The Big Escape: When the Grass at Home Has Lost Its Green

grassLooking through the literature on cross-cultural travellers, you may notice that the adjustment processes and coping mechanisms across different traveller groups, such as expats, immigrants and international students, are quite similar. Yet, one group of cross-cultural travellers does differ, which is the group of refugees. Like other groups, refugees are confronted with demands of adapting to new life in the host country. Contrary to the other groups though, the main reason of relocation for refugees is usually some sort of crisis situation in their home country, be it war, revolutions or natural disasters. In other words, rather than being ‘pulled’ by attractive features of the host country, refugees are being ‘pushed’ away by threatening circumstances in their own country, i.e. they try to escape from it. These push factors are found to strongly influence the adaptation process of refugees abroad, as it is found that pre-migration factors (e.g. threat, loss) impact refugees’ initial adjustment in refugees more than post-migration factors (e.g. cultural novelty, job satisfaction) (e.g. Chung & Kagawa-Singer, 1993). 

This difference between willingly leaving for something versus escaping from something caught my attention and made me think about its relevance for expat experiences. Although in terms of situational factors, both company and self-initiated expats fall into the category of voluntary and ‘pulled’ migrants, I believe that it might be different when looking at personal factors. What if some expats go abroad to escape something at the personal level? How would that influence their adjustment abroad?

Indeed, many narratives from expatriates (mainly self-initiated expatriates), which I have heard over the course of working with internationally mobile individuals, suggest that some relocate thinking that ‘the grass at home is simply less green’. Specifically, relocation abroad seems to be a solution for feelings of boredom, lack of meaning in life, lack of excitement, difficulties with identifying one’s true self, and an inability to find a passion in life. For example, the World of Expats blog agues that one of the reasons for why Generation Y travels abroad is to find a meaningful life. That reason would be perfectly fine, if only it wouldn’t imply that living a meaningful life is dependent on a location, i.e. it is not possible everywhere. Is this truly so? Or is it rather a question of trying to escape from the process of finding meaning in one’s life, hoping that moving abroad will provide an immediate and painless solution?

I do believe that understanding yourself, finding out what you are passionate about, learning how to appreciate and experience the world around you, and finally managing the ups and downs of life, are the processes and skills that each of us has to undergo and learn at one point in life. Moreover, I strongly believe that the related struggles are not bound to some specific place, and hence they will persist until they are solved no matter to which part of the world you move. Naturally, you may argue that travelling the world may expand your horizon and help to become more self-aware, which I certainly agree with. Yet, my point is that using ‘escape’ motives for relocation is not a solution for dealing with what triggers the escape in the first place. Secondly, going abroad with unsolved personal matters may hinder the adjustment abroad and the experience of relocation.

In line with this last notion, a recent research article by Selmer and Lauring (2012) posits that expatriation as an escape, hence out of ‘refugee’ motives, is a highly emotional decision that is difficult to control. As the scholars put it, ‘it is difficult to predict whether intentions to change or escape one’s previous life and start a new more positive life will succeed – or what exactly should be done to make it more successful’ (p. 670). In other words, if you do not know how to change your life towards a more positive one back at home, how would you know how to do it abroad?

Moreover, the research found that out of all the different expatriation motives (e.g. career advancement, exploration) the ‘refugee’ motives were the only ones to be consistently and negatively related to work performance, work effectiveness, and job satisfaction. Although open to different interpretations, these results may also suggest that escape motives may have a negative impact on an expat’s general adjustment and well-being abroad. Indeed, if escaping from threatening circumstances negatively impacts adjustment of actual refugees, why would escaping from one’s own ‘self’ not have a negative impact on adjustment of expats with ‘refugee’ motives?!

All in all, it is worth looking into the motives of relocating abroad. Speaking metaphorically, an allergy towards the grass at home will not miraculously disappear when stepping on host-country grass. As such, it is worth dealing with your allergies before relocating.


Further reading:

Chung, R. C., & Kagawa-Singer, M. (1993). Predictors of psychological distress among southeast Asian refugees. Social Science & Medicine, 36, 5, 631-9.

Selmer, J. & Lauring, J. (2012). Reasons to expatriate and work outcomes of self-initiated expatriates.  Personnel Review, 41, 5, 665-684.

One thought on “The Big Escape: When the Grass at Home Has Lost Its Green

  1. the concept of economic refugees is one that also interests me. those refugees coming from a country without war but with limited economic opportunities. would be interesting to note that most of these people will list some form of persecution as the reasons for living since economic refugees are not recognized internationally

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