I was born and raised in India. I’ve studied in three different countries, worked in four and my home is an Indo-German space in Denmark. I speak four languages fluently, none of them native to the country I currently live in. I really like my life in Denmark and I love my German family, but my citizenship is still Indian with no intention to change it. While I would love to say this is something unique, in today’s global world, it simply is not. Most days, I do not consider my life to be shattering people’s worldviews. However, every once in a while I am met with curiosity and on some rare occasions with pity when people learn about my seemingly nomadic life.
So on behalf of the many people I know who have led multiple lives and grown into richer versions of themselves because they choose to move, this post starts with some assumption-busting. First, most people have choices. Second, immigration being entirely a result of larger world events is a pretty outdated view. None of my decisions were fleeing a horrible fate or from a lack of agency. Third, moving around is a very common truth for a lot of people in science. In this aspect, the insights and benefits we gain from being world citizens are similar to jobs that require you to travel a lot (did 10 year old you want to be a travel and food journalist?) or that couple you know who is always on the road. A food journalist that had only eaten one cuisine would be terrible at their job just like a researcher that had only worked in one lab would not be sought after in an international world. The kinds of moves that scientists make though is dissimilar from this romanticized view of a nomadic life because it is not nomadic. When you move to a place, even for a few years at a time, that place is your home, ideally your comfort zone, for that time period. An important skill to have then, is to carry your home in your heart and project and create it where you choose to live.
The costs that come with a move are obvious to all. You leave behind familiarity – of people, of streets, of your favourite take-out joint. You start on a clean slate not knowing what new problems will come your way. Looking from the outside, it almost feels to be not worth it. For some people, maybe it really isn’t worth it. For others, it brings a very interesting outlook to life. Having walked the walk, allow me to outline some things us scientific wanderers do bond over – all the ways in which having called many places your home adds to your personality and life and perceptions.
1. You have a realistic world view
When we live in a community long enough, the community provides us with constructs to live by. This included worldviews, ideal of right and wrong, morals that uphold community members. When we move to a different community, some of these get challenged. There may be a new integration process requiring you to alter existing worldviews. Every time you do this, it presents an opportunity to alter your beliefs a little bit, it forces you to ask you why the views exist in the first place; for you as an individual but also the community at large. Most people I know who’ve had to think about different perspectives in varying contexts, are more empathetic people. They can easily come up with alternate explanations for why people would choose to act in a way different to theirs. They are more likely to ask questions, assuming they are missing information and as a result have a more holistic, inclusive, and in my eyes more realistic world views.
2. Introspection is second nature to you
A side effect of constantly meeting views different to the ones you grew up with is the need to introspect. If you moved once and had to do this once, that’s already a good start. After a few years though, this new life becomes habitual, till something stirs it again. To constantly do this is exhausting, but also sets a different pattern and habit in motion – the one of constant introspection. If you work in an international context (like most people from science do), with every new life change and career step, you are forced to reevaluate your own beliefs in a different context. It is a bit like Marie Kondo-ing your brain, and getting rid of what no longer serves you. Of course, this happens to everyone to some extent, but a few things are triggers bigger than physically moving to a geographical location very different to the present one.
3. You can adapt
Have you ever tried eating food from a cuisine different to yours? Have you ever tried communicating something to someone who did not speak the same language? You may associate these novel feelings with a fun vacation that makes for exciting stories after. But what if this was everyday life? What if these experiences of miscommunications and misunderstandings were in an important office meeting rather than over a bakery counter? What if the results of these cultural differences were not reaching the wrong address but a bad salary negotiation affecting the next 3 years of your life? Chances are if you’ve done this often, you learn to adapt to many different styles of communications – verbal and non-verbal. You understand a lot of information under the fold and you start to use ambiguities to your advantage.
4. You understand privilege differently
You understand privilege as something that can actually be lost, taken away, if the context changes. The first time anyone moves, whether for a semester abroad, a gap year or work, is the first time they have to deal with a lack of everything that made their life comfortable till that day and deal with a new set of problems. This is true of every subsequent move till you lose some and gain some with every move, every change. Every decision towards a desirable something also comes with a loss of something else.
5. You fit in more often than you feel like an outsider
My current job requires me to travel a lot. It made me realise that I fit in, in more places than I’ve actually lived in because of the similarity of places and people on a global level. There are many different cultures, geographically far away from each other that still share the same values. There are accents that are understandable because of other languages I speak, even if I don’t speak the language of the person in front of me. There are fewer and fewer instances that are culture shocks to me, and more situations that are a familiar callback to another life experience. While this realisation is relatively recent to me, I have heard of similar experiences of finding yourself in familiar waters in a new space from other people as well.
If you are someone who has made their fair share of geographical changes and lived their very normal scientific – nomadic life, remember you gain a lot from it. The next time someone says you are not stable enough, that your relationships are futile and that you’ll never know true joy, raise that skeptical brow and remember that you are probably more stable in your global worldview encompassing many viewpoints, that you’ve introspected more about stability in an ever changing context on a daily basis for years, that you’ve lived through and experienced stability in miscommunications, and you recognise that the grass is never greener on the other side. You just choose a version of green you like. That is the important bit – the choice . If you’ve experienced many different versions of your life, you can choose which version you’d like to keep.
Features art from Tolerance to Ambiguity