Interesting article in the New York Times about the increase in globalised work practises (ie: you are more likely to be transferred from London to Hong Kong, than Manchester – or, as with my Aussie friend I met for lunch yesterday, who has upped sticks from Sydney to Vancouver with just as many emotional repercussions/logistical difficulties if she’d moved to Brisbane). But how Skype, cheap flights (cheapish – Jeez, the cost of air travel is getting pricey), and the ‘international foods’ section in Key Foods (Worcester Sauce, McVities Dark Chocolate Digestives, Ambrosia custard), do little to prevent the ancient malady of homesickness, or nostalgia as they called it in ancient times.
It’s by Susan J. Matt who is a clever prof of history at Weber State University and the author of ‘Homesickness: An American History‘.
I’ve blatantly reproduced it but you can read the real version and the full comments here:
ACCORDING to a recent Gallup World Poll, 1.1 billion people, or one-quarter of the earth’s adults, want to move temporarily to another country in the hope of finding more profitable work. An additional 630 million people would like to move abroad permanently.
The global desire to leave home arises from poverty and necessity, but it also grows out of a conviction that such mobility is possible. People who embrace this cosmopolitan outlook assume that individuals can and should be at home anywhere in the world, that they need not be tied to any particular place. This outlook was once a strange and threatening product of the Enlightenment but is now accepted as central to a globalized economy.
It leads to opportunity and profits, but it also has high psychological costs. In nearly a decade’s research into the emotions and experiences of immigrants and migrants, I’ve discovered that many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed. Few speak openly of the substantial pain of leaving home.
This emotional style became common among mobile Americans in the 20th century, but represented a departure from the past. In the 19th century, Americans of all stripes — pioneers, prospectors, soldiers and the millions of immigrants who streamed into the nation — admitted that mobility was emotionally taxing. Medical journals explored the condition, often referring to it by its clinical name: nostalgia.
Stories of the devastating effects of homesickness were common. In 1887, an article in the Evening Bulletin of San Francisco had the headline, “Victim of Nostalgia: A Priest Dies Craving for a Sight of his Motherland” and reported that the Rev. J. M. McHale, a native of Ireland, had fallen ill with nostalgia after arriving in Brooklyn. Shortly before he died, he declared: “I am homesick. My dear country, I will never set a foot on your green shores again. Oh, my mother, how I long to see you.”
Today, explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity. This silence makes mobility appear deceptively easy.
Technology also seduces us into thinking that migration is painless. Ads from Skype suggest that “free video calling makes it easy to be together, even when you’re not.” The comforting illusion of connection offered by technology makes moving seem less consequential, since one is always just a mouse click or a phone call away.
If they could truly vanquish homesickness and make us citizens of the world, Skype, Facebook, cellphones and e-mail would have cured a pain that has been around since “The Odyssey.”
More than a century ago, the technology of the day was seen as the solution to the problem. In 1898, American commentators claimed that serious cases of homesickness had “grown less common in these days of quick communication, of rapid transmission of news and of a widespread knowledge of geography.”
But such pronouncements were overly optimistic, for homesickness continued to plague many who migrated.
Today’s technologies have also failed to defeat homesickness even though studies by the Carnegie Corporation of New York show that immigrants are in closer touch with their families than before. In 2002, only 28 percent of immigrants called home at least once a week; in 2009, 66 percent did. Yet this level of contact is not enough to conquer the melancholy that frequently accompanies migration. A 2011 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that Mexican immigrants in the United States had rates of depression and anxiety 40 percent higher than nonmigrant relatives remaining in Mexico. A wealth of studies have documented that other newcomers to America also suffer from high rates of depression and “acculturative stress.”
Ricardo Valencia, an immigrant from Guadalajara, puts a face to such statistics. In 2005, he traveled to Nevada to work so he could pay off a mortgage on his house. The day after he arrived in Nevada, he thought, I want to leave! As he explained to me: “I’ve always been really close with my family. … I had to stand it, we had to stand it … but returning was always in mind.” He used e-mail and phone cards to keep in touch with his wife, calling her several times a week. But even this regular communication could not assuage his tremendous homesickness. He finally returned to his family in 2009.
Like Mr. Valencia, 20 to 40 percent of all immigrants to the United States ultimately return to their native lands. They know that Skype is no substitute for actually being there.
It is possible that these new technologies actually heighten feelings of displacement. María Elena Rivera, a psychologist in Tepic, Mexico, believes technology may magnify homesickness. Her sister, Carmen, had been living in San Diego for 25 years. With the rise of inexpensive long-distance calling, Carmen was able to phone home with greater frequency. Every Sunday she called Mexico and talked with her family, who routinely gathered for a large meal. Carmen always asked what the family was eating, who was there. Technology increased her contact with her family but also brought a regular reminder that she was not there with them.
The immediacy that phone calls and the Internet provide means that those away from home can know exactly what they are missing and when it is happening. They give the illusion that one can be in two places at once but also highlight the impossibility of that proposition.
The persistence of homesickness points to the limitations of the cosmopolitan philosophy that undergirds so much of our market and society. The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past. But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.