I believe that the notions of expatriation, immigration, and borderless travel are hardly surprising to anyone nowadays. Globalization has established cross-cultural mobility as a necessity for multinational companies, as an expectation for potential global employees, as a widely used and recognized organizational and educational practice, and as a normal transition within many different life events. We redefine the meaning of ‘home’, we think beyond and across borders, and we start taking relocations for granted. Yet, a recent post in the New York Times blog takes a more timeless and philosophical approach towards leaving one’s home, towards exiles.
In her thoughtful post, Costica Bradatan, an associate professor at Texas Tech University, says that to live is to put down roots, while to exile is to get uprooted. I would largely agree with such a metaphor. Indeed, our environment shapes us, and the longer we stay in one place, the more the place ‘grows’ into us. We see and understand the world through the lens of a specific culture and language we got used to (or we got raised into); we construct our daily lives out of the people, activities, places, rules and customs that we have access to; finally, we limit the world to create our own world, which is familiar, stable and comfortable. As psychologists agree, humans don’t like ambiguities and uncertainty, which is why we put our roots down, grow into a place, and create familiarity.
Moreover, as Bradatan argues, this familiarity is exactly the reason why we stop seeing anything – it blinds us. In other words, the more comfortable and familiar we are with the world we live in, the less curious we are, the less we notice, and the less we experience. Being in our comfort zone and going through our daily routines, we stop being alert, our mind is not that curious anymore, and our senses are in sleep mode. It seems that the principle works really well with smaller things in our daily lives: just think how much more you notice, and hence appreciate, the smell of fresh air after you had to stay indoors sick for a couple of weeks; or how much more pleasant the quietness of your home is after a vacation spent with a large family. We notice the fresh air and the quietness only when they stop being constant, and thus familiar to us.
Now, going away from one’s home, becoming an exile is like an earthquake, which turns everything upside down. On one hand becoming uprooted may naturally hurt, as you are left without any ground to stand on, the old world vanishes, and everything that has ‘grown’ into you is torn out. Yet, as the blog post claims, exile is a blessing in disguise. The blessing of exile is in regaining the gift of sight and the curiosity of mind. As the author puts it, ‘you gain new eyes when you loose everything’. Yet, it is not just about seeing more, it is about realizing that the story you knew about the world is not the only one, that you can make up new stories, that you can construct, reconstruct and deconstruct the world within and around you.
Being an exile myself, I think this is a very fitting description of the experiences and many opportunities that come with relocating abroad. It is the short time between getting uprooted and putting one’s roots down again that we change, adapt, tear down, and build the new, more versatile story of the world that we live in.