Existential Migration

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe.The host for this month is Sharon Couzens. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!

Read the rest of the entries over on Sharon’s blog: TEFL Tips

 

“The feeling of home arises from specific interactions with our surroundings that could potentially occur anywhere, at any time.” 

– Greg Madison

 

Travel is a sort of adolescence, an exploration of self and your relationship to the world. You test boundaries, explore preferences, and differentiate yourself from the place you come from. You build an individual understanding of the world, away from the constrictions and patterns of regular life.

Travel for long enough, and you begin to find the familiar in the foreign. You become accustomed to the rise and fall of languages you can’t understand, like listening to a new song over and over, such that when you return to a country where your native language is spoken, it is strange and somewhat intrusive to understand the conversations of strangers.

Greg Madison, a psychologist from Canada who lives in the UK, studies people who live abroad and coined the term Existential Migration. He defines this way of living as “a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner”. Among this population, he says, there is a marked preference for the strange and foreign over familiar or conventional routines. It follows that a new definition of home is required for these existential migrants, one that lies in experiences and interactions rather than a specific geographical place. As Pico Iyer would say, a piece of soul rather than a piece of soil.

 

My Evolution of Home

The first time I returned home from travelling, it felt like putting on an old pair of jeans that had been crumpled and forgotten in the back of my closet. Familiar but ill-fitting. I brimmed with stories and experiences and the new love glow that comes with discovering a passion. But, at the same time, I felt oddly bereft and unmoored. There was a fissure now, between me and home.

The second time I came home, I knew that it would be temporary, and that allowed me to enjoy the time I had just for what it was. After two years abroad, my identity had become inexorably intertwined with being the foreigner. Even at home, I felt like a foreigner now. I embraced it, and wrapped myself in the feeling of being alien in my own country. And yet, I felt like I was between countries, like being between jobs or houses. I didn’t have much of a home anywhere, just a collection of memories, a weird Australian-Canadian pigeon English, and dreams that were sometimes in Spanish. In my heart, I knew that the change was irrevocable; I’d never be the same.

Reconnecting with childhood friends no longer left me unmoored, rather we delighted in the different paths that each of our lives were on. They listened to my travel stories, and I played with their kids and celebrated their career milestones. Our separateness was not an apartness, but a growing alongside, like the branches of a tree reaching into different parts of the sky.

In India, I explored the art of doing nothing, of sitting in silence and plumbing the space between breaths. And I discovered a new sense of home, stronger than any other, that was curled up within me and accessible any time, anywhere. I started to feel at home in sections of time and shades of emotion. I thought about all the places I’d been and discovered that I’ve been collecting homes all over the world: The caravan I lived in for five months in the outback, the friends I had for only two days in Turkey, the chai I shared with a rickshaw driver outside Varanasi, the sisterhood I found in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the convent in India, my vagabond family at yoga school in Rishikesh, the weekend I spent with my mother in my birth country, Singapore. Far from homelessness, I live in abundance.

I’ve moved to the UK now. I’m sort of hanging up my travelling shoes: getting a job and a place to live and shelves upon which to put my three holey tee shirts; all that regular life stuff. While the transition has been challenging — arriving in Oxford from India was like returning to Earth from Mars — I’m thrilled to be putting down some roots, albeit shallow ones. It’s comforting to know that all I need to go home is a quiet space and the sound of my own breath.

The only constant in life is change. No matter which path you are on, your concept of home will change and evolve as you do. The older we get, the more experiences we have, the more we realize that home isn’t a concrete concept, it is something that we create in ourselves and in our interactions with the world.

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2 thoughts on “Existential Migration

  1. Pingback: Defining the Foreigner: Existential Migration

  2. I’ve only recently learned of “existential migration” and have not read “End of Belonging,” so my familiarity with Madison’s work is limited. However, I’ve read many online articles and readers’ comments on the subject.

    I’m an existential migrant, living as a US ex pat in Mexico for nearly four years. I’ve often wondered why I moved to Mexico, why I left the States, and the conclusion I keep coming back to is I seem to have a need for adventure. I’ve talked with many ex pats and have come to appreciate that we ex pats do share certain traits, e.g., adventurous, in relative good health, curious, open-minded, inquisitive and so on.

    I’m no psychologist or sociologist, but I surmise we migrants are abroad because we cannot fulfill our needs in our home countries. There are ex pats who come to their new countries and never leave (they buy homes and real estate, perhaps start a business), and then there are others who seem to “gather no moss.”

    Nevertheless, I’ve begun to wonder if the same needs could be satisfied in one’s country of origin. For instance, would a white person from the US find similar existential fulfillment, challenges, etc., if he or she “migrated” to a black ghetto or a Latino barrio in the US? Interesting to contemplate.

    I hope others chime in with their comments because this is a huge topic with many perspectives and implications. Thanks for your post and getting the conversation started!

    Like

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