Existential Migration: Feeling at Home as the Foreigner

Red howler monkey

Jumping red howler monkey. Photo by monkeyboy1.

I could tell it was time to move on. Eight years I had spent working for the same company. It had been good for both me and them, but times were changing. My boss and mentor had been let go, and the business focus of my department was shifting away from my core skill set. I needed to find something new to do.

This is the position I found myself in during the first few months of 2008. I thought about what I wanted to do next, and came up with a number of options, including moving to another division, moving to another company, starting a new career, starting my own business or going back to school. I spent a month musing on my next move. One idea kept coming forward, getting stronger and stronger as the month progressed. In March, about two weeks before I finally made a final decision on what I would do, I decided to create a list of the options and my thoughts on what I should do next. For one of the options, I wrote the following:

I am part of a community of migrants across the globe, searching out situations where they are strangers in strange lands, all so they can feel at home.

Option: Quit job and move to London.
Analysis: Least sensible option, but for some reason this feels important to do.

That’s exactly what I ended up doing. I moved to London without a job, a place to live or any friends, and I’ve spent the last year sometimes struggling and sometimes thriving as I found a job, made some friends and started to understand English culture. People would sometimes ask me why I did moved from Canada, and I would mumble something about “wanting international work experience” or “hoping to miss the recession by moving abroad,” but the truth was I couldn’t really explain the reason why I did it.

I had moved abroad because I felt like it was what I had to do.

Searching for an Explanation

It has always bothered me somewhat that I haven’t had a better explanation to offer of why I moved abroad. Not for others, but for my own sanity. I have always been a very logical, rational person and have always liked to believe that I am in control of my actions. So faced with the realisation that I did something simply because it “felt right” without any logical or rational explanation had bothered me.

Recently, while surfing the internet for expatriate resources, I came across the definition of “existential migration,” and on reading about it, some of that fuzziness about why I picked up and moved started to clear.

Existential migration is “conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner.”

According to Dr. Greg Madison, the Canada-born, England-based psychotherapist and counselling psychologist who coined the term, existential migration is “conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner.” It is different from “economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration” in that it is a chosen move, not driven by economic or political needs.

In developing his theory, Madison held intensive interview sessions with a number of voluntary migrants. These voluntary migrants all, to some degree, said that they felt like they couldn’t have stayed in their home country. They had to go. There was something in them that made them pack up and go. This urge to move was not a result of external compulsion, but due to some internal and unclear motivation. It wasn’t motivated by economic goals like increased standard of living or career advancement. In fact, Madison found that those moving internationally often ended up with a lower standard of living once settled abroad.

Rather, it was a need to live a life that was “self-directed.” By choosing to leave, the migrant has taken control of their life, forcing them to consciously work at daily life, and preventing any slippage into unconscious habit.

For these people, being in a foreign place brings a sense of comfort that they don’t get being at home. For many of them, they always felt like outsiders back in their home towns. Living abroad, they are actually outsiders. By matching their external surroundings to their internal feelings, it allows them to be comfortable with their feelings of being outside. Living abroad allows them to still feel out of place, but at the same time “at home” with that feeling. Being a foreigner allows them to feel as if they both belong and also maintain distance and independence.

The existential migrant – a term which Madison uses reluctantly, as he views existential migration as a process through which people go through, not a persistent condition or pathology to be diagnosed or cured – is a stranger in a strange land. However, they felt like strangers at home, so being a stranger is a “normal” feeling for them. Being abroad brings their external environment into line with their internal feelings.

Madison’s research covers these topics and a number of other topics, including definitions of home, family relationships and the dreaded question “can I ever go home again?” Madison examines the concept of existential migration in varying depths in works available from his website, from a short article to a research paper to a full blown, 70,000 word manuscript called The End of Belonging, currently available for free download. Within the manuscript, in addition to more scholarly works of psychology, Madison mentions some biographies of migrants like Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language and Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home where the authors exhibit some traits of the existential migrant.

Understanding Myself as an Existential Migrant

Reading the material gathered by Madison, and in particular some of the quotes that he had from those who participated in the research, I could certainly see parts of myself in what they were saying. The inexplicable draw to move and the belief that somehow I couldn’t quite live my life the way I wanted back home were feelings that I shared with those in the study, as well as the feeling of being “at home” as the foreigner.

I remember working in Paris back in 2005, a one day journeying with a Muslim co-worker to visit The Great Mosque of Paris. As my friend went in to pray, I wandered around the building, listening to the local Parisian Muslims speaking to each other in French. I remember thinking at that moment how comfortable I was, even though I was about as foreign as I could have been, speaking neither the language nor being part of the religion. I have visited Mosques in Canada, but never felt the same way. In Canada, I always felt like an intruder – I was the “majority” intruding into the space of the “minority.” That visit in Paris, I felt comfortable. As a foreigner, I was an outsider, even though in reality those in the Mosques in Canada and France probably didn’t view my presence there any differently.

Madison’s works have helped me recognize some of the subconscious feelings that I have had over the past few years, and this recognition has allowed me to consciously dissect these feelings. I am able to recognize times when certain “existential” desires like immersing myself in the unfamiliar or the need to jolt myself out of any habitually or mundane behaviours have impacted my decisions.

Reading the work has also helped calm a nagging feeling I have had since moving to London, that perhaps I didn’t go “far enough.” Since arriving, part of me has felt that in choosing to live in London, a place where most of the people look like me and speak my language, I haven’t really fully immersed myself into the foreign. Understanding that what I might be going through is a process, rather than a destination has allowed me to take a much longer view of my journey. London is a step, but the future holds more steps. London is right for now, being here is heading my journey in the right direction, but the journey is far from over.

What Madison’s work doesn’t explain, and perhaps never will be able to explain, is why I and the others he interviewed feel this compulsion to leave and live in the unfamiliar and unknown. Unlike those quoted in the research that Madison undertook, I didn’t feel like an outsider in my homeland. I had friends and was popular throughout my life in Canada, and got along well with my family. Yet, I still felt the desire to leave. I may be able to recognise and logically discuss the existential urges that have driven my migration, but I am no closer to being able to explain why the urges grip me.

I do take some comfort in the knowledge that others out there feel similar urges, though. I don’t know that I am closer to being able to explain my reasoning to my friends, but at least I know I am not alone in what I was feeling. I am part of a community of migrants across the globe, searching out situations where they are strangers in strange lands, all so they can feel at home.

About the author:

Greg Wesson is a business traveller with a penchant for fine beers and finely crafted tales of life on the road. Visit his blog: Greg Wesson's Esoteric Globe.

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Discussion »

  • #1Paola Santos

    Great article Greg! I totally relate to this…I moved from Mexico to the UK 6 years ago, and I have always wondering about the unsettling feeling of wanting to be a foreigner. I think the idea of alignment between feeling as a foreigner at home with being a real foreigner in another country makes a lot of sense.
    Thanks for publishing and looking forward to more of your posts!
    Paola

  • #2Greg Wesson

    Thanks Paola. Nice to hear from other people who went through a similar experience. As someone who is just new to living abroad (just a little over a year), I’m interested to hear from others about their experiences, as maybe it will provide me a glimpse into my future.

    Greg

  • #3Jodi

    Very interesting read, and as a Canadian with a serious wanderlust problem (and years spent living abroad) strangely comforting to know there’s method in our collective madness :) In my experience, settling in to a life abroad is easier if the place is starkly different from the one I knew. So living in a small town in the wetlands of South America was at first a shock, but became easy quickly, whereas getting used to NYC took a lot longer. If you haven’t already, check out Network Canada for Cdn expats in London http://www.networkcanada.org/news/main.asp. Jodi

  • #4UrbanTravelGirl

    Greg, MUCHAS GRACIAS y GRAZIE MILLE for this post!! I am SO with you on the “existential migration” feeling. I’m an African-American woman from Chicago who’s lived in Florence, Italy, and dreams of living abroad again. I always tell people that I’m never more comfortable than when I’m away from home, out of my element. I’ve never understood this, but I am SO glad you and Dr. Madison have given voice and a name to this treasured “affliction.” There’s no rational way to explain my longing for life overseas (except that if there is such a thing as past lives, I spent mine in a Mediterranean country). Keep up the great, thoughtful writing — I’m going to print this post and share it with my family when they wonder what happened to this daughter of theirs! LOL

  • #5Greg Wesson

    Hi Jodi and UrbanTravelGirl!

    Glad to see that others have connected with the concept in the same way I have. The research by Dr. Madison was an interesting read. Some of it didn’t connect with me as much as other parts of it, but on the whole it definitely spoke to me and what I had been feeling.

    Jodi – I have deliberately been avoiding (for the most part) the Canadian expat community, actually. Nothing against them, but right now I am relishing living as a bit of a unique entity in my life – the only Canadian in London I know. Over time I am sure that my longing for Canadian-esque things will bring me closer to those who also share my background, but for now I am enjoying the lack of any connections back to home.

    UrbanTravelGirl – Hopefully my post helps your family understand a little better. If nothing else, its nice to be able to say to your family, “I’m not the only one.” :)

    Cheers,
    Greg

  • #6Milton Wongso

    Hi Greg,

    I can totally relate to you. I am myself an “existential migrant” from Indonesia to Vancouver, Canada. I have been living in this “strange” land for seven years and loving every piece of it. Although a part of myself wonders if Vancouver is the final destination or whether I should go back to Indonesia – the fact of living somewhere else excites every nerve of mine.

    In addition to the excitement of overseas living, I was told once by a fortune teller that my future will be better and better as I move away from my birth land. I don’t buy it 100%. However, I do know that the future of living in a totally strange country is brighter than ever.

    So you are not the only one my friend. Life will just get better :)

  • #7Frugal Expat in Abu Dhabi

    great article. I have been an expat for almost 7 years now.. and I am hoping to move to a new place soon to explore another culture.

    Cheers

  • #8Double existential migrant?

    Interesting article, I can certainly relate to it but my situation is a bit more complicated. I emigrated to Australia when I was a kid but with my asian looks and slightly different accent have always felt like an outsider. Nor am I ‘truly’ Asian since I’ve spent most of my life in Aus. And so now I feel neither a local nor a foreigner in Asia or Australia. I feel an urge to move but where should I go to feel at home at being foreign? Africa?

  • #9Eric

    test comment

  • #10Eric

    another test

  • #11Greg Wesson

    @Double existential migrant – That is a situation that a few people mentioned in the research commented on – that they no longer fit in anywhere, as they don’t fit in completely where they live now, nor would they fit in anymore back in their home country.

    Unfortunately, the reading I’ve read doesn’t provide an answer for you. It is possible that once a person is migrated, they are stuck being a migrant forever.

  • #12ExplorerChica

    Wow…! A friend of mine posted this link to her fb space, and it hit the mark with me so accurately that I am still shocked! :) It’s good to get a scientific explanation to why I always have to pack up and go, and it is a relief to find out that there are others like me as well! :) You mentioned about wondering if you can go home again, and I can share my experience on that. I have just spent the last 3 years back in my home country after some 6 years living in different countries, and it has been weird. I have felt even more outsider here than I did anywhere else, and though it has been nice to see family and friends more, I am now packing up my bag again. This was an experience, not a totally bad one, but I don’t quite see myself coming back home for a while now, possibly never. I enjoy my “home” country more when I am only a visitor. I guess I enjoy life more, when constantly the other foot out of the door. Though that sounds kinda sad, eh? I mean, may I just have commitment issues, and I disquise it as wanderlust…

    Oh well, thanks for the post Greg and happy travels for everyone! :)

    xxx

  • #13Elina

    Thanks a lot for posting this – like the others who have posted a comment, this really hit home with me, as well as a lot of my friends who had the same reaction! As a Finnish person in London, I’ve also long wondered about this, and even talked about it many times with my friends – thanks to you and Dr. Madison we’ve now found an answer! Mind you, I’ve even managed to marry another existential migrant – my British husband says he feels more at home in Finland than he does in the UK… the opposite of me :-) But between us we’ll figure it out!

  • #14Greg Wesson

    @ExplorerChica – You should check out some of the stuff from Dr. Madison’s site, because he talks about people’s ambivalent feelings towards home. He himself tried to move back to Canada after writing his book, but ended up moving back to England.

    Partially, I do think that we perhaps fool ourselves with the “you can always go home again” myth, like there is a safe landing spot there. In reality, in the time we are away the place we came from changes, and so do we. You can never step in the same river twice, for it is always moving, as they say.

    @Elina – Maybe you should pick a place in between the two countries? ;)

  • #15cynthia in the french alps

    Very, very interesting article. I moved to Italy when I was 38 – just sold everything, packed 2 suitcases and 2 cats and got on a plane. I spent 2 years there but had a difficult time of it due to the work issues and no work permit. But I’ve always felt more at home in Italy than anywhere else. Now I live in France – married a Frenchman- and am having a harder time of it since I don’t relate or feel at home in the French culture. It is very different from American culture, esp in the French Alps region. I guess as I get older, community and a sense of belonging becomes more important than what was a priority 12 years ago which was a sense of ‘aliveness’ and adventure. Cynthia in the French Alps

  • #16Melvin Q

    As Mason Cooley said, “Travelers never think that THEY are the foreigners.”

    http://www.quotepotato.com/quotes/travelers-never-think-that-they-are-the-foreigners

  • #17Lee

    A beautiful post. I found myself feeling this amazing sense of connection when I travel for the longest time. I never really understood it until I read this article. Frankly I just feel more like other people when I travel because when Im around strangers travelling, they are strangers to. The immediate sense everyone around you shares something in common makes me feel.. at home. No matter when or where I go somewhere away from home or specifically out of country, Im happy.

    Im curious how long these sensations will last. Its a beautiful feeling indeed being free.

  • #18Greg Wesson

    Seeing as Melvin Q brought up a quote, I will respond in kind. I think it addresses what Lee and the other commenters have said as well.

    “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.” Italo Calvino, Italian journalist and writer

  • #19Kevin

    I go back and forth from Cancun to Miami a lot and feel the same sentiments as the poster.

  • #20Leslie

    A lovely post. I’m living the expat life in Laos and you said it perfectly–I feel most at home now, as a stranger in a increasingly not so strange land. Thank you.

  • #21Cynthia

    Hi Greg!
    This was an interesting post! I sometimes get those feelings of moving somewhere foreign as well, but fear gets to me and I just decide to stay where I am. I currently live in the Bay Area and for some reason I’ve always wanted to live in Canada. Maybe.. SOMEDAY I will go for it and DO IT!

  • #22Amy

    I totally relate to this. I just came back from backpacking through Australia traveling on a 3 month working Visa. I was kinda lost for a little bit when I first got there. By the end I made a community for myself but it was hard. I did however find a backpacking tourism company (I think it was called Travellers Contact Point) that planned my tours so I could go in a group and that made me feel a little less lonely. Especially because you wind up traveling with other foreigners. They also picked me up from the airport with a personalized welcome packet, which was pretty cool. I recommend doing something like that and if you choose to go to Australia like me on the working Visa look them up. They were really helpful ;-)

  • #23Heather GG

    So there is a name for what I’ve felt since I was a little girl! Thanks for writing this and the links to Madison’s work. Will be doing much reading/research. I couldn’t stop nodding my head as I read Pico Iyer’s Global Souls, I’m sure I’ll feel the same about existential migration.

  • #24Ulyana

    Hi Greg,

    Your post has been really helpful!Can’t thank you enough. I’m going through a very unpleasant phase AGAIN being at home and feeling as foreign as it could possibly be, getting irritated with myself for not being able to appreciate anything at my home town,my parents house and questioning again why I can not be like others?

    And I know I have been feeling myself forever like that, and nobody understood me around. I’m from a small Russian town in the Far East, and I have been studing in Japan for the last 4 years, traveled to other countries and I feel home there, in Kyoto, among other foreigners much better than in Russia. Now I’m on vacations at my parents house and I’m going nuts, feeling insecure and unhappy..And cant wait when I go back to Japan.

    But inside of me I dont want to feel like that anymore, I’m so tired. I am asking myself how long this could possibly last?I’m 28 already, I feel the more I live abroad the more it would be difficult to go back. And the thought itself gives me too much frustration…Although I know when I go back to my international students life I would feel good again, but that feeling of rejection of my hometown stays, and some kind of guilt of not being able to explain to my parents why I cant except the life in the homeland. They just dont understand, they feel home and happy where they used to. I guess I should just stop feeling bad about not feeling “at home” in my homeland.

    Thanks for the article again!

  • #25Twin

    Hi Greg. Wow, you really opened my eyes. I am originally from Canada but I have been living abroad for the past 22 years. Finally I have a name that goes with my disease “existential migration”. I thought that I was just strange and I could never understand my desire to be so far away from such a wonderful country. I never had anything against Canada…heck, I’m proud to be Canadian. I just felt that I never fit in. My mother moved us to many different houses while we were growing up and I went to many many different schools. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I found it so easy just to pack up and leave Canada. I started in the Dom Rep, moved from there to Greece, then to Egypt and I found myself 4 years in Cyprus before moving to Mexico. I have been in Mexico for the past 14 years and my two kids were born here. I am now seriously considering moving back to Canada next summer. I am not fooling myself to believing that I am moving “back home”. No such thing. I am moving to a place that I do not belong. I want my kids to be able to experience what it’s like to grow up in Canada. Funny, it’s harder for me to return to Canada than to pack up and move to , let’s say Belize.
    Thanks for your very interesting blog.

  • #26Greg Wesson

    Thanks to all that have commented recently, and glad to know that people are connecting with the article. As an update, it has been very comforting to be able to put a name to my desire to move away, even though much like Twin I never had anything against my homeland (also Canada). Knowing that this is a journey I am undertaking has allowed me to view it with a more long term view, and I can allow myself to enjoy the trip.

    Heather GG – I have also recently read Global Souls. I enjoyed the book, though I found the last couple of chapters a bit confused. But the parts on LAX, Hong Kong and Toronto were very good, and I found a lot to connect with in the book.

    Cheers,
    Greg

  • #27Sarah

    Thanks Greg,
    I’ve moved from Holland to Canada I still don’t know why.I had a lot of friends and a great appartment back home and I’m stil not sure what I’m doing here. Maybe it’ll be more clear within a couple of months, cause I’ve only been here 6 weeks :)

  • #28Sioux

    so greg, where did you grow up? what ages? have you done reading up on tck’s and atck’s? what are your thoughts on how your experience compares to those of tck’s and atck’s? also, how do you think that existential migration and your experience if it is that or something else are different from wanderlust?

  • #29Greg Wesson

    Hey Sioux – I grew up in Canada, and never really moved much. I am definitely not a third-culture kid (TCK), and never really had any interest in travel until I was in my 30s.

    I think the difference between my need to move (probably existential migration) and wanderlust is that my need to migrate is to leave my home, but stay in some other place. I am in London and have been for the past 3 years, and am not interested in moving any time soon. I think if I was suffering from wanderlust, I’d be wanting to move on by now (if I hadn’t already). My migration need is to move some place else, and settle in a culture, rather than to keep moving on.

  • #30Katia Novet Saint-Lot

    This is the first time I read something that explains so precisely how I feel. A have a French father, a Spanish mother, which always made me feel different. And I loved it. I’m not a TCK. I was born and grew up in France. But I always dreamed of traveling and living abroad. As soon as I was able to, I felt for London (did not speak a word of English at the time). And then, I went to the US. I did go back to France for 3 years in my late twenties, but I just wasn’t happy there. I traveled some more and eventually moved to New York City. I lived there 7 years and loved it. I met my husband there (he’s Haitian) and works for UNICEF. In the past 11 years, we’ve lived in Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, and we have two daughters who are TCKs. I wouldn’t say everything is perfect in my life, but if there is one thing I wouldn’t change, it’s our moving every few years, starting over in a new country. I just love it. A few years back, though I had a funny experience in India. We’d been there for 3 years and I started getting antsy. I had this deep uneasy feeling deep inside my gut. One day, I realized it was the first time in at least two decades that I had lived in the same place more than three years. As soon as I realized that, the feeling went away. I loved India. I loved my house there. I didn’t want to move. But I was so used to it being that way, something didn’t feel right anymore. Anyway, thanks for introducing Madison’s work to me. I’m going to explore his website, now.

  • #31Elle B

    Wow – Loved your article! That’s exactly how I feel. I was born in Asia and after graduating from University – I moved out of my country and finally settled in Canada. I love Canada – this is my home now! However, every now and then – my itchy feet is at it again. After been around all over Asia, Middle East and part of South and North America, I’m always wondering where other places I should be… I will definitely will travel again. Just like how you described being at home at foreign land.

    Thanks for a great read!
    Cheers

  • #32Christian Rene Friborg

    This is a really great article. And I especially agree with this part:

    “I could tell it was time to move on. Eight years I had spent working for the same company. It had been good for both me and them, but times were changing. My boss and mentor had been let go, and the business focus of my department was shifting away from my core skill set. I needed to find something new to do.”

    I had the same feeling when I left my old work two years ago. I knew it was time to find another job when the business venture is deviating away from what I initially signed up for. I know I made the right decision leaving the company, and so far, I’m enjoying what I do now.

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