Over the past year or so I feel like I’ve lost a sense of where ‘home’ really is, in some ways. I embarked on an accidental gap year, with no savings and no real idea of what I was going to do for twelve months. Admittedly I’m a bit of a flake, so the need to organise My Whole Actual Life for an entire year was a mammoth task. I came up with various plans of places and friends I wanted to visit, things I wanted to see, but the reality was that I was too disorganised to get a job early enough to fund the funds. And so I signed up for International Citizen Service, a government-funded volunteering programme for three months, which sounded like it would be relevant to my degree and fill a bit of a travel void, but little did I know how it would change things for me when I was back.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed my gap year: it seemed rather dull and disappointing in comparison to stories of my friends travelling the world, and adjusting back into a routine at university wasn’t exactly easy. My time away was rewarding but challenging to say the least. My host home was in a rural, remote area of Cambodia. No one in my new family spoke English, and my Khmer was basic at best, so communication was difficult and it was hard to get to know the people who had so kindly opened their home for me. I was hugely homesick. I saved up $10 a week to buy credit for my second-hand Nokia brick phone that I purchased at a market in Battambang (yes it had snake), all for a 15-minute phone call home. My attachment to home only grew as the time away increased. I counted down the days until I would be back in the UK, wishing away my project.
But returning home was not as I had thought it would be. There was a sadness that came with leaving, and the pain of saying a rushed goodbye to a family I couldn’t quite express my gratitude towards in words. There was the long flight home, and the anti-climax of arriving back in Heathrow. My first sight was the car park. There were no more Asian skies, with palm trees and sunsets. It was grey. It was raining. Walking into my house was odd, everything looked simultaneously the same and different, familiar and unfamiliar. Soon the novelty of home comforts wore off. I was no longer excited to use a bath or a normal toilet, and I soon got used to eating everything possible but rice. My friends and family didn’t understand anything about my time away. I couldn’t describe the sights or sounds of everyday life for the past few months, and it began to feel like a huge part of my life had become separated and compartmentalised.
I lost a sense of what a lot of my friends were doing. Most had settled into their new university towns, dispersed across the country. Others that remained in Norwich had new jobs, new work friends, new priorities. Some younger friends were still at my old sixth form, but I felt more distanced from them than ever before. I’ve always had different friendships groups dotted around the country, but returning home made my friendships feel more fragmented and dispersed than ever. I was hit with reverse culture shock, and was never sure what to say when friends asked “How was Cambodia?” and expected a quick and straightforward answer. It had been difficult to keep in contact with most people whilst I was away. With a drastic time-difference and no personal internet access, I’d only managed to regularly message an ex-boyfriend and a couple of friends by cycling to the one café with WiFi at 6am, our conversations overlapping as they stayed up later and later at university. As my year out came to an end, my life back home had changed. I only kept in touch with a few different people, and this changed my sense of “home”.
At university, you get asked where “home” is on a weekly basis. I always say Norwich, because people probably don’t want a long-winded answer about how you live in a tiny village and actually have to plan out in advance how you will get to and from the nearest city on a daily basis. I’ve always loved Norwich and I’m quick to defend it and tell everyone how amazing it is, but recently I feel like I am becoming less and less connected to it as I spend more and more time away. It’s still so much fun to go back to, and I enjoy catching up with close friends in our usual spots. But my favourite places are becoming increasingly full of new faces. Younger locals fill the cheap pub on a Tuesday Evening, new arts students fill my favourite bar during the warm summery days. The so-called “Cambridge bubble” has again made it harder to keep in contact with lots of people, and so “home” is becoming increasingly a physical place rather than a notion connected to groups of friends and family.