Almost every exchange student experiences homesickness at some point. Living in an unfamiliar environment where everyone speaks another language can be alienating at times. Tokyo’s case is ironic; despite being the most populous city in the world, it’s easy to feel isolated here – to be constantly surrounded by people but feel profoundly alone. I’ve experienced these moments of crisis, and so have many of the exchange students around me. Fortunately, during my time as a high school student in Hiroshima, and the exchange I’m on right now, I’ve developed some strategies for dealing with and preventing homesickness and enjoying my time abroad to the fullest.
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) engages the idea of feeling alone amidst millions of people in Tokyo.
- Get Involved at University
I suggest getting involved in clubs or sports teams at your host university as a remedy; it can be a great way to meet new people, and take your mind off missing home. Don’t be afraid of language barriers between you and the other students in the club you’re interested in either. You’ll improve your grasp of the language you’re studying by using it on a daily basis. By getting involved you can also familiarize yourself with your new environment, and reduce feelings of alienation. When I went to high school in Japan, I joined the volleyball team to make new friends, keep myself busy, and take my mind off home. Right now I make friends in the University of Tokyo’s gym and photography club. Keeping busy helps me to have fun and stay focused on my time in Tokyo, instead of on missing friends and family.
- Stay in Touch – Just not too Much
When suffering from homesickness, it might seem relieving to connect with the people you miss. But constant contact with family and friends back home can remind you of how much you miss them, and how far away you are. Moreover, being too preoccupied with your life back home can prevent you from exploring your new environment. By getting out, meeting people, and becoming comfortable in my new surroundings, I’ve fostered a sense of belonging, and turned Japan into a second home.
Of course, a certain amount of contact with friends and family at home is important. Until you overcome homesickness, I recommend deciding in concrete terms how often you will communicate, e.g. once a week or so, in order to prevent communicating too much. Services like Skype and Google Hangouts are great for staying in touch, but they should be used in moderation. I talk with my family about once every two weeks.
- Talk with your Fellow Exchange Students
Exchange students at your host university can form a valuable support network for each other. While they come from a plethora of diverse backgrounds, they all have at least one thing in common: they are all confronting the same, unfamiliar environment. Try talking with each other about individual experiences of homesickness. You’ll likely find someone who you can empathize with. Sometimes verbalizing feelings can go a long way to alleviating them. Three other international students and I meet for drinks about once a month to chat about how our exchange is going. We often discover that we’re dealing with the same issues, e.g. homesickness, and find ways together to deal with them.
These are a few of my strategies for dealing with and avoiding homesickness. Fortunately, homesickness tends to strike mostly within the first few months of exchange, after which it is much easier to concentrate on enjoying your time in your new environment. Just remember: your time as an exchange student is limited – make the most of it!