Several times I have found myself to be a migrant, and it has always been a disorienting experience. While my family was always a traveling one, there is a fundamental difference between being a tourist and being a migrant. A tourist is welcomed as a short-term guest who will hopefully spend some money, enjoy the sights, and go home again with perhaps good things to say to encourage more to come along on similar terms. A migrant, on the other hand, is someone who comes as a stranger to a new place and seeks a place to belong, a far more awkward proposition. This awkwardness is felt on both sides. Even the least foreign of migrants brings unusual ways of thinking and a struggle to come to terms with local ways of saying things and doing things, and there is always going to be an implicit contrast between the way things are done where one is from and the way things are done where one is now. Similarly, even the least foreign and least bothersome of migrants brings a bit of a chip on the shoulder and a desire to make one’s place in a strange new world that cannot help but shake up and unsettle others. Sometimes this is for the best, but it is seldom always appreciated by everyone involved. People are migrants for reasons, and those reasons add a sense of spice and urgency to life and require a certain degree of flexibility of thinking and acting on the part of those involved in the migration. Some people handle such matters better than others, but no one is unchanged by the experience, and it can sometimes be a painfully difficult one, although those who have migrated multiple times tend to acquire a certain amount of survival skills to make the process less painful.
In one sense, though, we cannot escape being migrants with the unfamiliarity the feeling of being alien, and that is the way that we are all migrants through time. Even if we never move from the narrow confines of where were were born and raised, never travel to strange new lands, never feel what it is like to be an outsider struggling to be wanted and accepted by strangers, we all know what it is like to be strangers to ourselves as we grow up and move from one stage of life to another. For whatever reason, alienation is something that we all have to face as human beings. It is the contemporary mood to consider such things to be crises. Whenever something forces us to confront the strangeness of life, we view such thing as a crisis. So it is that we pass from being unborn children in the womb through the trauma of birth, are praised for speaking and talking and then told for a lifetime to shut up and sit down, learn to read and (hopefully) to develop some sort of agency and emotional restraint, and are then given the complicated task of dealing with others as teachers, friends, lovers, employers, rivals, and the like. The period from semi-dependent status to full adulting comes often with what is labeled as a quarter-life crisis, and then the loss of one’s youth and facing up to middle age leads to a mid-life crisis, and there are crises when one loses one’s memory and strength and sense of balance and struggles with the entrance of old age when one feels isolated and unable to do what one remembers well, and struggles to find a place in a world that celebrates youth and does not always appreciate the wisdom of old age. Depending on how successful we have been in our lives there are other unfamiliar passages into marriage and having children, or grandchildren, or dealing with the strangeness of being not only under authority but also in authority. All of these passages make us migrants from one world into another and we are forced to read and observe and seek to gain an understanding of the lay of the land so that we are not viewed as being incompetent where we happen to be.
Perhaps if we had our own druthers we would find a place where we knew what we were doing and did it well and were appreciated by others and had fun in life and felt like a success and felt comfortable with who we were and who were around and stay there for all time. As human beings many of us, myself definitely included, feel the comforting pull of familiar habits that we are used to and that allow us to enjoy the same sorts of pleasant experiences over and over again. This tendency begins when we are quite young and develop favorite movies, books, and songs that we like to experience over and over and over again. Those who travel to new lands often feel the need, at least at first, to surround themselves as much as possible with familiar things, so that they feel less out of place. And it is our tendency to think that if we were less awkward and eccentric people than perhaps we would not feel so isolated and so strange and so alien, but the truth is that we are all migrants, we are all aliens in a sense, and we cannot escape it. The more successful we are at avoiding change in the conditions of our lives, the worse of we are, the more we are subject to being labeled cases of arrested development, and the less we are able to handle life with any degree of skill. We have a longing for eternity in our hearts, but our lives are temporary and we are continually reminded of this, especially because there are some people who enjoy inflicting change upon other people no matter how little they may like it for themselves.
Yet not all experiences of change are created equal. We tend to have less resentment about the alienation that results from migration when we feel we have some degree of agency in it. To the extent that I choose to go to such and such a place in search of better opportunities than I have known, I view the struggles of that place and of the migratory life as challenges to be overcome. If I am forced to go to a place, or a certain change is forced upon me, I will likely resent that to a great degree. I suspect the same is true of many people. Yet in life most of us find a mixture of migrations that are forced on us and those which we choose for ourselves, a mixture of conditions that we resent for placing burdens upon us and others that we enjoy because it allows us to grow and to test our strength. The universality of such issues in our lives suggests that we were created for more than we deal with at any moment of our lives, because we spend our whole existence on this earth either caught up in the grips of change, in fear of some sort of threatening change that we do not wish, or seeking to master the changes that have come to us or preparing for those which are on the horizon. If this is so for even the most habit-bound and temperamentally conservative among us, it is certainly true even more of those who deliberately seek out novelty. To be sure, not all changes are equally profound, and sometimes the search for superficial novelty is a way of avoiding greater change, but however we choose to cope with the threat of the unfamiliar it always finds us eventually.