What To Do When Living Abroad Isn’t Rainbows & Roses

Three days shy of three months into living in Vietnam, I had my first ‘ready to pack it up and move home’ moment. I was caught off guard with how quickly it came and a little relieved that it took so long to arrive.

I knew the sinking moment of regret for the decision to move halfway around the world, desert my friends and family, and leave everything behind would get the best of me at some point. The crummy day I was having set the tone for my mind wandering into the black hole of ‘what if we didn’t stay?’

I had broken my computer, which was like my lifeline at that point; felt like I had been scolded at the place we were staying and could not piece together why; and just felt like I’d had bad luck overall that day. I’d spilled lunch and now feared that the unwelcome wildlife that made my house theirs would invite guests. I was nearly hit by another bicyclist and her distracting friend, and I had a less-than-fulfilling day in the office. Neither Vietnam or my decision to move abroad were looking good that day.

I’d known this day was coming – it was inevitable after all.

A couple of days earlier, I’d told my partner that I wanted to splurge and have American comfort food. That should have been the first sign of homesickness. The second was when I started romanticizing a trip home if we could afford it. But I pushed those feelings aside and kept my smile on. After all, we were having a great, meaningful experience.

We had committed to moving abroad to cooperate with people on the ground doing work around climate change and internationalization.

I’d also lived abroad previously and knew these were normal post-honeymoon feelings. I could easily shrug off the feelings creeping in. Until, finally, I needed to acknowledge that no matter where I am, I’ll have both good days and unfortunately, bad days.

 

In the morning, I told myself that the homesickness would not get the best of me, but by mid-day, I had internally flipped from positive to negative. I gave myself a gentle nudge. I breathed in and out slowly and realized that this moment would pass. The feelings of doubt and overwhelming regret would fade, and I would have a good day soon enough.

 

I reminded myself that just the day before was a beautiful day spent exploring the town, having coffee with friends, and enjoying this adventure with my partner. We had left our stagnant jobs in America for a new adventure of exploration, personal development, and social justice. But, the reminder did not work. I was already down the rabbit hole of dark, self-defeating thoughts.

 

It didn’t help that I was in my own head playing back and forth all of the signs I absolutely knew meant that we should go home. These signs were manufactured in my own mind to convince myself that Vietnam was giving me confirmation to leave. I wove a toxic story, crafted to ensure that I had enough support to head home to what I knew. I remained calm until my partner got home and I promised myself that I would calmly explain my feelings. But as I poured out my irrational conclusions, I could feel the sting of tears. I had held too much in for too long.

There was an added, more complex layer to my doubt.

I felt that I was letting people back home down if I had a bad day. When I announced we were moving abroad, many expressed their hopefulness for us and spoke of our courage to radically uproot our lives. Over the past several months, they’ve left comments on our social media that they are living vicariously through us. All in all, it’s a sweet sentiment, but I felt the pressure of living a certain way to appease voyeurs from abroad. This invisible and silent stress was causing me to slowly implode. Even more so, I was upset that I cared so much about whether others thought I was successful in my transition.

After this moment, I realized I could think and even talk aloud about what I missed from home without feeling like a traitor to the decisions we had made. While I miss the comfort of routine and the normalcy of our habits, I also needed to acknowledge that this was the exact reason we’d looked to move abroad.

It was (and is) difficult for me to openly express that the same reasons I wanted to move away were some of the reasons I miss home.

 

We all have tough moments and this was mine. The days ebb and flow with both positive and negative experiences here, and even though this bad day was magnified for me, the good days are commonplace.

And there it was, the realization I needed.

The majority of days are good and these days became invisible as my new normal. I stew about the bad, and do not honor the good. I can’t and shouldn’t escape the negative feelings.

 

In that space, I was able to dig past the superficial reasons of doubt and explore a greater cause. In the end, looking into the abyss of my dark feelings, I was able to back away from the ledge.

 

In a few days time, the feeling had passed. My work was fulfilling again and our simple life in a rural town halfway around the world was all that I needed. I learned a long time ago that my mind can be its own enemy. It took me time to remind myself that as much as I can conjure up negative power, I can also summon positive energy. Easier said than done, right?

Here are a few activities I practice when I feel like lying in bed until next year.

  • Lying in bed until dinner. Sometimes, it’s exactly the self-care I need. I can’t actually stay in bed all year, although that sounds amazing, so I make a deal with myself that I can stay in bed until set-a-time instead of forever.
  • Breathing in the fresh air.  We moved so we could spend more time outside and, for me, there’s nothing like clean country air. I take a deep breath in, remember that this moment will pass, and breathe out.
  • Crying. Ugh, I hate it, but I think I can not-cry for only so long before the littlest thing tips me over.
  • Writing. This post started as something I just need to jot down to get it out of my system, but I found it relaxing and more validating after I finished.
  • Taking a hot shower. Not always possible in Vietnam, but some version of self-soothing is meditative.
  • Eating that chocolate I was saving. My thought process, ‘what better time than now?’ This is Vietnam-specific for me, as treats are even more special when you can’t just run out to the store to replenish them.
  • Listing the good parts of a day, month, year, or experience. I took this from years of planning Love Your Body Days. Instead of exploiting or shaming our bodies, what makes us thankful for the bodies we have? For bad days, I think, what was good about it? What did I do that was good for myself or for the world? Maybe that day felt totally awful, so I expand it to think about what was good this week? Sometimes, I need external reinforcements for this and ask a friend or family member “What was the best part of (your) our day?” Sometimes I do this out loud, and yes, I look weird, but saying it outside of myself makes it real.
  • Listening to my heart when it hurts. Being intentionally reflective about what is really bothering me and what I need to take care of myself in that moment.

I’ve also confirmed (in my mind and out loud) that I can be proactive about countering my homesickness.

The list below is a non-exhaustive toolkit of some additional habits that have helped me.

Strengthening relationships

I find that many other blogs wrote about maintaining relationships with people from your ‘home’ wherever that may be. I have two schools of thoughts on this one. I think it’s important for me to maintain developed friendships and stay connected with the people I’ve chosen to have with me in my life; however, I also think that in the long run, creating and sustaining relationships in my new home is just as important to get me out of my slump. Balancing friends at home and abroad can be challenging, but it makes for happy memories of your old home and future plans of a new home.

Setting Goals

Deciding if I get to go on an excursion on the weekend has really helped me get through the tough times by focusing on something that gets me excited. Mostly, it’s a trick of the brain to focus on the positive.

Making your ‘new home’ feel like home

We didn’t get cozy right away. We felt too busy to focus on making our place comfortable. Ahem, we were mostly busy shoo-ing out the lizards and closing off doors instead of hanging signs that read “home sweet home” and deciding where our bohemian book nook was going. In fact, we still haven’t really moved in, and I think this is making us feel like we’re still transiting or at least that the apartment isn’t ours. We’re slowly buying things that make it feel like a home without splurging, such as a small succulent, a painting from Japan, and even a french press for the kitchen.

Finding similarities

This one has helped me understand that Vietnam and the USA, my coworkers and I, all are relatively similar. We want the same things: happiness, peace, and health. Both countries are full of differences, diversity, and energy. Instead of thinking about all of the differences, I focus on the similarities. People love to joke and smile; potatoes can be made into french fries in any country; and everywhere, people care deeply about their fellow neighbors.

Justine Johnson is seeking her path to passion. She's worked in social justice, gender equity, and environmental protection and is currently in Vietnam as an International Collaboration Officer at a university in the Mekong Delta. Read more of her work at Our Wild Beet.

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