Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at UMass Amherst. You can find her on Twitter as @bopeepery.
I moved to Amherst, Massachusetts from Manila, Philippines, where I was raised, in the fall of 2013. These two places could not be more different, and yet I call both of these odd places home. In the three and a half years I’ve spent in Amherst and Western Massachusetts, I’ve built a stable network of friends and colleagues who know me well and that I spend significant amounts of time with. I’ve built my routines around the town’s locations and rhythms, and I feel more like a local than a grad student who’s just passing through. And yet, as I write this article during a quick winter break in my Manila, I feel familiarity in the dust and heat of the city, and in the warmth of family dinners and reunions with friends.
This is how I, and many other graduate students from other countries, live: we have two places we call home. Graduate school is hard; graduate school in an unfamiliar country, even harder. We’ve all heard of, and for some of us, have experienced, homesickness – the pain of adjusting and learning how to survive in a foreign country, all the while missing the familiarity of home. However, once we’ve settled in and gotten over the homesickness (which may take anywhere from one month to a couple of semesters, depending on the person), international graduate students face a second challenge: how do we deal with having and maintaining ties to two (or more) countries and cultures?
The cognitive and emotional fracture that comes with living abroad will never quite go away, but, with time and some reflection, it can feel like an asset instead of a hindrance. Below are some strategies I’ve developed in the past three and a half years to feel a little more whole, instead of feeling torn between two worlds.
1. Stay in “touch”
For a long time, I avoided having too much of a presence on Facebook and other social media, especially if it was for the sole purpose of staying in touch with people in the Philippines. I didn’t want to be that grad student who always had her phone in her face and never bothered to talk to people in her program. Besides, talking to friends and family online took up significant amounts of time and energy, and as grad students, we need as much of that to be focused on our studies as possible. However, I slightly regret that detached attitude I used to have toward online contact. I’ve missed out on the opportunity to say happy birthday to acquaintances, and to stay involved with weddings, engagements, births, and other milestones among my friends and family. So, don’t be like me: maximize the Internet! Don’t be shy about dropping people you care about a quick comment or a Like – it’s appreciated.
2. Communicate meaningfully
Think about the modes of communication that you perceive as most heartfelt, and use them! I personally love receiving care packages, handwritten letters, and postcards, and I have resolved to get into the habit of writing more of them. If you’re the digital type, you may want to think about using TinyLetter, which is a personal email list and newsletter service that lets you send essays, letters, poems, slideshows, and other content to subscribers. Bonus: writing TinyLetters is a great way to keep the writing muscles in your brain going – it’s keeping a journal with an audience in mind! I suggest setting a small, realistic, and specific goal that works for your time, energy, and technological capacity, e.g. “I’ll write one TinyLetter of about 500 words every month, and get five friends and family to subscribe.” If you prefer to communicate through handwritten letters, make it easy for yourself: have good quality stationery, postcards, and stamps in your desk so that you’re ready to write when the mood strikes you. This doesn’t have to be expensive either: there’s almost always some stationery on clearance at Target, and at outlet stores like TJMaxx and Marshalls.
3. Take care of your contacts
Having homes in two different countries means two different possibilities for building professional networks. If you have professional contacts or mentors from home, don’t neglect them! Maintain a relationship with them by keeping them apprised of your research, or sending them links to CFPs or conferences that are within your research interests. If you find yourself back in your hometown, or they are visiting your neck of the woods, extend an invitation to lunch or coffee to add a personal touch. These hometown contacts may prove valuable when you’re looking for an external examiner for your dissertation, a collaborator on a project, or a reference for the job market.
4. Engage with the issues
2016 was a rough year for politics in both of the countries that I call home. Both America and the Philippines are dealing with divisive political leadership and an increasingly polarized political scene. To top it off, the Philippines is also dealing with a wave of violent, senseless extrajudicial killings that are constantly popping up on international and Philippine news, as well as my social media feeds. Watching the violence from afar has made me feel incredibly helpless and concerned about the safety of my family and friends. I still struggle with this, but I’ve found great solace in translating that anxiety into my work. Last semester, I wrote a seminar paper on new materialism and the documentation of violence, which gave me the opportunity to read up on current issues with the critical distance required of a researcher. If you’re similarly concerned about larger political and social issues going on in your hometown, consider channeling that worry into something concrete, whether it’s volunteer or service work from abroad, writing towards publication about what’s going on, or even simply setting aside a block of time in your week to read or talk to others about the situation at home.
5. Bring your hometown to your new town
I recommend that you try to create intersections between your homes instead of building borders between them. For me, this has come in the form of actively engaging people who have questions about my hometown and letting my Filipino identity show. Even with the spate of issues plaguing the Philippines right now, nothing makes me happier than answering people’s questions about where I come from. Sharing knowledge about my home is an opportunity for me to translate my background from one context to another. It reminds me that despite the geographical distance, my two homes aren’t so far apart after all, and that connections can be made between them. It’s also great practice for networking at conferences and, for the future, my elevator pitch for job interviews.
Going to graduate school abroad and learning how to live transnationally has made me grow in ways that I’ve never expected. It’s been an opportunity to reflect critically on my (literal and figurative) place in the world, and I consider myself lucky to be studying something I’m passionate about in a great place, and to always have the big, bustling city of Manila waiting for me. Having made a home in two (or more) places can be stressful, but with a few strategies under your belt, being in graduate school abroad can be one of the most rewarding personal and professional experiences you can have.
What strategies have you used to deal with living in two worlds as a grad student? Let us know in the comments!
[Image by Flickr user Jed Schmidt and used under the Creative Commons license.]