Dorothy be Damned: Homesickness and the Expat in Glasgow

Dorothy be Damned: Homesickness and the Expat in Glasgow

Last week, my husband and I watched the Wizard of Oz film for the first time in many years. And I was struck by the end of the film where Glinda (the good witch) asks Dorothy what she has learned, and Dorothy replies:

“Well, I -- I think that it -- that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em -- and it's that – if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard.  Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!  Is that right?” (1)

I have never wanted to smack a gingham-clad farm girl in my life, but I found myself shouting a stream of wickedness (Wickedness. Ha ha. See what I did there?) at the TV, including some very unladylike comments about Judy and her sequined shoes.

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Image: Baum, L.F., 2008. The wonderful wizard of Oz. Oxford Paperbacks. You can also read the entire original screenplay online!

Setting aside scholarly dissections of Baum’s grand metaphors of Oz as the New Deal Era America and the yellow brick road as the silver standard, Dorothy’s answer about HOME really ‘hit home’ for me in an entirely different way. I wholeheartedly think that living abroad, at least for a short while, is an amazing experience that everyone should try if the opportunity presents itself. Its positives almost always outweigh the negatives. As an expat living abroad to do a PhD, thinking of the concept of home and homesickness (often most piercing to expats during the holiday season) I wanted to argue (loudly) that Dorothy’s sentiments of isolationism and “never leaving your backyard” are wildly oversimplified and (I think) dangerous to expat students.

Would you be surprised to learn that studies have shown that more than one third of international students get homesick? Of course you wouldn’t. Because you don’t have to have moved across the globe to miss the food, smells, comforts, traditions and people of home. Whether you traveled 7 hours on a train or 17 hours on a plane, the University of Glasgow welcome postgraduate students near and far - any of whom can become homesick.


IMAGE: Home Sweet Home

Being homesick may not hit you like a house dropped from a tornado, but all expats feel it to some degree, and for many, it can be crippling. When you first moved abroad, you were probably too excited to focus on being sad. You posted 500 pictures on social media to folks back home, highlighting that Glaswegians really are the friendliest lot on Earth, whisky is varied and amazing, haggis is, in fact, delicious, Scots love weird and wordplay street signs, and assuring friends that the drunk guy riding the conveyor belt in the Iceland checkout line is not your new roommate. You were incredibly excited for this new chapter of your life, almost annoyingly so to the people around you.

Once the newness wears off and a routine settles in, that sinking feeling in your chest settles too, and there are things about home you begin to ruminate on, perhaps too frequently, and then (for some) obsessively if not deliberately.

True Story: I spent £30 on the ingredients for a traditional holiday dessert made with US ingredients for my husband, only for him to admit that he doesn’t actual like pecan pie. I was so focused on giving him a “missing piece” of home that it didn’t even occur to me that it was something he didn’t miss at all.


IMAGE Teresa Stanton via Flickr

Theorists suggest that, as a form of grief, homesickness is characterized by the same five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (also known as the grief cycle). Grief is a natural emotional reaction to loss, which of course includes people as well as the conveniences of your life back ‘home’ – the very heart of being homesick. The holidays often bring these missing items – these losses – into sharp focus, which frustrates and saddens expats to the point of being overwhelmed.

So this holiday season, try a coping strategy or two along with that second helping of Christmas pudding:

1. Keep small routines. Yoga in the mornings? Iced coffee breaks in the afternoons? Make an effort to keep these during the winter months. Consider as well making a new one. See #4.

2. Own your feelings. Cry it out if you feel sad. Don’t feel guilty for feeling bad, or weak, or lonely. Not every Dorothy is brave enough to engage with the great wild world; remind yourself why you are traveling, and write down your goals, your dreams, your fears, and don’t forget to include your accomplishments! This will help you remember why you came here to begin with, and sometimes a little perspective can be a great help.

3. Use social media strategically. Remember that you can use it connect with locals as well as keeping in touch with those back home. Your comfort level will dictate this, of course, but consider meeting/befriending someone who would not have been in your immediate wolf pack at home. There may be opportunities to celebrate your own culture’s holidays with others, but if not, embrace new traditions that can provide you with fun experiences, even comfort and support. University of Glasgow International Student Support and the UofG Chapel events pages are great sources for international students to see what's going on in Glasgow. I have found that it is not difficult to find someone else who is also far from ‘home’ and who is happy to share a coffee, a walk, a movie, a laugh.

4. Be active. While it might seem like a good idea to binge watch the entire series of Breaking Bad, you’re going to become more homesick if you’re stuck in your flat for the holidays. It’s healthier to get out, even in small steps. Volunteer to walk your neighbor’s dog, ask around for others who aren’t traveling during the holiday and have a lunch out, or even go to local festivals for food, music, and art. (The Glasgow Christmas Markets are great for getting some fresh air!)


IMAGE:  All rights reserved by Gabriella Hal

Never forget, you are not alone. Being homesick, experiencing culture shock, and having trouble integrating into a new country is entirely normal. Whether it’s making new friends or connecting with expat groups (there are loads of these on FB too), do what works for you. Be honest with your friends, family, or partner, and let them know how you are feeling. Consider the importance of PhD self-care. And if you think your homesickness has evolved into serious depression, you may want to contact a mental health professional,like those at UofG Counselling services.

Take a moment to appreciate the wonderful things you have in your new country and get out there and explore it!  There will be hard times; you will miss Grandma, Honey-baked hams, and Ranch dressing, but you can take steps to make sure those periods of sadness are as short as possible. Happiness, Dorothy, can be found in many places, and it doesn’t take a witch threatening to kill your dog for you to see that. Happiness (and “home”) can be found in enjoying the life that’s right in front of you, right here, right now.  

IMAGE: “Hug” Stephen Acuna vic Flickr  


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