We could go anywhere, even paradise, and we’d still miss home
Every year, thousands of first-years make the pilgrimage to their respective universities in search of educational development. But the walls of our dorms and flats have trouble replacing the ones from our home. For indigenous students, the notion of leaving home can be exciting, but after a while, we yearn to return home. We look out our windows with bittersweet melancholy, daydreaming of hilly green landscapes. Some may be homesick for a place we have never visited before or are unsure even exists—a place where our souls are understood. Every traveller has a home of their own, and we learn to appreciate it more after our wandering. I spoke to a few indigenous students who were missing home.
The word nostalgia was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, who defined it as “acute homesickness”. The word has since transitioned to mean a “longing for a lost time, a bittersweet melancholy”. Indigenous people resonate with this sentiment. For Māori students, the effects of feeling homesick are profound. Growing up in small communities, Auckland can feel like a different country. We are deeply connected to our land, and our whenua roots us in our identities and culture. We grieve for the loss of home, for a place we belong to. Leaving home for better opportunities pains us but encourages us to bring those opportunities home despite the mental and physical detriments of missing it.
Caleb (Ngāti Maniapoto) states, “Although I like being away from home, I can’t help but miss it. It’s not just my family but the energy.” Even with tests on his mind, Caleb notices a different cultural disconnect from Te Kuiti, from which he hails. “Auckland is tokenist, Māori symbols surround the viaduct, but the people there would probably be offended if you said Mōrena to them.” This is much different his hometown where he states, “Even the dairy owner speaks Te Reo to us.” This cultural distance, between big cities and small towns, has the unique ability to make Māori feel like visitors on land to which they are indigenous. When asked if missing home created any mental setbacks for himself, he responded, “it was hard to sleep in a new place; it sort of affected my productivity by creating a lack of sleep”. To combat this longing for home, he states that “I had to find a new favourite place, and that ended up being me listening to music just by myself, I’d sit there, and that was my space”.
Ngaio (Ngāi Tūhoe), who studies environmental science, explains how she holds her home landscapes close to her heart. “Back home, our people run conservation programmes to help local wildlife, species like the kōkako and kiwi”. Ngaio says this fostered a deep love for her home and its landscapes. “It’s what made me want to do environmental science; I had to leave for university; I always wanted to leave and travel when I was younger, but now that I have, all I want is to go home”, but Ngaio still felt a longing for home. “I was always going to miss it, Tuhoe are a strong people, but even we can get sick for home. There wasn’t any panic attacks or physical illness, just a lingering sadness and some social withdrawal”.
Homesickness can create disruptive and harmful side effects if it manifests in the wrong way and for too long. Some emotional symptoms include feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation, lack of concentration, and low motivation. Homesickness is also not limited to just emotional side effects. There are physical symptoms include headaches, decreased/increased appetite, low energy, and sleep difficulty. Some of which were present in Ngaio and Caleb’s experience. The student experience of leaving home empowers some but not all with a lot of POC having an overwhelming need to return home.
One such student is Michael, who is in his last year of engineering. “I was lucky to return home to Japan late in 2019 before COVID became a thing and took some friends with me”. Once this is all over, Michael plans to return home. “Hokkaido and Wellington are where I’m from, and every time my plane lands, there is an overwhelming sense of returning home”. “A place feels more like home the more time you spend away from it. I look at Auckland as a place for me to grow but not place roots”. I had sent Michael a list of homesickness symptoms to see if he thought he had experienced any. “Lack of concentration at work/studies, Not being able to enjoy things fully, and a loss of motivation/enthusiasm are things I’ve felt from that list.”
Many adults may find it hard to talk of homesickness. The fear to talk about missing home speaks to the limitations of the Western individualistic philosophy that undergirds so much of our modern daily lives. It seems that we, as indigenous students, have failed this adult test of rugged individualism. That we have failed to let go of family, friends, and the past, in search of economic opportunity, occupational success, and educational growth. This is not something that we need to be ashamed of. Feeling homesick for our whenua only means we carry a deep love for our home. It is who we are, and the spiritual connection to our whenua is vital to our identities.
Modern capitalism and individualism make us forget about homesickness and can force us to focus on “forward movement”—a forward movement to other places and opportunities for growth. Capitalism prizes mobility and a fluid labour force without regard for an emotional connection to home. Homesickness, by definition, makes us look backwards, but there is a lot of growth in looking into our past. We are homesick for places; it is the sounds and smells and sights of places that haunt us and against which we often measure our present.
As we enter the mid-semester break, many of us will be wistfully dreaming of coming home to our own rooms or our mother’s cooking. Despite gaining some independence, the comforts of home are unmatched. Whether you’re indigenous to Aotearoa, the Pacific Islands, or any other country, the prospect of returning home speaks to all of us.