Changed by travel

Piece by piece, travel changes you. Like learning to read, travel opens you up to new experiences, new worlds lived in by other people, places that you would never reach in isolation. I started to travel to see the natural world, and I have indeed seen wildlife I never thought I would, but more than anything it is the human experiences that have influenced my outlook on life.

Education is more through the accumulation of experience than moments of epiphany, but there are little bursts of realisation, where the dam built up by slow drips finally bursts. I thought I understood the trauma of war, but seeing children in Cambodia missing limbs due to old landmines and listening to a guide at Toul Sleng describe the torture of his family taught me that war is always worst for those who have the least power, and that the horrors of war can never be fully understood by anyone who has not lived through one as a civilian. I knew that there are few universals in culture, but nothing brought that home as much as sitting in a cafe in Bulgaria struggling to mentally inverse a nod of the head into "no" and a shake of the head into "yes". My first day in America, seeing every park bench occupied by homeless people, shocked me into recognising the horrific poverty that results in a rich country without a social safety net, and the next three years taught me the dangers of isolationism and anti-intellectualism.


Living as an expat

In total now, I have spent half my adult life outside Australia. Ten years ago I was living in Adelaide, where I had lived for 20 years, but in the last ten years only two have been spent in my hometown. My first move was comparatively small, 1200 kilometres away in Canberra, but still in Australia. I lived in Canberra for four years then I moved to Seattle. All up I spent three years living in America before living in Europe. Now I have been in Belgium for more than a year, first in Leuven and now in Brussels, on nearly the exact opposite point of the globe to my city of birth.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I have found about being an expat is just how easy it is to move. Certainly getting a work permit to move to the USA was not enjoyable and living in a world where I do not speak the languages can be tiring in Belgium, but the act of moving was far easier in reality than it was in anticipation. Some cultural differences  are only skin-deep. I remember turning up in Seattle exhausted, after six weeks travelling through the Middle East. I made it to my new share house, unpacked my travel bag and rolled out my sleeping bag on the bed. The next day I turned up at work, that evening I found a supermarket and just like that I was at home. Oh, there were certainly unpleasant surprises and cultural clashes along the way,  but I kept on expecting an alien dislocation that just never appeared. We left America just because our priorities are different to those valued in America, and not because of any homesickness or difficulty in living in a foreign country.

Likewise, when we left Seattle for Belgium, our visit through Australia did not feel like a home coming. Everything was familiar, of course, but there was no sense of fitting back into place. After three months living out of a suitcase in Australia, I felt more at home that first weekend in Leuven when we could unpack our bags and have a house to ourselves again. Perhaps people are just far more adaptable than they believe. Changes may be faced with trepidation, but once they arrive they are rapidly soaked up into the fabric of every day life.


Being an immigrant

For a lot of people, "immigrant" is a dirty word. I've had to sit and listen to tirades against immigrants while living in Australia, living in the US and living in Belgium. Each time I respond "I'm an immigrant". There is typically a pause and then clarifications, "oh, but you're not that type of immigrant, I am talking about the Asians / the Hispanics / the Muslims / [insert regional focus of racism here]". I typically present the case for immigration and the data refuting the tirade, but the facts never seem to matter - the anti-immigrant brigade are capable of screeching against immigrants sponging off welfare and stealing their jobs in the same sentence. Deep down, the issue is just that they don't like immigrants.

It is easy to hate immigration - politicians jump on the anti-immigration bandwagon frequently, I'm sure they like having a target that can't vote. Racists and xenophobes obviously hate immigrants, but plenty of decent people are also wary of immigration for a number of reasons. After all, every society has problems, and it is always easier to blame someone else than to blame yourself. And if you are looking for someone to blame, immigrants are easy to spot by virtue of being different, making every negative act disproportionally visible.

Despite all the negative connotations, the hassles and loss of rights, I like being an immigrant. It is a complex phenomenon, but basically I like getting to mix and match my cultural preferences. I have lived with Australian, British and American culture and there are aspects of each that I appreciate and that I want to keep. And now I am living in Belgium, a beautiful mix of Flemish and French culture, in a city which is the quintessential pan-European city while also being one of the most African in Europe. I like Belgium. In fact, I love Belgium and would like to become a citizen (unfortunately I doubt I'll ever be able to pass the Dutch language test). I chose Belgium to live in. I love its culture but I am under no illusion that it is perfect. The nice thing about being an immigrant is that I don't need to emerge myself into the culture, for better and worse. Instead I can live within the Belgian culture to the extent that I want, while drawing on the cultural wealth of my background. I can enjoy the relaxed attitude of Europe on the weekends while using American efficiency in my laboratory. I can appreciate the reserved dignity of the Belgians while being an anti-hierarchical Australian. I can enjoy vegemite, Ben and Jerry’s icecream and Belgian frites. Being an immigrant lets me live the best of all worlds.

When all is said and done, it is nicer to feel like an outsider in a new country than to feel an outsider in a place where you used to feel at home.