Wanderer, traveler, nomad – are words that describe the individual who moves – across countries, neighborhoods, cities , across workplaces, spheres of work, sub-spheres in the same area of work. Basically moves.
Such an individual faces a number of alarming prospects. First, every work and living space comes with its languages and interpretations. If you move frequently, you miss out on some of these. The first-day-of -semester football joke that might seem funny to students in a US university classroom is an unfailing damp squib in an English university. Cricket (the game to English students) would be an insect for American classrooms. So wherever you are, you seem to be struggling to learn and interpret the local jargon and jokes. A friend once told me – if you are out of a country or state for too long, you lose track of TV jokes and it is difficult then to return. Second, every area of work and every place has things you “do” and those you “don’t”. If you live in Minnesota you do not show road rage, if you are driving in Calcutta you do not give way and if you live in northern England, sooner or later you do say “Hiya love”, instead of “Hi”. More serious is the fact that work norms vary across companies and countries. An academic professional in Europe for instance, would have a different approach and philosophy than one in India or the US. If you move across workplaces, you do not get a chance to steep in the methods and norms of each. And when you do adopt the local ones, your associates/colleagues/social acquaintances can never quite make out if you are really enjoying it and getting it or are faking it – suspicion is not uncommon. You become the somewhat unreliable rolling stone to whom very little is perceived to stick. Third, you don’t quite belong. Anywhere. By language, by customs, by common social yardsticks, you remain somewhat of an outsider. Everyone around you may be bringing the roof down because two local football teams are playing, and you just feel impenetrable, as though you are the lone suspended balloon that is not bursting because no one somehow feels close enough to stick a pin in. You are in no man or woman’s land, basically homeless. And fourth of course, you are continually on the steep part of the learning curve, coming to grips with the newness around you. Can be a bit of a drain.
So why would you still ‘wander’? Here are a few reasons I have found why.
First, because you are on the move, you learn to identify the “constants” in your life – people, ideas, values music, books that are truly valuable and core and are transferable across physical and conceptual spaces. And you learn to carry them with you, apply the reference lens they provide to new situations you encounter and enrich the lens itself when you meet new people and come across new ideas that can be enfolded into the scaffolding of your existing constants. These constants provide the emotional and practical anchors by which you learn to lead your life. They make things simple by focusing your attention on what you consider as elemental and keeping out the non-essential. A friend described this as “carrying your roots with you that you can set down anywhere”. I call it carrying my constant comforts. Following a recent move to England, after thirteen years in the US, I did not feel the need to immediately jump into everything that I saw around me because I was able to draw upon my social, professional and intellectual constants till I could establish for myself a level of ease and familiarity. Second you learn to understand how the different constants interweave among and enrich each other. You begin to see common threads running through the books you read, the people you meet, the places you visit and the work you do. And all of it becomes an evolving whole – made of various strands that keep coming out of the different constants and merging into one another – so that you seamlessly move from person to song to book to recreation to workplace. Things become increasingly coherent, rich, simple. Third, because of your experience of different cultures and thought-frameworks, you can see the good and bad of each. More importantly, you can dig into the spaces in between, discover interesting or uncommon nooks and corners and bridge gaps between them. You learn that there are no absolute or end positions and that it is the middle ground which invariably is the more productive and enriching, and which provides the empathy required to solve problems, create new pictures and angles, and get things done.You develop the potential to become a boundary spanner and the big picture see-er – the odd but valuable role that can wear different hats and without which no two ends can talk with one another. And finally, because you repeatedly experience impermanence at various levels, you develop detachment and perspective and perhaps can distinguish the real from the not so.
Perhaps then, is it so , that homeless is another word for “home everywhere”, that being a nomad is the other side of being rooted, and that heartbreak at moving away from the familiar and exhilaration at the prospect of learning something less familiar are inseparable?