28 August, 2012

Residential Malady

In my previous post, I mentioned an odd, but glad, feeling of homecoming upon returning to Lanzhou. I took that as a sign that I should upload a blog that I've been working on for some time. Full disclosure: I've written and rewritten this blog many times. I hope you enjoy it.

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When I was in junior high—or middle school if you attended one of those weird school systems that used that nomenclature—I was indoctrinated with many things. I learned then that I would never be one of the cool kids (thanks a lot near-sightedness); I learned that abstinence was the only way to protect myself from STDs (too political?); I learned that I would never be an athlete (I almost proved that wrong, then I got a stress fracture). However, beyond all that, there was something else that was browbeaten into me that I will never forget: the five-paragraph essay.

Here are my students, writing essays.
I can still create a five-paragraph outline in my sleep with my hands tied behind my back. I was told there was no better way to organise an essay and that I should use it every time I write. Effects of this can still be seen today: I spent the entire year teaching my writing students how to write good five-paragraph essays. I learned that the best way to write an essay was to start with an attention-getting device—something to get the readers interested in reading more of your paper (apparently, some rogue teachers had the audacity to call it a hook instead… for shame). I was taught that the best AGD were typically quotations and definitions.

However, after so much praise of this revolutionary writing process, my life got flip-turned upside down in high school. I was in the “honors” English curriculum (yeah, I’m as surprised as you are). In this miraculous haven of literature, they told us we needn’t bother with such frivolity and structure when we write essays, and it would behoove us to never use definitions in our introductions, as they were tedious and trite (it’s important to read that sentence in your best pretentious, Ivy-League voice). Also, for the record, in the first draft of the last sentence, I poked fun at the liberal and hippie stereotypes associated with an English class of this nature. However, I could not in good conscious do so because, let’s be real, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer currently wearing a tie-dye t-shirt. I can’t cast the first stone.

As I continue to prove on this blog, I learned nothing about writing as an honors English student. I did stop using definitions as an introduction, as you can see. The first draft of this blog started with a definition… Now instead, I gave you a 350-word, rambling three paragraphs of half-hearted diatribe. And for what reason? Because I couldn’t bring myself to start with a definition, nine years after I was told not to. Instead, I needed to write a different AGD, but it seems I forgot the silver... (AG, get it?!). Instead of something to grab the attention of my readers, I have this metatextual dribble.

As my faithful readers, I feel as though I owe you an explanation for said dribble (and you are the faithful if you didn’t give up on this post 200 words ago). Definitions are the reason. I don’t understand why definitions are trite. Because people use them? People use them because they are important to our understanding of anything, of everything. I find few things more interesting than semantics (like I said, never one of the cool kids). The goal of this post, to stay on topic, is to discuss the lexical semantics and conceptual semantics of one word. It’s a word that’s been on my mind for quite some time, and I want to discuss how it has affected my Peace Corps service.  

According to my Oxford American Dictionary, the topic for discussion is the experience of a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.

You guessed it: Homesickness

Since arriving in China, I’ve been afraid of getting homesick. It wasn’t something I felt for the semester I lived in London, but I couldn’t imagine NOT feeling it while in China for two years. I mean, it’s China. For two years. However, for the first six months, I really didn’t feel any pangs for home. I guess I was ensconced in adapting to China? Then, during my second semester teaching, I began to wonder if something was wrong with me.

Why was I not feeling homesick? What does that say about me? Is there something wrong with me? What does it really even mean to be homesick? Could I just be in denial about it?

About the time I was plaguing my psyche with this barrage of ideas, it hit me. Or, at least, something hit me. It was this wave of feelings and emotions, and it all started with a smell.


There was (and I hope still is) a lilac bush growing in the back yard of my childhood home. I loved it. Every year, it would bloom and the backyard became enveloped in its sweet aroma. My mother would always trim some from the tree and fill a vase on the kitchen table, bringing the beautiful scent indoors.

In late March and April, spring ushered itself into Lanzhou with the blossoming of lilacs all over my campus. The ceaseless grunge of the city was accentuated with purple, and smelled like my childhood. There were a couple instances when I was spotted just standing with my face buried in the plants, much to the amusement of Chinese people (if only there was a picture of that, right?), and as you can see from this photos, I cut some and livened up my humble abode.

The smell of lilacs made me miss home. However, even then, I wasn’t sure if that counted as homesickness. Look at the definition above. I definitely felt a longing for home, but it was my childhood home. Even if I was Stateside, I could still feel similar pangs—my parent’s new house (where I lived before coming to China) doesn’t have a lilac bush. Did this count?

Obviously, there was only one explicit way to figure out what homesickness was... ask my friends on Facebook (excerpts reprinted here anonymously):
“An occasional blinding hatred of everything around me, coupled with a strong desire to eat a cheeseburger.” “Loneliness is part of it. A tendency to idealise home and to bristle when someone says something negative about your country…” “A yearning desire to be with the people I love and I’m separated from [and] the familiarity and comfort of ‘home’…” “The realisation that life is going on, even without you there.” “Kant writes that homesickness results in part from an idealised version of home…” “It’s when you can’t hang out with your awesome brother.” Okay, so maybe this one isn’t anonymous, but that’s what he gets for writing a sarcastic answer (I miss you, too, Tim).
In reflecting on what my friends wrote, and reading some other travel blogs about being homesick, it seemed to me that often in tandem with homesickness was culture shock. That makes sense; at the same time someone feels frustration or exasperation toward a new culture, they would feel a yearning for the familiar. While it seems they appear working in tandem, I think they also exacerbate each other; this could lead to the idealisation of home.

If we remove the grey area that blends into culture shock, I think the other major theme of homesickness is the life and world someone leaves behind—in my experience so far, that seems to be the most difficult thing to deal with. Even though I look forward to keeping my friends and family up-to-date on my chinadventures, there is nothing harder than logging onto Facebook and seeing what my friends are doing.

It becomes hollow inside me; I’m jealous they are having a good time without me. How dare they. It hurts that I can’t be a part of their lives in the same way I was before. Each time, I need something to (metaphorically) slap some sense into me—help me realise just how selfish these feelings are. I am the one who left. I constantly tell people I’m living the dream. I know Ive said it on this blog. And I am. How can I be upset at others because I made this choice, just as I hope people are not resentful to me for flying to the other side of the globe.

Lexical semantics are easy: a dictionary gives us those answers. Conceptual semantics is about how people define words, how people’s ideas affect a word’s understanding.

For me, homesickness isn’t about a home. Even though I loved my childhood home, I have never really felt at home in Indiana. My friends and family know that. Even though I occasionally have a longing for Amish cooking, my Mom’s pot roast or Dad’s tuna steaks, it’s not a place I often miss. I miss people; I miss the relationships that kept me going. (I could spent another 20000 words talking about what it’s been like to be single for a full year, but I think I’ll save that for another time…) Like most reflections I write, I find myself with more questions than answers. If you take away something from this, let it be that I miss you.


  1. Well done, you. I couldn't have worded it better myself.

  2. I feel the exact same way about moving to London...I know I won't really be homesick because I never belonged here in Indiana, but I'll miss the people that I have to leave behind. :(

  3. I've thought quite a bit about this post and its two main points: writing and homesickness.

    Webster's defines overused as, "so as to exceed or surpass." This is very similar to their definition of trite: "boring from too much use." As I start my five paragraph essay, I'd like you to keep those two definitions

    I can't do it. I have neither the time nor energy. That's why I didn't comment on your post originally. I don't have the time for witticism. (Witticism: a cleverly witty and often biting or ironic remark.)

    Also, I didn't want it to be biting, merely humorous. At any rate, in education, rules are created and destroyed. Numbers start at one. Then zero. Then negative. Next thing you know people will be trying to talk you into imaginary numbers... You're not allowed to start a sentence with but. But then you are. And then you read a book by Cormac McCarthy in HS Honors English or a college lit course and find out grammar is for squares and pansies.

    You seem to have it figured out anyway, because a 350 word rambling introduction works in this case. And if you remember the simple-six, audience is key.

    As for homesickness, I think you spoke your mind splendidly. I spent a year to a year and a half in Croatia after high school, and I lived a large portion of my childhood in Haiti. You really hit on something in this post - that homesickness has more to do with relationships than home. For me, sometimes homesickness is more spiritual than temporal, if you know what I mean. When I've gone back to a place I've been, there have been times I couldn't recapture the way it was - you know? Because everything's changed.

    At any rate, nice post. Out of curiosity, you have a picture of your students writing essays up there... Did you teach them to use the five paragraph format?

    1. I did, in fact, teach them the five-paragraph format. I'm not proud of it, but I did...

      And it's funny you mention my introduction, because I goal for it was to be witty--humorous without being biting.

      When I was in London studying abroad, we had a couple "re-entry culture shock" seminars where they tried to emphasise the point that nothing will be the same if you return to it.