The most common question I get here in Holland when people hear I’m from America (which usually just takes a sentence or two of my American-accented Dutch), is “Do you miss it?”
I’m never sure how to answer that. There are certainly times I miss it, like when the weather has been gray and rainy for weeks on end. Or when I have to give a lecture in Dutch and spend three times as much time preparing it as if I could just speak English, and, even with all that preparation and practice, I still hear mangled Dutch emerging as I speak. Or when a major appliance breaks down and I have to figure out a day, weeks from now, when I’ll be able to wait around from 12 to 5 for a repairman, since God forbid they should provide any service quickly or outside of business hours.
And I also miss some things in the US: proper New York bagels are high on the list. Shopping at Target and being able to buy basics like turtlenecks in colors that are not in style this year. Or quantity packs of underpants or socks. Or cinnamon chewing gum.
And I miss San Francisco sometimes: the beauty of that city, the neighborhood restaurants, the friendliness and diversity of its people. Earthquakes, though, I can do without.
But mostly my answer is “No, I don’t miss it. I like it here.”
I’ve talked about this question with lots of other expatriates, and I’ve come to the conclusion that many, perhaps most, other expatriates suffer more homesickness than I do because of one thing: their parents.
It comes down to this: people place their home where their parents are. Even if their parents have moved to Florida or a retirement home somewhere, they feel drawn back to see them. It’s not really homesickness, it’s parentsickness. It’s not about place, it’s about people.
So they visit. Most of my expatriate friends visit at least once a year, and, if their parents are nearer by – France or the UK, for example – they might visit four or five times a year. The last time I went back to the US was in 2009, and that was for a college reunion.
The difference between me and them is that my parents have both passed away. Without parents to give a location to that homesickness, I don’t feel such a powerful pull as the others feel.
I have two sisters in the US, one of whom I’m close to, but we chat on Skype now and then, and we get together when we can, often with years between. I don’t miss her because if I want to see her I can set up a Skype chat.
But I doubt that would work if my parents were still alive. When they were living in Connecticut and I was in San Francisco, I visited them every couple of months, even though I could perfectly well talk with them on the phone. I did talk with them on the phone a couple of times per week, but something about parents makes their children want to visit them in person, to be in the same room with them.
I’m free of that pull now. I don’t feel particularly happy about that, but it does give my expatriate life a different feel than other expatriates describe. They sometimes feel burdened by it: it’s expensive to keep visiting, and there are so many other parts of the world they’d like to visit, yet they don’t feel that they have the choice.
My roots are moveable. My husband and I are planning to move away from Holland when he retires in ten years or so, but we won’t move back to the US. I suspect that when my children are grown and have set up their own homes, their homesickness will bring them to us, wherever we replant our roots, rather than back here, to this city. And that’s fine. I just hope it doesn’t become a burden on them.
If you’re an expatriate, let me know how you feel about this! Add a comment below.