My homeland haunts me. A tropical paradise pictured by it’s seas, bluer than any blue you can think of and skies, brighter than light. It’s the smell of warm spices and fresh fish, felt by a downtempo pace and fantastic heat. It follows me around in disguised nightmares, in Facebook feeds and in travel advertising.
At the age of 18, having enjoyed a fantastic close-knit, barefooted childhood in Barbados, I was still itching to experience a new ‘everything’. Without blinking, I was ready to hop on a plane to England. Of course, that was until I watched my mother round the corner from my university dorm room and tried to shield my emotion by doing the worst possible thing…whipping out my book of Barbados and flipping through all the idyllic scenes. By page three, I was weeping ridiculous tears.
I’d crossed the Atlantic, bravely I thought, and yet I tricked my mind into believing that just beyond the horizon (of an actually massive country) was the ocean and just beyond that, was home. My mother assured me that I was lucky; during her time living in England, she only had the rare letter to look forward to. I at least had email and Skype, where I could see my parents and friends with my own eyes, in a familiar backdrop.
“Yes, we have an airport and it’s not made of bamboo”
I coped in those first few years by talking about home all of the time. However, the different cultural norms of the English, and the mockery of my accent and way of life, (“Yes, we have an airport and it’s not made of bamboo”), made me grit my teeth.
I’ve had the opportunity to go home for two Christmases and two summers in seven years. I would have gone back more often but after graduation, the ‘golden path’ started to look like the littered, spittle covered, black city road I had to walk on every day.
Unemployment, financial problems, dull weather, crazed, noisy housemates, landlords and neighbours, hideous jobs, breakups, loneliness, they all hit me hard like towering Atlantic waves. I wanted the saviours of family or the warm comfort of sunshine. Every time I found myself in a somewhat good place and thought, “Yes this year I will be able to go home, I’ll be secure,” the stress of the city would come along and rock me off the boat.
When incredulous Londoners asked me how on earth I had been dealing with not going back to Barbados in just over three years (last year I finally made it), I told them straight, “It gets harder every day.”
Last year I finally made it back home. In the months before then, my dreams of arriving at the airport and laughing with my family, “I finally reach, someone take me to the beach now!”, swimming in the beautifully clear ocean, and hugging my father or my little nephew, became painfully vivid and nightly.
“We often find ourselves in packed, cold places like the US, Canada, or the UK and the contrast makes us realise there is no place like home.”
There came a point when just experiencing whatever trouble I had, without my mother around the corner, made me buckle down and sway crying, “I want to go home, I want to go home…” . The distress came from seeing no end in sight, not knowing when I’d have the means to travel and still return to the city. I think that what makes it really tough for us West Indians, is that there’s pretty much nowhere like the place we grew up. We often find ourselves in packed, cold places like the US, Canada, or the UK and the contrast makes us realise there really is no place like home.
So here is my emotional expert’s advice on dealing with homesickness.
Even though I’ve just confessed to crying like a child about this piece, I’ve had to cope for many years without being able to go home regularly and having to endure the doubt about when I’d be able to return again. These may seem quite obvious but perhaps as a fellow Caribbean person feeling the hefty tug of homesickness, you may find some solace.
1. Talk about it
‘Severe homesickness’ is connected to depression (as this interesting piece from BBC News explores). I gasped a bit when I read that it can cause panic attacks, something I’d been experiencing more and more of in the last year.
I find it comforting to talk about it to everyone, to the people back on the island, to my English friends, to English strangers who want to know everything about the paradise I left behind, but strangely enough…not so much to my Bajan friends who live here, which brings us to…
2. Try to avoid comrade envy/ staying in secular groups
It is lovely, of course, to have some fellow nationals with whom you can discuss what you miss and the current goings on of home. However, there can be times when it’s all you talk about, and home becomes even more mysticised. I’ve heard of cases where a West Indian in the city would only hang out with their fellow nationals and thus, found it more difficult to enjoy the new experience. I can confess as well to resenting my friends who had more opportunities to return home than I did, and I try as much as possible to stay clear of social media where posts of home life and holidays can begin to hurt.
3. But do explore and find your Caribbean community
I remember trawling the international aisle at one of the generic supermarkets and tearing up over the fact that they sold Shirley biscuits, a symbol of my time at nursery school back home. I’ve since found various shops that cater to my homesickness [link to article about online shops] with products I thought I’d never see again.
I’ve found pockets of Caribbean people in various places in London: eating authentic food, enjoying the atmosphere and talking to immigrants at every stage of life abroad.
4. Get that ticket!
All you need do is google or ask your peers where’s the best place to find a deal. Check out some great rates for off-season (Avoid peak travel times to the Caribbean like Christmas, Summer and Spring Break). Even if you can’t afford to go all the way home, try to go somewhere, anywhere else, ideally where you can find one tiny connection to home to keep you going.
For me, it’s about finding some sort of heat and/or a body of water. Though I would furrow my brow at people on Brighton “Beach” frolicking on the rock covered shore and enjoying a freezing dip, just seeing the ocean made me feel like I wasn’t dropped in the middle of an urban apocalypse.
Visiting Mersea Island and sleeping with the window open allowed me to listen to the tide, and connect with memories of growing up on the Atlantic coast.
The important thing to remember is that you are not alone. Remember those generations before us that stepped off the boat and had no idea what they were getting into. I imagine they had to manage more with the distance, cultural and socio-economic challenges than we perhaps face.
Home is always there, just over the horizon.