In Search of Greener Pastures: Why do Some People Leave Home for Adventure Abroad?
“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
-Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
IN NOVEMBER 2006, I hopped on a plane from Melbourne to Bangkok with a few mates and spent three weeks sitting on beaches sipping cocktails, hiking up mountains and exploring temples. When our holiday came to an end I said goodbye to my friends at Suvarnabhumi Airport and instead of flying home, hopped on a flight to Tokyo. I haven’t really looked back since. The journey has taken me to the ski resorts of Japan where I carried luggage at a luxury hotel as a bellhop; to Kyoto where I did a Master’s; to Osaka where I worked as a reporter, to London where I got engaged, and then to Scotland where I call home, for now.
Plenty of people I know have up and left their home countries as well, and so I decided to ask eight friends about why they stepped out their doors and set up home in far-flung places of the world. Specifically I wanted to know: What made them want to leave home in the first place?
“I was bored by my job and it was either settling down or doing what would be one of the biggest adventures of my life,” says my friend Nadine. “I have been looking for this place called home for a very long time and I always loved travelling. Even when I was a child I always looked at pictures of all those faraway places…my first dream job was to be a flight attendant.”
Nadine and I were having this conversation over Facebook Messenger, but if it had been in person I’m sure she would have let out a huge laugh. Originally from a small town in Germany, she moved first to Edinburgh, then to the opposite side of the globe: all the way to New Zealand. She says her newfound life in NZ has opened her eyes to a culture quite different to her own.
“In New Zealand they call sweet potatoes kūmara which is adorably cute to my ears,” she says. “I also love how laid back it can be and that no one cares if you go to the supermarket without your shoes on.”
I laughed out loud when I read this because if you know anything about Australia or New Zealand, you’ll know that a lack of appropriate footwear (or trousers for that matter) is de rigueur when visiting the local supermarket.
A French friend of mine, Rodolphe, says he got the travel bug after living in Argentina for a while and loving the experience. Back in France, his wife said she really wanted to have the experience of working abroad, so they searched for jobs in the U.S. and found one in Boston. But why leave France? Doesn’t he miss fresh croissants, top-notch wine, the cheese? What’s so attractive about America?
“Everything seems possible here,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s actually true or if it’s a feeling coming from me still discovering the country and the culture. Had I stayed in France I would have remained in the same company forever, but here in the U.S. I learnt that I can change jobs more frequently. I feel like I have the power to choose.”
An American friend of mine, Brett, doesn’t see the U.S. in quite the same light. “I have serious concerns about the lack of universal single-payer health care and the fact that guns are everywhere and legal,” says Brett, who now lives in Japan. Was America’s extreme approach to free-market capitalism and personal liberties the reason he left for greener shores? No, he says.
“Having my mother pass away as well as a cousin who was the same age made me feel very mortal and feel that I must see the world.”
Everyone I interviewed for this article expressed this same feeling, a burning desire to go forth and explore the unknown before it was too late. Is there something about leaving on a jet-plane and flying halfway across the world that gives us a sense of empowerment, a feeling that we are not settling for what we’ve got and living life passively but rather are taking life by the balls, in control of our own destiny?
EARLIER THIS YEAR, my friend Vicki moved from London (population 13.6 million) to the beach town of Dunsborough (population 3,371…well 3,372 now) in Western Australia. So why move from a thriving European metropolis to a remote town on an island continent flanked by ocean on one side and vast stretches of desert on the other?
“I first came to Australia for a month-long holiday,” she says. “After a little tour from Perth to Broome, I fell in love with WA and was determined to come back.” She says she has something she calls a ‘two-year itch’—since university she’s worked a couple of casual jobs here and there, then some stints at French ski resorts, then an entry-level job before moving to London for two years for a career in fashion. I want to know if it was difficult to make the decision to up and leave everything she knew behind.
“Maybe at first I was holding myself back not travelling to Australia when I was younger as I was conscious of making myself ‘comfortable’ if I were ever to return home,” she says. “For me it was important that I could fall straight back into a career if I buggered off for a few years across the world.”
Ahhh career…that old chestnut. If our grandparents’ generation was busy worrying about world wars and our parents’ generation was busy trying to work out which form of socioeconomic organisation was best suited to agrarian productivity and collective happiness, the conundrum that seems to dog our current generation is surely how to juggle career with the other important things in life, like the desire to travel the world.
Originally from Iran, Dara moved to Scotland to pursue a career in music. I met him through some friends one night and was surprised that he never got fed up answering my incessant questions about life in George W. Bush’s so-called ‘Axis of Evil’. At the time I was reading Ramita Navai’s City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran and I wanted to know if everything in the book was true—if the picture painted of oppression in an ultra-fundamentalist society really did exist as Navai describes in her book. Was that why he left?
“There are vast cultural differences between my home country and where I live now,” says Dara over an imaginary beer that we are to have when we both get around to it. For the time being Facebook’s Messenger app will have to suffice. I ask him what the best thing about living in the U.K. is as opposed to Iran.
“If I had to choose one I would say it is that you have slightly more freedom of expression,” he says.
Slightly more freedom of expression? Don’t you mean heaps more freedom of expression?
“When I say slightly more, it may sound strange to someone who has only lived in the West or has only heard about Iran through the media,” he says. “Western countries seem to have found a mechanism to create the delusion of freedom, yet when it comes to most basic human rights, adults’ choices are not in any way respected and are clouded by a one-sided and censored mainstream media.”
Dara raises an interesting point. Is it all just an illusion? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking we are free by throwing on a backpack and booking that ticket to the other side of the world in search of adventure, when really we are just buying into another manufactured dream? Are we simply replacing a white picket fence, 2.3 kids and a dog, with a Lonely Planet guide, a Moleskin diary and the poetic licence to write slightly more interesting Facebook status updates?
AS FAR AS CREATIVE expression is concerned, my friend Leanne has one of the most interesting stories to tell. I first met Leanne in Tokyo when I was doing an internship there in 2009 — some friends were visiting from home and we all went to see the Australia vs Japan friendly soccer match. Leanne had been living in the Japanese capital for a year or so at the time, and since then has established her own fashion brand, Tokyo Kaleidoscope, making frocks out of old kimonos. She’s still a Tokyoite today, and if her Facebook posts are anything to go by, she loves the craziness and randomness of the city. Has living abroad given her experiences she could never have experienced at home?
“Moving overseas changes you undoubtedly,” she says. “We all grow up with culturally social accepted norms from wherever we’re living and our surrounding peers of what’s right and wrong, black and white. There are shades of grey but they can be minimal,” she says, later apologising for referencing E.L. James’s erotic novel. “You never know someone else’s situation or their story. You become more open minded, more willing to try something new, to take a risk as you hear peoples’ stories and experiences, as you explore and discover.”
I REMEMBER TALKING TO a guy in a Dublin pub last year who said he moved to Sydney with his family in the 1960s. Back then that was like moving to Pluto, he said. He remembers coming home from school one day in Sydney and finding his mother splayed out on the kitchen floor, bawling her eyes out because she missed her family so much. They lasted another six months before returning to Ireland.
These days we can Facetime with our loved ones, Skype with friends, and Whatsapp people on the other side of the world at the touch of a smartphone screen. So do people who leave their hometowns still miss their friends and family that much?
“That’s the hardest part, leaving your friends behind. They are irreplaceable,” says Chuck, who now lives in Sydney. He didn’t move abroad as such, but did relocate from one side of Australia to the other in his early 20s — proof you don’t need to change countries just to find adventure. Chuck and I were childhood mates, and my memories with him centre around us trying to convince the local bottle-shop that we were old enough to buy alcohol, and having parties at his house while his parents were away. It’s these kinds of memories and this type of familiar comfort — friends you’ve grown up with — that he has left behind. But why leave your comfort zone at all?
“I’m definitely of the opinion that everyone should leave home at some point in their lives,” says Chuck. “It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut and I feel that big changes, like moving, are healthy every now and again.”
Another friend of mine, Gerard, agrees. He grew up in London and moved to Japan in his 20s, and now lives in Brisbane. He says he loves the freedom to express yourself more openly, being ‘out of the box’ in his words. “It’s being more open and sociable because you don’t have family and old friends to rely on.”
WHEN I LEFT AUSTRALIA in 2006, John Howard was Prime Minister, smartphones hadn’t been invented, and climate change was a setting on your car air-conditioning controller. I thought I’d only be gone for a couple of years, tops. Do I have any regrets? No, not really, although I do miss my friends and family back home like hell. And it seems I’m not alone in feeling this way, as every single person I asked said the same thing.
“I’m very close to my parents,” says Vicki. “I find as I have gotten older, I see the relationship with my parents differently and no longer act like a spoiled brat when my Mum asks me to do something.”
Now living in Chicago, Rodolphe says his friends are scattered around the world and that he misses his twin brother back in France. In Brisbane, Gerard misses his family too, especially at Christmas. The same for Chuck in Sydney and Dara in Glasgow, as well as Nadine in Wellington, who also yearns for German food. “Seriously, bread is the worst, no matter where I go,” she says. Brett also says he misses his nephew in the U.S., as well as burritos and bagels. For Leanne, it’s also the food. “Brunch places — did I mention cheese?” she says, reminiscing of her hometown Melbourne.
Well, I too love food, but the question remains: If we know it is our friends and family we will miss more than anything, why leave in the first place? It’s Vicki who puts it most succinctly when I ask her if she thinks she’ll ever return home to the U.K.
“Maybe, who knows? I’d like to think I would return as I’m too close to my family but right now, I don’t want to make any plans. I’m an open book with blank pages ready to be filled with words of experiences and stories.”
Sounds like the answer might be right there. ω