The word “nostalgia” was invented by a Swiss psychologist to describe the situation of Swiss soldiers sent away from Switzerland. It didn’t mean originally what it means to us today. And today, from the prompt, I learn another word for this feeling of homesickness, “Hiraeth,” the opposite of wanderlust. It’s a yearning to go home.
As a young person I never felt “hiraeth.” I just wanted to get AWAY from Denver and OUT THERE into the world. Money was the big problem. When I succeeded in getting a teaching job in China, I very seldom felt “hiraeth.” I was learning something every single day, I had good friendships, and I was teaching. I seldom felt anything like homesickness
One day, though, the yearning for home hit me like a potato truck. I was grading papers in the penetrating cold of the tropics (that is NOT a joke). I was wearing a turtleneck, a wool sweater and my “landlord’s” jacket — a silk padded jacket of the old style. Very warm, very light, very beautiful. I was wearing long underwear, corduroy pants and wool socks, a little wool tam o’shanter on my head. No, it never got down to freezing, but it got within a few degrees. The apartment wasn’t heated. The windows didn’t seal shut. It rained every day for four months, and the concrete walls drank in the humidity. I had paper rolled around my pen because my fingers were too cold to hold the pen’s narrow shaft, and there was no way to grade papers with gloves on (you can read the metaphor there, too…). A hot shower would have been nice, but there was no hot water except that in our thermos bottles of drinking water or what we might heat in a bucket on our two-burner propane stove. Most of the winter, the Good-X and I just stayed in the kitchen because the stove was there. We could put a kettle on and have a little warmth.
My students thought we were crazy. In their minds — and their world — the kitchen was a nasty, evil, vermin-ridden place. They weren’t wrong, but ours was free of rats, anyway, though the fight against cockroaches continued throughout the year (hopeless).
In a word, it was miserable.
That chilly, rainy Sunday, a stack of papers in front of me, the boombox in the living blasting (well, playing) the Hong Kong radio station which was in English, I was immersed in reading essays from my fourth year students. They were in the middle of the poetry unit of our American literature survey, and had written papers on one of Stephen Crane’s poems. Some of them had chosen to illustrate the poem as well as write an analysis about it, so I had a small selection of amazing drawings to go with their beautiful written work. I was alone, peacefully writing comments when, from the radio in the living room…
I cried and cried and cried and cried.