The romantic image of the perpetual traveler, carrying nothing but the essentials and a quest for adventure, has lured generations of explorers and expats from home to foreign country. Whether it's the freedom, courage, or resources they seem to have, something about them makes so many of us envious and wanting to follow in their footsteps. But do they really have it that good?
This question came to me in the middle of July when my life had just been completely uprooted. I was lying in an Airbnb bed in Barcelona, reflecting on the fact that I’d visited nearly ten countries the year before, moved from Shanghai (my home for seven years) in December to Bali. Six months later, I dropped my bags in Singapore and headed to Spain. I have to admit, there was a bit of proud warmth in my heels, as if I’d just successfully conquered an obstacle course of arrivals and departures that would challenge any seasoned traveler.
And then I realized I didn’t feel much else. I was numb from all the change. The memories of the whole series of events felt like a movie reel running too quickly across my mind. I couldn’t make much sense of the images, their meaning, or their story. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write. I felt so disoriented.
I spent the next few weeks trying to slow time down in the great traditions of other European travelers. In books, it seems life relaxes with olives and wine, lazy Spanish sunsets and light cheerful chatter. And it does, for a while. But at night, a pit of unease slowly pooled in my stomach. Instead of feeling liberated by my perpetual temporariness, I felt unmoored, like a balloon untied.
So I arrived in Singapore with a determination to come back down. This manifested itself with near desperate eighteen hours days of unpacking, organizing and trying to get my children’s lives set up. Tying knots to the ground gave me some grounding at first, but then I quickly started to feel tangled.
“Maybe we should take a trip to India?” I told my kids one night at bedtime.
But my daughter shook her head, everything on her face expressing the exhaustion I was avoiding. “No. We need to stay put.”
Being seven, all she could was shrug her shoulders and leave me to find words for what she couldn’t.
Over the years and many conversations with fellow expats, a sort of universal pattern of restlessness amongst the perpetually impermanent has started to emerge. There seems to generally be two types – travel restlessness and moving countries restlessness.
The first is fairly simple to soothe. But the second one is tricky. It usually rears its head every three to four years, depending on the location. If the restless expat doesn’t leave, the next milestone seems to be a seven-year itch - a sudden and fervent desire to get out of their host country at all costs. Pass that and a long-term expat can’t help but start to worry she’s no longer the same adventurer she once was. Implicit in all that restlessness is the belief that standing still stunts are personal growth, and motion – a lot of it – hurtles us faster towards our best future selves.
When I finished unpacking in Singapore, I started to have my doubts about this. I crashed hard amongst the things I’ve accumulated across decades of life. I sent the kids to school and watched movies for hours, depressed. As I watched characters plummet and rise in Hollywood plots, I began to realize that despite having taken myself so many places, I hadn’t actually changed or grown that much in a while.
This bummed me out some more, so I went on blind dates with new friends set up by old ones. They were wonderful but didn’t shake my morosity. Over a table of Chindia food in a small Singaporean restaurant, I began to see that my perpetual impermanence was costing me the very thing I thought it would give me – internal insight. It was impossible to see me when I was constantly looking out.
A few more weeks went by like this. My kids settled into new routines and habits. I explored the city and had a few more dinners. Round and round the merry-go-round of “new” went. It was so dizzying that this past Sunday afternoon I decided to take just my daughter out, just the two of us.
We sat down at a café with purple chairs. Manika ordered a warm chocolate muffin. I had a wine. As I tucked into my glass, she sliced through cake and put a bite in her mouth. “mmm,” she said. “So creamy.” She looked delighted and it made me happy for moment.
Then I raised my eyes and stared back into the shopping mall in which we sat. The frenetic lights, music, and activity were distracting, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever not feel that way anymore.
Then Manika, relaxed by the chocolate, started to talk. The subjects flitted about for a while between friends at school, her homework, and her teacher. But the substance beneath was clear. She was telling me about her new connections and these were making her face light up. She concluded with “I think I’m really good at music,” she said. “I want to practice more. Can you help me?”
And that, I realized is what perpetual impermanence doesn’t allow. Going from country to country, temporary life to temporary life is thrilling to the tongue, eyes and stomach, but those senses can be dulled with too much use. To have true inner light, the sort that’s plugged in regardless of where you are, you sometimes need a place to stand still for awhile too, somewhere that can become so familiar that you no longer need to concentrate on the place.
Then your eyes can turn inward, and see whom you probably set out to find in the first place - yourself.