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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland Some of the Irish brands that might whet an expat's tastebuds...

Column Homesickness - the emigrant's burden

The whiff of a favourite foodstuff, the emotional low of feeling ill – these are just two of the catalysts to awaken homesickness when you’re an expat, says Irishman-in-Japan Mark Boyle.

FROM PERIODIC TRIPS home and my constant contact with friends, family and the Irish news media, I know it can be pretty depressing living there right now.

Big ask though it may be, I would like to say to all those who have watched friends and family board a flight to a new life, spare a thought for those who are leaving.

Emigration can solve a lot of one’s problems at once and the number of new opportunities it affords can scarcely be believed sometimes. That said, it invariably deposits one new problem into your lap, that of homesickness.

Homesickness is an intensely personal thing that touches different people in different ways. There are of course the stereotypes of the Mammy sending boxes of Lyons’ (in my case Barry’s) tea to young sons and daughters struggling away in some odd part of the world to stave off their craving for normality. Many of the feelings homesickness bring are very predictable, but all the same it’s an insidious state that can find any number of ways to creep up on you.

The first time I remember experiencing it was at the tender age of 17, coming home after 10 or so days in Belarus. Belarus if you’ve never been is a very tough country, where the brusqueness of locals comes off as simple rudeness but perhaps has a lot to do with their less than cheery history. For the last communist country in Europe, no one had the camaraderie to hold the door for me once.

There is little room given to even simple pleasantries and when I landed back in Shannon and immediately went into a small shop to buy a drink, the throwaway “thanks,” from the assistant stopped me in my tracks.

“By God, I had missed meaningless pleasantries”

By God, I had missed meaningless pleasantries and the benignly bored people who deliver them without a second thought. The lack of this absent-minded personablility was something I then realised I had let drag me down in tiny increments until a simple smile was all it took to make me anyone’s gal.

Since then, my passport stamp book has slowly filled and I have experienced the hollow ache of homesickness several times since, each in a new cruel and unusual way.

Illness is a very solid performer for eliciting the emigrant’s burden. My only trip to India was a running litany of health problems eventually leaving me with an inflamed leg, my digestive system in a twisted state of agony and my arms and legs easy pickings for the local insects.

On more than one occasion I sat pinned to the bed for hours at a time, writhing under a thin, once-was-white sheet thinking, “What the hell am I doing here? This has all been a massive mistake.” This is the standard mourning call of the foreigner at their lowest ebb.

So homesickness can be a subtle trajectory or a moment of primal to-the-rafters screaming.

The third pattern of homesickness I have encountered is one that has become all too familiar over my past two years in Japan. The awkward issue of Japanese food has been the ruin of many’s the cheery school day for me as I am obliged to eat whatever the city serves up to its students as school lunch.

Often this can be innocuous enough, perhaps a soup with hard to identify ingredients or tiny dried fish with their grey, dead eyes staring back at you. However on certain days the simple institution of lunch can be a gauntlet that assaults you with unpalatable dishes that push the limits of what one considers food.

“Lucozade, mature cheddar cheese and roast chicken”

In situations like this, my mind wanders and eventually leaps upon a taste memory of something comforting and familiar. When this happens, it is like being whisked away in magical carriage to a moment in time when there was nothing in the world but you, your tongue and a long lost flavour.
Lucozade, mature cheddar cheese and roast chicken have all at some point made me stop what I was doing and give myself over to the memory of the beloved foods and drinks I can no longer consume.

The strength of taste memory makes it all the more arresting when it is activated by a recollection of a flavour no longer available to you. It has been the cause of more than one long drawn, bitter sigh on my part as a phantom morsel passes over my taste buds.

Things only get worse if you mix the two homesickness primers of flavour and sickness together, as I witnessed when a good friend was painfully ill but in no mood to brave the roulette of a Japanese eatery. In her own tearful words, sometimes “I just want a f***ing potato.”

These are mere examples and in truth, anything can serve as a trigger for the inevitable sad contemplation of a life and country left behind.

All locations have their downsides if you stay long enough to find them and in the words of noted optimist Morrissey, “Life is hard enough when you belong here.”

Mark Boyle is currently working with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching programme, teaching English in rural Japan.

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