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.

On Being a Nomad at Home

People keep asking me how I’m finding it being back home. I’ve yet to come up with a succinct or even coherent answer. I’m all over the map on the subject. It’s great and weird, cold (weather) and warm (people), familiar and foreign. A lot of time I feel both ‘at home’ and like an alien. I’m gliding over past ruts, revisiting old haunts, and carving out new routines in well-known places. Every so often a memory of some past adventure explodes into my thoughts. And then I realize I’ve been smiling to myself on the train like a crazy person.

Sometimes it’s kind of unreal: last week, Alberta was the coldest place on the planet, and a little less than a year ago, I was in the hottest (January in the outback)*.

[*allegedly: weather networks are prone to hyperbole.] 

One of the things I miss the most is the ease of making friends on the road: the quick kindred-ships, the accelerated closeness (spending a week with someone on the road can be like spending a lifetime with them in ‘real life’); how you sometimes spend a whole day with a person and neither of you thinks to exchange names until the very end and you feel closer to them than to any acquaintance back home.

There are many upsides to being at home, too: long-standing friendships, family, the ease and comfort of familiar surroundings (even though I still manage to get myself lost more than I reasonably should). I miss being surrounded by unfamiliar landscapes and languages, but I feel the foreigner here, too, in a way. My experiences have created a gulf between the person the road has shaped me into and the roles I’m re-entering at home.

Sometimes, people seem to regard me differently than they did before, as though travel necessarily makes me certain kind of person. Events that occurred organically and felt natural in context sound outlandish here. I become an armchair entertainer recounting my adventures; there is the subtle but palpable distance between audience and performer. With my closest friends, we’ve picked up where we left off, but there is a section of separateness — a gap in the friendship resume, as it were — hanging between us. Or maybe it’s all in my head. It’s with a particular sadness and projected nostalgia that I note this sense of novelty will wear off and I’ll more fully re-integrate and acclimatize. So much of my identity is tied up in the feeling of ‘foreign-ness’.

There is also a mounting pressure, now that my twenties are coming to an end, to give up my nomadic lifestyle, and get on with the business of ‘settling down’. I have nary an intention to do so — not in the traditional sense, anyway. I worry that my personal eschewing of convention will come across as a broad denigration of it (it is not; different strokes for different folks and all that). Sometimes it feels like I’m telling people I’ve joined a cult. And I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. Reading all of those criticisms of the ‘millennial generation‘ doesn’t help either. But if we’re all shiftless lay-abouts I may as well be one on the road, I reckon.

For the time being, it will appear as though I am settling down — I’ve a job and a place to receive mail and everything. But, internally, I am scheming, dreaming, planning; still a nomad.

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings

An article I wrote for Reach to Teach Recruiting, on the concept of home while traveling abroad:

“For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil, than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”– Pico Iyer

Travellers, vagabonds, backpackers, migrants, nomads, ex-pats, English teachers; whatever you want to call us – those of us for whom the urge to wander is an imperative itching of the soul – number in the thousands, millions even. People living abroad are now the equivalent of the fifth largest nation in the world. The concept of home, then, as it must, becomes transient, too; it is no longer a brick and mortar structure or a flag stuck in the dirt. Rather, we carry it within us and it evolves as we do.

I am Canadian but I was born in Singapore. My parents lived there for a year in 1983-1984, while my father held a post in the oil and gas sector. We moved back to Canada before I was old enough to form memories, but I grew up with a vibrant picture of Singapore in my head. For as long as I can remember, my mother has told me stories of my birthplace: undulating anarchy in the markets, cockroaches the size of dinner plates, and a long standing battle between her and a toucan over the ripening mangoes, jack fruit and papayas in our orchard. My favourite stories are about when she’d take me out shopping. Barely one month old, I’d be sleeping snugly in my stroller, unperturbed by the chaos, and the old Chinese ladies would gather around, and pinch and tickle my feet so that I would open my blue eyes. And they’d coo and laugh over the bald-headed, blue-eyed, white baby.
Twenty-eight years later, luck and years of dreaming and scheming, brought my mother and I to Singapore, together, again. Finally, she could show me my birthplace, and the country that shaped her when she was young and pregnant and newly married.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the “Father of Singapore,” transformed the country during his three decades in power. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and embarked on modernization and urbanization on a large and very successful scale. From 1970 to 1990, Singapore metamorphosed from abandoned colonial outpost to “First World Asian Tiger”.

He did such a good job that when we stepped out of the Changi airport and into the sweet heavy air, my mother found Singapore unrecognizable. It was, she said, like she’d never been to the country before. It’s progressive, expensive, sanitized and generic; it’s the Dubai of Asia. That which had made us unique, our shared history, had been erased and replaced with something too-familiar.

In the Lead

Determined to unearth some vestige of the past, we took a taxi to the neighbourhood we used to live in, in search of our old house. The taxi twisted and looped through the suburban streets like a butterfly dancing with the breeze. The space where she thought our house might have been was now a pristine and behemoth mansion. We got out of the taxi and she peered up and down the streets, searching for something, anything familiar. Unsuccessful, she threw her hands in the air and slumped back into the taxi. Her sadness was my sadness and the whole world’s sadness over lost treasures; a deluge of futile nostalgia. Tom Wolfe was, indeed, correct:“You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except for in the mothballs of memory.” Deep in mothball country, my mother looked out of the taxi’s window at her crushed memories, struggling to integrate this new Singapore in her mind.

We had our patient taxi driver drop us off at Changi Point for lunch at the hawker stands. I walked over to a stall to buy a bottle of water, and was greeted by an ancient gnarled and wiry old Chinese woman, who didn’t speak English – a relic of Singapore’s past. As I handed her the money, she stared at me, boring her rheumy eyes into mine, as though I piqued a long forgotten memory. She reached out and grabbed my chin between her thumb and forefinger, and pulled my face within inches of hers. Our eyes locked for a few pregnant seconds. She smiled, wide and toothless, and her smile radiated through her cloudy eyes. She released my chin, patted my cheek, and I was dismissed. I cradled that moment, and knew that our Singapore still and will always have a place within my soul.
Satay Master