Existential Migration: Feeling at Home as the Foreigner
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.