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Why homesickness is a good thing

I’ve never met a South African overseas who isn’t homesick.

I thought about that statement for a while, and then wondered whether I was exaggerating. Yes, it’s true that I haven’t been to every country in the world and for all I know, there may be many South Africans who live overseas and never give a second thought to the country they’ve left behind. But in my experience, every single Saffa I’ve met, whether they’ve left because they want to travel, or because they married a foreigner, or because they’ve been personally affected by crime and angrily vowed never to return, whether its plainly stated or stored deep down inside, every one of them still misses home.

I wonder if this is the case for expats of other nationalities. Australians, Germans, Thais, Pakistanis, Scotsmen, Indians. If they move to another country, do they feel the same way? I’m not sure. It seems intensified for us. Maybe this is because we continually compare ourselves to first world countries when in reality, we’re not.

South Africa, unlike most first world countries, is not a foregone conclusion. And so, unlike your average Aussie living it up in London knowing they’ll be skipping home to safe, boring Melbourne in a couple of years, South Africans are a little more nervous. Maybe we need to put roots down elsewhere, we think. Just to have another option, you know. And so, because of this thinking, any move to another country carries with it a sense of permanence, and therein lies the homesickness.

Perhaps this sense of permanence is emphasised in the US because it is, to put it mildly, a complete mission to live here. Unless you have an American passport, you either have to be sponsored by a company, or fork out megabucks or get a scholarship to study here, or have a green card which takes either a ring on your finger, an inordinate amount of time, or a huge stroke of luck in the Green Card lottery. Whatever the method, it takes such an effort for most South Africans to get here that, when they do arrive, they feel almost a sense of obligation to settle here long term.

The truth is of course, that being “stuck” somewhere, whether in the US or South Africa, is a complete illusion. You can live anywhere you choose and any decision is reversible. And besides that, what’s the urgency to decide where you’ll settle permanently? There’s no shame in doing what makes sense for now, whether that means following a good job opportunity, or experiencing life in another country, or doing what you think is best for your family’s future, whether that means staying in South Africa or leaving. What fascinates me, though, is how South Africans still seem so intensely tied to home even after years abroad. Sure they’ve learned to manage the longing for home, to adjust (mostly) to living elsewhere. But start talking about how packed Cape Town was in December or how beautiful the sunset was in Kruger on a recent trip home, and suddenly they become as homesick as the day they left.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, I think homesickness is an amazing gift. It makes you appreciate your home for what you love about it, without perpetually dwelling on the bad parts. And then when you see things like the Austrian abuse case, you realise that maybe we’re not the only country with problems. As South Africans, we get so caught up in how bad we think things are at home that we lose sight of what’s good about it.

You know that scene in Blood Diamond? The one where Colonel Coetzee, played by our very own Arnold Vosloo, picks up a handful of sand off the ground and says to Leo’s Danny Archer: “This red earth, it’s in our skin. This is home. You’ll never leave Africa”. When I watched that part, I started crying. If I was in South Africa, I’d probably get mildly sentimental about it, laugh at Leo’s rendition of “howzit” and then quickly take my mind back to load shedding and crime and rising interest rates. Living here has made me see South Africa differently, and homesickness has played a large part of that shift in perspective. Maybe Colonel Coetzee was right when he says we’ll never leave Africa. Even if we live on a different continent, I don’t think we ever truly do.