The Unsettled Traveler


The Unsettled Traveler

How traveling and living abroad without settling can lead to an identity crisis

By Sarah Anton

Global Living Magazine – Issue 17 | March/April 2015

Have you ever felt like everything in your life was a boring routine – every Monday, Tuesday and Friday just feels the same and all you can think about is selling everything and starting over in another country? As a traveler myself, I completely understand how powerful this feeling can be; you want to get out, explore the world and never settle in one place, ensuring a never-ending adventure. Although escaping the routine is definitely a great way to grow as a person, it needs to be done strategically in order to prevent a loss in identity.

How could traveling lead to an identity crisis?

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and shared with him all the countries I’ve visited and lived in. By the end of my travel list, his eyes were wide and he seemed to be lost for words. “You’re only 20?” he asked, astonished. Being used to this reaction by now, I simply replied with a firm “Yes”. His next question stunned me a little though, as he said to me, “Sarah, wasn’t that tough for you? Trying to always fit into a new school, new place and new culture? Weren’t you extremely confused about who you were as a person?” That was the first time anyone asked me this about my travels, and it really made me think about my past.

After tossing and turning for a few nights, I realized that, yes, I was very confused. Before I found my passion for writing and health, I was probably the most confused person in my group of friends. I thought I knew what I liked and wanted, but I was actually only trying to fit in with what everybody else was thinking, since that’s what I’ve been doing by constantly traveling. I realized that all the unsettled travels I’ve been a part of created this gap in my identity, as I changed friends completely every year, changed habits every other year and learned new cultures every so often.

In a time when I was supposed to settle somewhere, to create a routine that would enable me to find what fits for me and what doesn’t, I couldn’t, as I had to change my likes and dislikes quickly after I just started getting used to them. I’m not saying that traveling is bad, no. I’m saying that unsettled traveling, when not done strategically, is bad.

When you change cities, countries or continents, you change and adapt to the place you are visiting. If you go to China, you have to adapt to the habits of the Chinese population, just like you have to adapt to the habits of Australians, Texans or Germans. Some societies are definitely similar to one another, but there is always a difference that requires some type of adaption from a visitor. That being said, if you arrive in a new place, find a job, an apartment, make new friends, and then decide to move to a different time zone or zip code after only a few years (1-5 years), the identity you just established may be at risk.

Germany requires eight years of living in the country to receive citizenship. Canada requires four years to become a citizen; the U.S. requires five years to get full citizenship, and many other countries have the same policies as well (with some restrictions/exceptions). Therefore, if you’re moving every few years, you may never be qualified, on paper, to be a citizen of the country you’re living in. So how can you commit to one identity if you can’t even commit to one citizenship?

Why is it risky?

Many expats are in their 20s and 30s, which can be some of the most confusing years in our lives. We travel to find ourselves by seeking new adventures and cultures, which is a great plan on its own. But traveling for many years without truly settling in one place, especially during those confusing years, can lead to an identity crisis. You may never feel like you belong somewhere, and that you always have to change who you are to adapt to the new cultures. When you ask yourself what you love, chances are that you’ll have difficulty answering, because you never did anything for long enough to actually start enjoying it. If unsettled traveling isn’t done properly, you may be confused about what you want to do with your life, what you like in a significant other, and what you like about yourself.

Does that mean that I shouldn’t travel?

Not at all! I most definitely encourage you to take on an expat challenge and travel around the world, for as many years as you want. But there are a few things that you can do while you’re on your unsettled travel adventures so you don’t lose sight of who you are in the long run.

  1. Take on a passion: While you’re traveling from one country to the next, take on a passion and stick to it. Regardless of where you’re going, engage in that passion with a great intensity. Don’t give up on that passion; really start to get the feel of it. Your passion can be anything from photography to fitness. Whatever it is, do it as often as you can, regardless of where you are in the world. This will minimize your chances of losing sight of who you are. You can most definitely evolve and progress in that passion, but you have to stick to it.
  2. Remind yourself of where you came from: In your travels, keep a picture of your family, your hometown or your friends. If you have a book that makes you feel like you’re back home, take it with you and read it every so often. Reminding yourself of where you came from will help you keep focused on your values, likes, and dislikes, and will tie you to something more concrete than a passport.
  3. Stay in touch: Call, email or Skype friends, family and co-workers from all the countries you’ve visited over the years. Never lose touch with them, as they are part of who you are. While you were living in their country of residence, you had a different view on the world, a different style and different habits; keeping in touch with these people will help you center yourself by reminding you of who you were when you were there.

Perhaps most importantly, always remind yourself of who you are. Sit down every few weeks and talk to yourself about your likes, dislikes, dreams, habits, etc. This will help you stay in touch with your identity, and the best part is you can do this from anywhere in the world.

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