a state whereby this orientation is uprooted and therefore one is left as if without a map in the middle of a jungle. Straight forward and often taken-for-granted every day activities suddenly become troublesome. The position of the light switch, for example, could trigger a bout of homesickness. When one has to think whether to flick it up or down to turn the lights on or off, such a routine activity can be the cause of intense frustration when one resides in a foreign land. Think also about the shopping in a foreign country. It is the experience of many visitors to convert item prices to the currency of their home country first in order to arrive at a decision whether they are getting a good bargain. The prices of food, items of clothing, electronics, jewelry, and even beer, are first converted into one’s home currency in the foreigners mind before the purchase can be made. Homesickness could thus be said to be the disruption of the interpretive scheme provided by the cultural pattern of ones Heimat .

 

The taken-for-grantedness, the automatism, the semi-consciousness that marks ones behaviour at home is put to question when one experiences homesickness. Driving to the local pub for a quick beer “with the boys” is no longer a taken-for-granted. Ordering for a meal in a restaurant is no longer a straight forward exercise. Indeed, one may not even know the names of the dishes on the menu. More over, even when the meal is finally ordered, it may not taste as good as “mother makes it at home!” Homesickness could actually include being sick from eating such a meal. Homesickness is thus a disruption to acting and thinking-as-usual.

 

Absence of family

The word “familiar” is linked with the notion of family, intimacy and affection. Familiarity is variously defined as “of or pertaining to a family or household,” and “closely intimate or personal” (OED). Thus in their stories Sarah and April foreground their closeness to their mothers, and to their beds. The affection that they have for their mothers makes them define home in terms of their mothers’ residences. Celine Dion took her mother and son on her tour so that she would surround herself with familiarity [family]. For both Sarah and April, the bed is such an intimate space that when it is violated, they feel uneasy and vulnerable. They are at home, and yet they do not feel at home! This raises an interesting question; can one be at home and yet feel homesick? The experience of Pat and her nephews addresses this question:

 

At last, the big day had come. My son Brian and his wife, Becky, were heading south to the Florida Keys for their 15th wedding anniversary. I had volunteered to house-sit and watch over my grandsons–Nathan, 7, and Joshua, 5. The three of us were looking forward to our vacation, too: pool splashing, Happy Meals, park Olympics, and snuggle time. Brian and Becky slipped into the boys’ room around 5 am, to give last-minute hugs and kisses, and to capture goodbye waves from the front window. When I woke up an hour or so later, I could hear the tell-tale sounds of youthfulness echoing from the living room. “Up and at it,” those sounds reported, “your starting bell has already rung!” Sure enough, I found Nate and Josh wrapped in blankets and staring at an acceptable cartoon on television.

 

It was a rainy day, and it seemed to go on forever. The three of us played games, watched videos, and drew pictures. I got out my famous “Granny bag,” filled with surprises, and produced a puppy-and-mouse marionette that delighted both boys. After that, we all stood at the window looking wistfully at the pool as it filled higher and higher with rainwater. It was a long day. At last, it was time for bed–bath time was over and the three of us were ready to sleep. Then, the phone rang. It was Brian and Becky, and the boys jumped up to chat. As each one took a turn talking with their mom and dad, the tears began to flow. Soon, they were both inconsolable. The whole situation had become too much. The boys were tired, their mom and dad were soooooo far away, and, as much as they love me, they wanted them.

 

When we finally got back to the bedroom, I tried to quiet them as best I could. Josh eventually fell asleep with his mouth wide open, still crying. Nate, being older, couldn’t stop thinking about his parents. He was like a record stuck in one spot, and he was wearing a groove so deep that I had no idea how to help him. Through the wailing, his shaking arms reached out to me, and his little voice spoke some very profound words: “Grandma, I’m homesick, and I am home. How can that be?” In the end, I took him into my room and let him cuddle up to me. I rubbed his back and spoke soft words until, finally, he fell asleep–and so did I.

 

We only had one night of tears. It was Nathan’s idea that his mom and dad should call during the day, when he wasn’t tired and it wasn’t bed time. Thankfully, it worked. Still, when Brian and Becky returned five days later, the boys were ecstatic. Their faces were filled with smiles, and they couldn’t get close enough to each parent. At last, home was home. (Pat Bailey, Batavia, Illinois, Can one be homesick at home? http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/weekly/07-01-29/7012907.html

 

For Nathan and Joshua, “home” went away when their parents travelled from home. It is the presence of their parents in the house that makes it a home for the two boys. When the parents called at night, the boys suddenly realized that the parents were not at home. This leads to a long bout of crying. It is this being-away-from that makes the young boys feel sad. Even though their grandmother is with them, and even though they are surrounded by the familiarity of their home, yet the absence of their parents now defines their sense of being-at-home.

 

A similar experience is narrated by Nicholas, an accountant in New York. Nicholas spent his youth on a farm in rural Kenya and he clearly recalls moments when he experienced abandonment and sadness when his mother left him on the farm…

 

I remember days in my youth when my mother travelled to visit my dad in Nairobi, or wherever his work took him. I was surrounded with many cousins and neighbours kids and so normally I spent very little time with my mother in the house. But as soon as she went away, I noticed her absence and it was always a pain. The nights were especially very long. As young boys we always had fun waving at the buses as they cruised past our home to Nairobi. We would compete about who knew the most drivers by name, who would identify the buses by their sound etc. We were most thrilled when the bus drivers waved back at us. However, when my mother was away, all the fun in this game seemed to evaporate. The buses seemed to be my enemy! After all, I argued, it was they that had taken my mother away to Nairobi. I would now watch them drive by and silently ‘send’ them to go and bring back my mother. The buses, and their drivers, only redeemed themselves, and became my ‘friends’ again once they brought back my mother.

 

The nights were long for Nicholas because his mother was away. Even for Sarah and April, besides the tragedy of their missing beds, their parents played a key part in their sense of feeling-at-home. Homesickness is thus linked to the absence of the intimacy of one’s family.

 

Yearning to return home

A running thread in all the experiences narrated in this paper is the strong yearning to return home. Whether that home is a physical space, or even a mental construct, one senses a deep undercurrent of a desire to return to being-at-home. Homesickness could thus be said to be this yearning to return to wherever it is, or to whatever condition one describes as being at home. It is a yearning that can only be fulfilled by the return.

 

In Judeo-Christian traditions there are many allusions to this returning. Right from the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve sinned and got kicked out of paradise, the human race is seen as being on a journey to return to that paradise. In the history of the Israelites, there are many instances where the nation was taken into captivity. The punch in all these stories of captivity is always in the return. Indeed, the whole book of Exodus in the Old Testament in the Bible is all about the Israelites returning home from Egypt. In the New Testament there is the famous story of the prodigal son, a lazy and spoilt fellow who took his inheritance and spend it on beer and prostitutes. At the height of his misery, when all the money was gone, he remembered his home. The punch line in the story is on his home coming. These stories inform Christian theology wherein life on earth is seen as a journey to heaven. Indeed, one could say that Christians view life on earth as being characterized by homesickness, a desire to return home.

 

Returning home is apparently a deep-seated human preoccupation. One only has to glance at newspapers and television channels to see how homecoming is such a great theme in human life. We all get wet eyes and a tight throat when we see pictures of our “gallant” boys returning from war in Iraq or Afghanistan; or when we see a huge welcoming parade for a triumphant team “bringing home” the World Cup. We marvel at the rescue, and reunion with his family, of the mountain climber lost for a week in the Himalayas. It is the photographs of the reunion – hugs and kisses from family, tears, and bouquets – that remind us of our vulnerability and, ultimately, our joy to be-at-home. Homesickness could be seen as the state of wandering away from, which in turn gives rise to a desire to return home.

 

Ambivalence toward difference

In trying to arrive at an experiential understanding of homesickness, several notions have emerged or have been alluded to. Such are notions like strangeness, familiarity, and foreignness / outsiderness among others. All these foreground, in my opinion, the importance of difference in human life. Human life thus becomes a project to transcend and obliterate difference.

 

When we invite others to feel at home, this becomes an invitation to transcend the barriers of class, race, gender, region, and religion. Essentially, it is an invitation to transcend difference. When one moves into a new place, or into a foreign country, a major undertaking is to seek a universal interpretive framework. One seeks out what is familiar and similar to their experience. One seeks to, simultaneously, understand and efface difference. The endeavour is to create a comfort zone, to be at home, away from home. When we talk about democracy, and globalization as the celebration of difference (Giroux 1993), we are in fact talking about life being a celebration of homesickness – the desire to be at home every where in the world. Life, and indeed the history of human kind, could be said to be an endeavour to name homesickness.

 

Where is home?

Throughout this essay a question that remains unanswered in the background is “where is home?” The philosopher Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801) says that Philosophy is really homesickness ( Heimweh ) – the desire to be at home everywhere in the world (Pinkard, 2002). This view of homesickness raises an important theme about the connectedness of the human being to the notion of home. Heidegger explains that to be at home everywhere is to exist among beings as a whole ( im-Ganzen ). For Heidegger, and later Gadamer, the notion of home ( Heimat ) has both regional and linguistic aspects that are both mediated in dialect. However, Gadamer moves away from the regional and talks more about the linguistic landscape of Heimat . Heidegger’s notion of Heimat raises some insights that are relevant to this discussion. For Heidegger, the regional landscape has been destroyed through objectification and the uniformity of world civilization. To Heidegger, therefore, “the regional landscape and with it Heimat are not a-temporal concepts and instead must be regarded as both already lost and yet to be regained” (Hammermeister, 2002, p.317). Indeed for Heidegger one can only fully appreciate Heimat only when they have lost it, when they are in exile. Further more, for Heidegger, even those who have never left their region have not yet found their Heimat there, but are still obliged to learn to be at home. All this points to the complexity of the notions of home ( Heimat ) and homesickness ( Heimweh ).

 

Novalis’ idea of homesickness as the quest to be at home everywhere in the world, though problematic, is a pointer to the quest for a “fixed point in oneself or the world that would supposedly anchor the inherent unrest of human existence” (Pinkard, 2002, p.147). This existence entails a questioning of what this whole (the world) means, and this questioning positions the human being in isolation against the world, a felt isolation that, following Novalis’ thinking is akin to homesickness. Thus, to be able to engage and question the world, and ones own positioning in relation to the world (being), the philosopher must necessarily avoid being-at-home in the world. Homesickness is the basic mood of philosophizing. Homesickness, thus, defines man’s quest to be at home.

 

 

References

Flusser, V. (2003). The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Giroux, H. (1993). Border Crossings . London & New York: Routledge.

Gordon, A. (1995). Gender, ethnicity, and class in Kenya: burying Otieno revisited.

Signs , 20 (4), 883-912.

Hammermeister, K. (2002, October) . Heimat in Heidegger and Gadamer. Philosophy and Literature 24 (2), 312-326.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time , transl. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Oxford English Dictionary (Online)

http://dictionary.oed.com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/cgi/entry/ .

Pinkard, T. (2002). German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schutz, A. (1971). The Stranger. In A. Brodersen (Ed.), Collected Papers, Vol. II, 91-105. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.