Editor’s Note: Welcome to a special series from the Sutterlin Family. This month, the family continues the account of their experience hosting a German high school exchange student. Enjoy!
Of course I thought about homesickness before I left Germany, but I was almost certain that I would be fine. Sure, I love my family and friends, but America is like a second life and I thought that I would forget about my other life for this year.
There were days when it wasn’t easy to be a part of the things my friends did or talked about. They shared stories about people they knew and things they did that I didn’t know anything about. Those moments made me wish to be with my friends in Germany, whose stories I knew and that I could talk about. Soon after the New Year, I learned how to talk to them and make a connection without feeling insecure. I realized that they are just normal people with fears and insecurities like me, and they don’t care if I’m not talkative and fun all the time. By February, I became a lot more comfortable and I stopped feeling like I didn’t belong.
There are other triggers for my homesickness, too. Being alone and having nothing to do with friends can be a big problem. Back in Germany, I didn’t have many after school activities, but I was okay with that. In Germany it’s easier to be spontaneous because of the public transportation. I can just take the train and hang out with my friends or walk around in the city whenever I want to. But I found out that I get very homesick in America when I don’t have as many events or after school activities going on. If I don’t have anything to do or to plan I can’t stop myself from thinking about home and how it will be when I get back. In the first months, I loved to have time because it gave me the chance to think about my life and figure some things out or think about other people’s problems and life in general. But now that I have most of that figured out and only four months left, my thoughts always wander off to the year that comes after this one. So I started to fill my schedule with many events again and being busy helps a lot. As I write this I don’t feel homesick at all, but I know the causes and I’m learning how to handle them.
From The Sutterlins
Most American parents we’ve talked to about our exchange experience are in agreement with us; we cannot fathom sending a child away for an entire year. Even when we are seething at our kids’ behavior, we miss them when they’re at sleepovers. The infrequent date nights we might find are usually peppered with recollections about our kids’ better natures. It’s probably not a measure of how much more we love our children than other parents, rather a sign of how selfish we tend to be in how we show our love. We are more willing to receive a new person into our hearts than to release part of our hearts into the world before we are ready to let go, despite what benefits they might gain from the experience.
With this in mind, we were especially conscious of Sophie’s experience away from home, knowing that while parenting flexibility may be different, a year away is still a long time for any child. Our exchange coordinator, Amy Smitter, advised that usually six weeks after arrival and around holidays students have a harder time. Each child expresses emotion differently and we watched Sophie carefully. After the first week of school, Sophie burst out crying ever so briefly and came in for a hug. We loved her up and listened to her reflect on the week’s situations, wondering if this was homesickness setting in early or simply overwhelming newness being processed in an adolescent brain.
We weren’t sure what to expect after that episode. Was it the first of many regretful afternoons or a flash in the pan? Either way, we approached Sophie as any of our children, honoring emotion in the moment, then moving on with a fresh start. Soon we learned her triggers and alternatives. She chose not to Skype her mom because it made her feel homesick. Instead, they exchanged Sunday afternoon emails. If there were long stretches without seeing friends, such as holiday breaks, vacation or the many snow days we endured from school, the down time allowed her to miss home more. Sophie kept herself busy reading and writing when this happened. Realizing that her pattern was to become grumpy and quiet when she felt homesick, we countered by asking a question and giving her time to think. Soon she would open up with lots of reflection which eventually led to other conversations that kept her mind from worrying.
There is no more science to homesickness than there is to giving or receiving love. Each one of us must show that love in whichever way comes naturally.
Tags: america, Germany, homesick, stories