“I want to drive into the sunrise.”
Years ago, when I was living in Seattle, commuting every day to a comfortable desk job in the eastside, I used to mutter this half-jokingly to my carpool companion. This must have seemed to her not just wistful and slightly pathetic but incredibly dramatic, as we were usually staring directly into a glorious sunrise, a brilliant blaze that lit up the ubiquitous Seattle clouds vibrant hues of grapefruit and pink lemonade. My coworker would coo as if soothing a cranky baby and gently whisper, “It will be okay.”
But it wasn’t. I just wasn’t satisfied there. So, one day I did go into that sunrise. I went further and further east until I reached Europe.
I never regretted it.
About every three or four years, I feel a strong desire to uproot myself, not just move to a different part of the city, but a different part of the country or the world. Those glorious sunrises and sunsets beckon to me. I change homes nearly every four years, not counting my travels, I have resided in eight cities and three different countries.
But moving is not something I’ve always loved, it’s something I’ve become accustomed to. When my parents emigrated from the Philippines to the US, they believed they had found a better, safer, more economically stable new homeland for us. With their life savings they bought an old brick house with a large garden in a then idyllic Chicago neighborhood and planned to live there for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, this dream shattered within a few years, it seemed to fragment and dissolve before our very eyes. The aftermath was a life of financial instability and continual relocation.
I spent my childhood in different communities all over Chicago. In the eighties, the city was more like a patchwork quilt of distinct cultures rather than a “melting pot”. We lived in an African American-Hispanic community in the South Side, then a predominantly Polish area, then a Middle Eastern district. Afterwards, we drove across the country to the Pacific Northwest where I spent my teens in several low-income Seattle neighborhoods. We moved until my mother was finally able to afford a house, she settled down in the countryside near a small Scandinavian village. But on my own, as an adult, I continued to wander the world.
To many people, this kind of nomadic lifestyle seems terribly unstable and they’re not wrong. I was always the outsider, the “new kid”, a (permanent) tourist, a foreigner. There are negative aspects to it: never feeling like you truly belong, always standing out (not in a fashionable way!), having to adapt to a new environment, culture, language. You often learn things the hard way by making constant unwitting errors, especially because you don’t have any insider knowledge or connections, things you will never take for granted ever again. Understandably, people often buckle under this kind of stress, they isolate themselves or only socialize within a small exclusive community, they stop trying altogether. I have done this too. I sometimes fall back on it, a soft familiar pattern, at times when I have a particularly hostile encounter and I don’t feel strong.
But positive aspects always seem to resurface or new ones appear out of thin air and they grow, they grow wildly until they become undeniable. Some of the biggest ones are freedom and self-knowledge. In a new environment with new friends, you become all too aware of your own baggage. People don’t know you at all, the best ones want to know you as you truly are, your most authentic self. When the page is blank, a new story can begin. You realize you don’t have to repeat or continue the stories you have outgrown or don’t particularly enjoy anymore.
I don’t mean you can become a chameleon-like con-artist, lying drags everyone down, the liar as well as those they affect. I mean that you can become more aware of yourself: What you really want in your life as well as your own patterns of thought and behavior—most of which you were unconscious of before they became blazingly obvious in a new environment. Most often, they seem quite ridiculous or superfluous in a different context. It is an incredible opportunity to grow in profound ways.
In all the talk concerning migration, culture clashes, national and personal identities, so many positive aspects are never brought up and explored. It often occurs to me when someone looks at a foreign culture and reacts with perplexity, amusement, criticism or even disgust, that they are being given a great opportunity to see themselves through the very same insightful lens. When you look at your own habits, traditions and beliefs through an outsider’s perspective, most of it does seem ridiculous, funny, or even stupid.
A famous person in one country could be a complete unknown in another, a particular trait could be highly valued in one culture and be disparaged in another, and a very well-integrated person in one place could stick-out like a sore thumb in another. These are all testament to the power of the human mind, our ability to create “fictions” (as Harari so aptly describes) and our relentless ability to create and enforce all kinds of delineations, demarcations and borders, both mental and physical, where there were actually very few or none to begin with.
This may be a raw truth most people can’t handle.
Now that I have children of my own, I find myself for the first time extremely reluctant to follow that sunrise. I am well-aware that a nomadic life may not be great for everyone. What I may have enjoyed as a learning opportunity, might be a terribly unstable life for my children. For the past year, my husband and I have been looking at homes to buy. Places where we might put down roots. We’ve been walking through construction sites and touring other people’s homes. What could be our home?
Everyone tries to sell us something with lovely descriptions and glossy brochures depicting optimal conditions: designer furniture, perfect lighting, clean living. But I know, even the most beautiful place could be turned into a shithole. And even a shithole could be transformed into a haven (admittedly, this direction would be much harder).
What I really want is a place where my children may grow up with a stable sense of belonging, where peace and love presides, where they may feel free to reach their highest potential. Yet, I can’t help thinking, all of this could never exist if it doesn’t already, first and foremost, in our hearts, in our minds.
Do we really want to go home? A place where we truly belong, undeniably, without question? If that had ever been, if that had ever been enough, there would be no reason to chase that never-ending horizon.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker.