The Migrant Soul

I am coming back to a
comment, or rather a question, I got on my first post: What is it that
makes us migrants? I am not talking about people who emigrate out of necessity
or in order to survive – to escape war, genocide or economic hardship – but for those who choose to leave their country and go live somewhere
else. I’ve been doing some research recently on expatriation and the reasons that make
people decide to move. The main motives seem to be linked to the search for
professional opportunities or for a better quality of life; the desire to
experience life in another country; and, of course, love J. I understand moving for love; but as far as the
other reasons are concerned, assuming there is no absolute necessity, what is
it that makes us seek another land? Yes, finding a better job or enjoying a
more comfortable lifestyle is great, but then why doesn’t everyone who feels
that need go ahead and move? What gives us that extra push to make it happen?

I believe that personal
history plays a big role. The experiences we have during our formative
childhood years – for example, how much we’ve had to move around – influence
some of the behavioural patterns that we develop. If you’ve had to leave behind your
home and your friends too often, or if you’ve had a couple of unpleasant
experiences like that, you learn not to form strong attachments to people or
places. Someone else in your situation,
however, might instead become really good and really fast at getting to know
people and making friends, because the luxury of time may not be there. Is
there a trigger that makes us go either way? I’m not sure.
Even if you
have not had a very “mobile” childhood, the “bug” of migration may be in your
system. I did not move around as a kid. If you exclude the first four years of
my life that I spent in Africa, the rest of my formative years were spent in a
stable environment: same country, same city, same school, same circle of
friends. Yet, as far as I can remember, I always wanted to live abroad when I
grow up. I wanted to experience other cultures and lifestyles; to get to know
different people; to learn their language. I remember how much I enjoyed the
experience of traveling with my family from a very young age. I loved exploring
new places and immersing myself in another life, even if it was only for a
limited time. As attached as I was to my family and as painful as I found any
kind of separation from them (going away to summer camp for a few weeks was a
huge drama every single time!), I somehow knew that I would end
up living outside my home country – ideally in many different places.

Family played a role
here – which is also part of personal history. It was not just the fact that my
parents gave me a “preview” of what’s out there and a taste for travel early on,
but also the fact that both them were migrants themselves (not by choice, but
still). My mother was born and raised in another country and only moved to
Greece as an adult, while my father went the other direction – he left Greece
when he was a teenager and spent forty
years of his life on another continent and a completely different
culture before moving back. These were my role models, whether consciously or sub-consciously.

Still, I did not have to turn out like this. I
know people with similar personal and family histories who prefer the stability and continuity of building a life, a home, a family in one place to the thrill of exploring new lands. I also know people with “stable”
childhoods and parents with similarly “non-mobile” lives who have decided that
the world is their oyster.
So there must be
something more there. Is it something that we carry within us, like a natural
curiosity or restlessness? Are those personality traits that we are born with
or do we acquire them as a result of our history?
Maybe it is the fact that it
has become so easy to move and to keep alive our bonds with the loved ones we
leave behind, that we hesitate less in taking the plunge?
Or is it that once we
move away from home the first time there is no way back?
Today’s topic is a
little more philosophical than usual, but I look forward to hearing your

P.S. Sure enough, right after I published this post, it occurred to me to look up the title I chose. It turns out that “My Migrant Soul” is a 2001 movie by Yasmine Kabir. Also there is a book by Avi Shafran called “Migrant Soul.” So much for originality J


  1. Galina

    This is an interesting Nature vs Nurture question. Having spent my childhood across three continents, and my adult years living and working in seven countries, my belief is that curiosity is a natural trait. You can stimulate or discourage it in a child, but it is Nature. Adaptability is for the most part Nurture though. Extroverts tend to find their feet a little easier than introverts, but with enough childhood exposure to changing circumstances, and parental support to deal with that, adaptability can be cultivated.

    An adaptable individual will be more likely to take an opportunity to migrate when presented with one, and will likely handle it well. The curious mind though will actively seek out these opportunities and may deal with them well. And the adaptable individual with a curious mind is often the serial offender who keeps seeking out opportunities for migration, international exposure and adventure.

    Every new context, whether a familiar city 100 kilometers away, or a faraway location with an exotic language, forces the ‘Migrant Soul’ to introspection, to find an innate or cultivated ability to find happiness this new environment. It can be an alienating, frustrating and lonely process but there is so much upside to understanding various cultures, learning new languages, and finding your way in a foreign land. The most thankful result to me though is the humility it forces, and the appreciation it gave me for the one country that will always be Home.

  2. Galina,

    Thank you for your insights. Natural curiosity combined with learned adaptability is an interesting way to interpret the "serial mover" phenomenon. I would only add that, although I also believe curiosity is innate, it can be cultivated/strengthened to a great extent by environment and upbringing.

    I like how you describe the process of introspection Migrant Souls go through when moving and the unique opportunities they have access to. You mention an increased appreciation of Home as a result of being a migrant, which is indeed quite common, but so is the opposite reaction – a disillusionment with what used to be Home or a loss of Home altogether.

    I am wondering what drives us in either direction.

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