On Existential Migration, Home, Leaving, and Scaring Yourself Silly

One day, not so long ago, when we were still in the exhausting throes of impenetrable visa applications and living out of two battered China Post boxes, partly in my parents’ basement and partly in the little house in the big woods where I grew up (the one heated only by a cast iron wood stove and by the fury of my frenzied baking), the man I recently married posed a rhetorical question that I’ve been trying to answer ever since.



Fixin’ to leave, the Shanghai edition


It went something like this:

What were we thinking when, upon hearing that we were going to have a baby in the new year, we quit our jobs, gave up our flat, sold or gave away most of our possessions, left our friends in Shanghai, and moved halfway around the world (again), with the intention of going on a chronologically and geographically undefined road trip down to Mexico, followed by a vague job search that would land us somewhere in the world just in time for the baby to be born?

And then, in a sudden burst of pragmatism, why did we do an about-turn and decide to move to the UK (where he’s from but where he hasn’t lived in years), with no idea where we would go, where we might live or where there was even work to be had, with just our 30kg luggage allowance worth of possessions to start with?

And why did neither of these options strike us as odd in any way, especially given that your average late-30-something with a  non-accidental baby on the way would generally expect to have a steady job or a flat of their own (with furniture!) or at the very least a city to call home, long before the third trimester hits? My pregnancy app kept nagging me to start decorating the nursery at a time when we didn’t even know where we were going to be in the world in a few months. 

Good questions.

One short answer that he voiced afterward was this: Given who we are, and how we have lived our lives up until now, would we have had it any other way?

Er, no.

Which is why, when Fiona of Nanchang Lu fame posted a link on Facebook to a PhD dissertation by Canadian psychotherapist Greg Madison about something the writer had termed ‘existential migration’, I started thinking about it even more.

The main thrust of it is that some of us leave home because of (and I’ll quote Fiona here because she summarized it more succinctly than I could) ‘a deep and intrinsic existential pull to do so, much deeper than wanderlust or the desire to travel.

Or in thesis man’s words, ‘..these voluntary migrants are seeking greater possibilities for self-actualizing, exploring foreign cultures in order to assess their own identity, and ultimately grappling with issues of home and belonging in the world generally.

If there’s one thing that this year has brought up repeatedly in my thoughts, it’s the intertwined concepts of home, of belonging, of identity. There’s nothing like completely destroying and rebuilding your life, thousands of miles from your homeland and family, to make you think about stuff like that. Throw a rather sudden imminent-kid and husband into the mix (two things that are usually emotionally and intellectually synonymous with stability, groundedness, home) and the thinking becomes a lot more immediate.

One line in the text resonated here: “Migration would be a multifaceted act of self-protection, self-expression, and self-worth: a valuing of my mysterious self, my uncertain life, my being.

In reply to Fiona’s post, there were a number of really thoughtful responses from quite a few people I knew back in China, mostly women who had felt that same irrational tug, that same base need to just get up and leave, to throw themselves into the elsewhere. Some had been compulsively on the move since their early 20s (like me), while others had only recognized (or acknowledged) this need much later in life. What they all expressed was that a life many would find disturbingly unstable, peripheral, lonely, disjointed and just plain old frightening had fulfilled something very intangibly necessary inside them.

A repeated theme was: I had no choice. It had to be this way.

This was my eventual reply, written after reading and thinking about the others’ reactions:

One thing I keep coming back to in my own expattery (and which also links to my choices in friends and partners, strangely enough) is that I am better able to see myself for who I really am only when placed in juxtaposition with somewhere (or someone) which is in many key ways very different to me. Places that force me to bring out aspects of myself that I am maybe reluctant to acknowledge or develop or which I wasn’t even aware of.

I noticed this most when I went home to Canada for 3 months this autumn, waiting for my UK visa to be processed. I found myself retreating inwardly, the lack of external friction or challenge allowing me to slip into a very pleasant but slightly dreamy velvet rut. By the second month, I started having little daydreams about getting an easy little job and a nice little house and slipping into small town Canadian rhythms for the next, oh, 40 years…. Nothing would ever have to change and there was no momentum to force it to.

Recently, I have been rereading old (2004-2009) journal entries from my Turkey/leaving Turkey era and there was constant daily stress, constant invasion of personal space, of personal values and desires, but it all seemed to push me forward toward creating a more clearly defined self than the soft easiness of home ever could. I’m thinking metaphors like oysters making pearls by reacting to the irritation of invasive bits, or diamonds not being able to be polished with just a soft cloth.

The places I’ve been propelling myself into for the past 20 years have all irritated the hell out of me, but have also inspired me and brought out aspects that I never knew existed. Same with my friends and chosen loved ones- I choose to surround myself with non complacent, often difficult, demanding, inspiring people who have high expectations of themselves and of others. No velvet rut allowed.



I still have no idea what I’m doing


We’ve got a baby coming in about 10 weeks and there’s still no nursery on the horizon.  About two weeks ago, we flew into Gatwick airport with just our allotted 30kg of luggage and no real defined idea of what would come next. Now that we are temporarily nestled gently in the folds of rural Leicestershire’s rolling hills and narrow hedgerow’d lanes and quiet village sensibilities, preparing for the next version of our lives (the one with a flat, furniture, a job, a baby, and -for me- a newish city in a sort of new country), I find myself absently thinking ahead of myself, looking beyond the immediate future and immediate surroundings, wondering, where’s next? Who will I get to be after this?

Force of habit, I suppose.

For now, I’m busy looking around me to see what pearls can be formed here that couldn’t be formed in any of my previous homes. The possibilities are out there and it’s rather exciting.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.