The Commodification of Homesickness: A Gift and a Curse

By Will Whitehurst

Homesickness was first thought of as a disease before it acquired its formal definition today. People thought that if an individual was experiencing homesickness they had a problem that needed to be fixed. It was thought that homesickness held people back from traveling the world, finding better opportunities, and maximize their human capital. Furthermore, the media would instill in the population that homesickness hindered men from leaving home, becoming strong independent individuals, and that being homesick shows weakness. For example, if a man was in the military and he showed signs of homesickness, he may be heckled and thought that he was not fit to complete his mission. In Homesickness: An American History, by Susan J. Matt, she explains how the media portrayed homesickness. She notes, “One sign of this anxiety was the attention that newspapers paid to the problem of homesickness, often publishing dramatic accounts of the sad fates of melancholy migrants” (Matt, Kindle Locations 851-853). With this kind of media publicity, it is no wonder why migrants were fearful of leaving home and believed that they were doing something wrong when they did so. Matt notes multiple newspapers that told a multitude of negative accounts of people who were apparently plagued by homesickness. There was a story about a Portuguese boy who threw himself overboard off of a ship while migrating in hopes to find a ship back home. There were also other tales that newspapers mainly focused on, like homesickness prompting suicides. She notes, “For example…In 1819, on a voyage from Africa to Guadeloupe, many of the slaves onboard began to suffer from disease…many of those Negroes, affected with Nostalgia (that is a passionate desire to revisit their native land), threw themselves into the sea, locked in each other’s arms” (Matt, Kindle Locations 859-862). It is very interesting to think about why newspapers and the media wanted to link homesickness with such negative connotations, and when the tide finally changed for homesickness to become something one cherished.

The commodification of homesickness is where it all began. Matt states, “Entrepreneurial immigrants were the first to pay attention to the market opportunities that homesickness represented. They found there was a substantial profit to be made by selling the sights and tastes of home to their fellow immigrants who hungered for them” (Matt, Kindle Locations 3283-3284). Once people realized that they can profit off of this feeling, homesickness became something that one could delve into and enjoy. An advantage that commodifying homesickness provides is the exposure of other cultures through letting them practice parades and rituals for the American population. Instead of thinking of homesickness as a disease or a curse, people now think of homesickness as a feeling, closely related to nostalgia, that gives an individual a bittersweet feeling and a longing for someone or something of the past. It is important to note that homesickness depends on the individual and it is solely a subjective feeling that can effect anyone in a number of different ways. Therefore, although homesickness changed from being a curse to a gift because of commodification, homesickness is still a subjective feeling that can give positive and negative effects based on the individual.

“The night before my eye operation, I was restless, and couldn’t fall asleep. I kept imagining what it would be like to see again. I would be able to see beautiful flowers, dappled colors of butterflies, and golden leaves of different trees, when they turn in the fall. I would be able to see the faces of all my friends, especially the man I love. The moment I could see, I would be so happy that my feet would never touch the ground. Night finally fell upon me, I closed my eyes. Like a moving picture, I saw my village standing alone under the vast oriental sky surrounded by acres and acres of farming land. The name of my village is Xuan-Canh.” (Chapter 1, Page 1)

“At the beginning, the French soldiers were raiding the village once a week, then twice a week. As the days went by, they came back more often. The situation was getting worse. They were not only searching for the Viet Cong, but they destroyed the property, and killed the animals maliciously. When the people returned home after the soldiers left, they found rice thrown on the ground, and parts of the animals were scattered everywhere. They had a big mess to clean up. Since the people were living in fear, they began to think about fleeing from the village. By the end of November, most of the villagers had left. Some moved to other villages far from home; some of them moved into the city where peace was found.” (Chapter 2, Page 19)

Excerpts from “Miles From Home,” 1948.

I chose these two quotes out of the book Miles From Home, by Anna Kim-Lan McCauley, because it supports my main claim that homesickness is a subjective feeling that can effect an individual in a number of different ways. In the first quote, the author is writing in first person speaking about how she felt the night before she was going to undergo an eye operation. It is usually in times like these, times when you are going through something drastic, that one tends to do a lot of thinking and start to long for things that make them happy and comfortable. McCauley starts talking about how much she wants to see her friends, her significant other, and longs for her home village which she describes in great detail. This type of longing is in a positive light and she is using this as a motivation to get through her operation. On the contrary, the second quote warrants a negative feeling when thinking about home. French soldiers used to raid a village that the author lived by, destroying property and killing animals maliciously. When villagers returned home, they would see the parts of animals scattered everywhere. They literally had to live in their home in fear. This is why when these villagers have negative feelings when it comes to homesickness and will always feel differently than someone who did not have to go through the same thing.

“Traditional Chinese festivals provided other occasions where the community gathered together to celebrate. The Chinese in California continued to observe the lunar New Year in the traditional manner. This important festival was celebrated with elaborate display and plenty of exuberance. Songs, music, and theater were regular leisure activities in the community. Chinese theater was an important cultural event…The Chinese American community availed themselves of traditional medicine as did others. The Chinese understanding of plants used for medicinal purposes was an important component of how society treat injury and disease in the 19th century American west.”

Excerpt from “The Chinese in California,” 1850-1925.

I chose to use this excerpt from The Library of Congress because it relates very well to my assessment that through the commodification of homesickness, the American population was exposed to many different cultures such as the Chinese culture that was spread in California. The excerpt highlights the gathering of people to celebrate this vibrant culture. With songs, music, and theater, the Chinese were not only able to express and enjoy themselves, but they were also able to broaden the cultural horizons of others who may not be of the same culture. Additionally, the exposure of these cultures further advantages the peoples they surround. As stated in the article, the Chinese spread very important medical contributions through their understanding of plants. This example solidifies the fact that the commodification of homesickness helped spread many different cultures throughout America.

“Singing Hymns in the Street,” August 18, 1894. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly

“Singing Hymns in the Street,” August 18, 1894. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly

This visual perfectly supplements my second primary source and one of my points made examining the themes of the textbooks. This is a picture of a Chinese celebration located in Chinatown, Los Angeles, California. This photo of a Chinese musician playing in the middle of the street for a crowd is the exact example of a different culture being spread by migrants throughout America.

“Emigrants Leaving ,” 1874. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly.

“Emigrants Leaving ,” 1874. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly.

I chose to use this photo, from The North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories, because it captures an important time in every immigrant’s life. That moment where they are surrounded by thousands of other frantically scrambling immigrants who are just as curious as the next person as to what direction their lives are about to head in. It is plausible to assume that each and every person in this picture is experiencing some sort of homesickness. Most people are experiencing nervousness and a longing for wanting to go back to the place where they spent all of their lives, while the others are experiencing happiness for escaping a situation that may have been harmful to them or their family. Either way, it is either a positive or negative feeling when thinking back on the place they are leaving and it is interesting to ponder which people are experiencing what feeling. One person in the picture that is easy to read is the little boy directly in the front. The artist, perhaps, could have intended for him to look horrified to capture that look as the main feeling being felt by every immigrant in the photo.

This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.”  A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here:https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/assignments-the-concept-of-home-spring-2013/   

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