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Entries about migration experiences

Feeling at Home as the Foreigner: Existential Migration

An examination of the concept of Existential Migration, different from other forms of migration because it is a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner

Originally published on travelblogs.com

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:

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.

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.

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: Jetlag, shopping malls and the search for home where the authors exhibit some traits of the 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.

Posted by GregW 03:18 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged travel_philosophy migration_experiences migration_philosophy existential_migration Comments (0)

Monkeys With Suitcases: The Biological Imperative To Travel

Originally published on travelblogs.com.

About 40 million years ago, somewhere in East Africa, there was a stand of trees that was home to a number of tree-dwelling prosimians. A prosimian would look to us very much like monkey, so let’s called them “monkeys” for simplicities sake.


One of these monkeys, George was trying to enjoy a gin and tonic after a hard day at the food processing plant. George brought the glass to his lips, only to be startled by a sudden blast of loud bass-n-drum music from the branch above. Frustrated, George grabbed the broom from the closest, and started banging on the underside of the branch above his.

“Will you kids keep it down? I’ve just spent the last 8 hours digging termites out of a rotting branch with a stick, and now I just want to relax with some PEACE and QUIET!”

The monkeys on the branch above turned up their stereo amongst a throng of giggles. George sighed and retreated to his comfy chair, downing his G & T in one gulp. Looking up he saw his wife Estelle, looking sympathetically at George as she brought him another drink.

Taking the glass, George said to his wife, “you know, this tree is getting way too crowded. We should think about moving.”

Estelle shook her head, “come on now George, we can’t afford to move, not on your salary at the plant. Real estate prices are outrageous nowadays. Why, I just heard from Norma-Rae today that a branch on the lower levels of that small Baobab tree over on Banana Boulevard just went for eight-hundred thousand. It was on the lower level, like the second branch from the ground.”

George downed his second gin and tonic and stood up. “You’re right, it isn’t just this tree that’s too crowded. It is this whole forest. We should move away, somewhere else…”

Estelle raised her simian eyebrow, “where to George, there aren’t any other stands of trees close to here.”

George looked out at the wide, grassy plains. “What about the plains?”

Estelle rolled her big, brown eyes. “No more gin for you, you are talking crazy now.”

“No, I’m serious. Why not? Look down there. It’s wide open space. There isn’t another monkey in sight. Why, we’d have the whole place to ourselves.”

“There are LIONS down there, George.”

“That’s no problem, we can outsmart a dumb cat any day. If we stand up on our legs instead of scampering around on all fours, we can see the lions coming over the top of the grass. And that would leave our hands free to throw rocks at the lions. See, it all makes perfect sense.”

Estelle looked at George, unsure, but she saw that he was serious. Her mind raced. Should she? Sure, it was dangerous, and her mother would call her crazy, but think of the adventure. George was right, there was a lot of open space out there beyond this stand of trees. “Alright, let’s do it,” she finally said.

And so, George and Estelle set out, down the trunk of their old tree home and out onto the Serengeti plains and into the wide world, just one example in what is a long line of intrepid travellers stretching to the present day that have helped spread us humans around this world.


The first fish that said, “sure, it isn’t water, but I bet I could use these flippers to move around on dry ground.” Those early humans from Africa, who kept heading north, thinking to themselves, “yeah, Europe looks cold, but I think we could make a life of it there, we could grow blond hair and call ourselves Swedes!” Those folks standing on the shores of south-east Asia who would eventually become Polynesians, saying to their friends “hey, let’s hollow out this log, throw some plants and animals in here and hit the Pacific Ocean. There has to be something out there.”

It is in our genes, in our genetic code, to be explorers, adventurers and travellers. As life has evolved from the primordial ooze to the wide diversity that exists on our little blue-green rock today, at every step the beings that eventual evolved into us where the ones that got out there, took the chance and made a move. We are chance-takers by genetic necessity. If we weren’t, we would have died out, or evolved into something very different, like rhesus monkeys, sheep or catfish. Overall in evolution, survival of the fittest might rule, but when it comes to human evolution, it is survival of the most likely to pack a change of underwear, a toothbrush and take off down the road.


Some might argue that the time has come for us to settle down. We’ve spread all over the world and made large, unmoveable cities in many places. There is no where left on the earth to colonize, so why keep moving

I would counter-argue that now more than ever we should be on the move. In an age when differences between two groups of people can break out into full-scale thermo-nuclear war, getting to know our neighbours around the world seems like a good thing. We are less likely to bomb them, and they less likely to bomb us if they know us, I would hope.

Further, in an age when we humans appear to be using up the resources of the earth faster than the earth is replenishing it, maybe we need to keep looking for new places to live. There seems to be lots of empty real estate on Mars, or at the bottom of the ocean. Sure, it may seem far fetched and impossible, but that’s probably what all the other fish said to that first one that proposed scampering up onto dry land.


So I for one will keep on travelling, and if anyone asks why, I will say “to evolve as a person, and to evolve our species. I travel because it is what we are genetically born to do. It is my biological imperative.”

Now all I need to do is convince my next employer to give me a couple of extra weeks vacation. You know, for the good of the species.

Posted by GregW 03:13 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged travel_philosophy migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (0)

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