Home in Absence

Kate Goodrum recounts her gap year experiences in Cambodia, and how her sense of perspective on ‘home’ has since changed.

Over the past year or so, I’ve lost a sense of where ‘home’ really is. I embarked on an accidental gap year, went to Cambodia for three months, and returned to the UK to find everything had changed.

I started with no savings and no real idea of what I was going to do for twelve months, and the prospect of organising my life for an entire year was a mammoth task. Coming up with various plans of visiting places and friends was all well and good, but the reality was that I was too disorganised to get a job early enough to fund them. And so I signed up for International Citizen Service, a government-funded volunteering programme for three months, which seemed like it would be relevant to my degree and fill a travel void - but little did I know how it would change things for me when I came 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 to a routine at university wasn’t easy. My time away was rewarding but challenging to say the least.

The host home where I stayed was in a rural, remote part of Cambodia. No one in my new family spoke English (and my Khmer was basic at best), so communication and getting to know the people who had so kindly opened up their home for me was difficult.

And 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 fifteen-minute call home. My attachment to home only grew as the time away went on, and I would count down the days until I’d be back in the UK.

But returning home was not what I had expected. There was a sadness that came with leaving, and the pain of saying a rushed goodbye to a family whom 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 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. 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.

At university, you get asked where ‘home’ is on a weekly basis. I always say Norwich, because people 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. 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, and 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.

Kate Goodrum is a first year Land Economy student at Pembroke.