“When do you think you’ll finally settle down, you know, stop moving around?” It’s a question I get asked a lot, usually from older family members or well meaning acquaintances – head cocked to one side; tone concerned and slightly confused, as though it’s a disturbing question to ask.
I suppose it is. Not having a ‘home’ is unconscionable to many people, and to move countries over and over again…with kids, well that’s a form of insanity.
I live with a compulsion to move. I call it Restless Expat Syndrome (I Googled it, didn’t find much, so I’m claiming it). The ‘S-word’ puts me into a cold sweat. Ssssssettllle. After six international moves, and three kids (each born in a different country) I’m not ready to settle yet.
As a self-analytical sort, I am always asking myself why. Why do I sign up for this over and over again? Why does the thought of chucking it all in and starting over fill me with excitement not dread? Why can’t I settle? Why can’t I just stay put for once?
The easy answer, and the one most commonly assumed is that I have commitment issues. Can’t choose one country and stick to it? Yep, definitely a commitment-phobe…probably an unresolved childhood issue.
The second assumption is that I believe the grass is always greener on the other side. I always want more, better, different. Spoilt expat.
And whilst, sure, I can see how people may reach these assumptions, when I look at them deeply and hold them up against myself, they don’t fit. I have many commitments in my life. My partner, my kids, my writing, a vague running schedule, I actually like commitment. And is the grass really always greener? As fellow expats, you know it’s not that simple, right? With every move you loose as much as you gain. There are trade-offs all round: warmer climate but you don’t speak the language; bigger house but smaller expat community; exotic food but for the love of god why can’t I ever find normal milk?! The grass is rarely greener, but it is always different.
So if my Restless Expat Syndrome doesn’t come from those two things, where does it come from?
How can place attachment make me restless?
Here’s what I know about myself: I am not a natural expat. I had to learn how to move. I don’t leave well. I don’t always welcome change. I’m sentimental about people and places. I connect with my environment, internalize it, and become attached to it. So a few months ago when I listened to author Melody Warnick talk to I Am A Triangle’s Naomi Hattaway about place attachment, bells went off in my head and I started thinking how place attachment could explain my restlessness.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: how can place attachment make me want to move more? But stay with me because there is method to my madness!
OK so starting at the beginning: what is place attachment?
Place attachment is defined broadly as the authentic and emotional bond with an environment that satisfies a fundamental human need. In her book This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, Melody Warnick talks about how places seem to have a personality, a vibe and how some places are a natural fit and some take a bit more work. But whether its instant or crafted over time, the way we connect to a place is driven by our need to feel a sense of belonging.
Taking this a step further, we can also speak of Place Identity which occurs when individuals draw similarities between self and place, and incorporate cognitions about the physical environment (memories, thoughts, values, preferences) into their self definitions. Individuals may connect to a place in the sense that it comes to represent who they are. (Source: an insightful presentation found here).
This is the important part: over time a place comes to represent who we are. Put another way, our identity becomes inextricably linked to the place we live. But because we are complicated beings who respond and react to our environments, often certain countries bring out different elements of our personalities and therefore our identity may differ slightly in each new country we call home. For example, when I lived in Thailand I was more sensitive to remaining calm, saving face, being gentle; when I lived in Istanbul my more aggressive personality traits came to the fore. Not anger aggression, but for example advocating strongly for myself or my son with doctors, being firm with grumpy taxi drivers who’d cheat me in a flash, or people cutting in line at the grocery store. In South Africa I could be my outdoorsy sporty self with trail running and horse riding.
The fundamental question…
So here is my question: if a place comes to represent a part of our identity, what happens when we leave that place? The answer of course is that we leave a piece of ourselves behind with it. That’s how we can be homesick for a place that isn’t our home. It’s a yearning to reconnect with that part of ourselves. And so what happens is that when we think about parts of ourselves, our memories and who we are, we are also thinking of the place with which that part of us is inextricably tied. And for me, when that happens I find myself wanting to be back in that place, back in that time. But what all long-term movers will tell you is that once you’ve closed the door on your life in a particular country, you can never go back, it will never be the same as before you left.
Given this, the next question becomes: how does place attachment to numerous places around the world impact how we conceptualize our present identities?
I personally, still have emotional place attachment long after I’ve physically left a country. And because I connect so deeply to my surroundings (and need to in order to enjoy life there) I can’t detach myself from a place after I leave. This means when I think of a country I’ve lived in I’m automatically recalling a part of my identity. I think over 16 years and 7 countries I believe that I cannot and will not ever be complete in one country. My memories are too scattered, my identity too geographically fragmented. And so I choose to keep moving. Not because I’m searching fruitlessly for the place where I’ll feel most like myself, but because my identity is now bound to not-being-bound. My restlessness is fueled by the fact that I call many places home, and that my identity will always be linked to the place I loved. There just happens to be many of them.
Does any of this resonate with you? How do you find your identity on the move?