Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Do We Emigrate?

For some strange reason, I've been thinking about the title of this entry. "Why did I emigrate?" I ask myself over and over again. The practical reasons are simple to understand: I met an Irish girl. I brought her home to the States. There, I lost my job. We had a daughter. I was living in the San Francisco Bay area, and the 82 Recession was horrible. So I had to move somewhere. And why not Ireland after all?

But the practical doesn't always explain the impractical, or the sub-conscious hand that pushes us ever onward. Hence that question: "Why did I emigrate?" I'm curious. And I started to draw some conclusions on the childhood up-bringing that made this tumbleweed blow so far East.

My father was an airline pilot. The photograph above is a United Air Lines DC-6, one of the many types of aircraft that he was rated for. His love of flying took us all over the United States. Over a ten year period Mom, Dad, my sister Cindy, and I lived in Chicago, Seattle, New York, Florida, back to Chicago again, then onto California - and meanwhile, I went to college and lived in Bloomington Illinois, Michigan, and Los Angeles. To my reckoning, and from 1964 to 1974 (and excluding my college years) I lived in four different states and in 8 homes, while attending 8 different schools.

That's a lot of travel. And I found it affected me in many ways.

I felt rootless. Since those days, I constantly ask myself, "Where is home?" Home, as they say, is where you hang your hat, or where your heart and family are. But for me, that's never been quite the case. Home to me is the smell of Mom's cherry pie wafting through our Seattle home way back in 1960. That's a long time ago. Mom isn't with us anymore, and the house - while still there - contains other people and other types of cooking smells. So finding my version of 'home' is impossible.

Moving and Moving and Moving
Moving so many times had other effects on me: while I made friends quickly, I knew that I was going to lose them. Unlike many transplants like me, my commitment and loyalty to those friends was more than 100 percent. I wanted and needed their friendship. Because I was a stranger, I wanted to be liked instantly. I did everything that I could to fit in and to deserve friendship. And when I left, I was always devastated. Even more so when my letters back to them went un-answered.

I grew up to be a cameleon: a fellow who could change his spots almost instantly. A guy who always fit in - but not quite. It is a discomfiting, uncertain feeling. A scary feeling. A feeling of never belonging to anything.

But what is most interesting is this: this sort of background also makes you want to move again and again and again. You're never quite ready to settle down. You want to experience other things on an almost constant basis: "What's around the next horizon? Will it be as beautiful as what I've already seen? Will the people be as intersting? Will they accept me and befriend me?"

For a long, long time I thought I was one of the only people in the world to feel this way. And then a friend of mine suggested that I was much like a child brought up in the military: a Military Brat. That clicked with me. In the airlines, the children of airline pilots are called Airline Brats, and for the same reason: we are powerless to control our destinies. Instead, we are the subject to the whims of airline seniority, or a new city with a chance of a promotion to Captain or a different airplane type.

I finally found a blog devoted to these types of rootless, tumbling people: Written by a woman who was the daughter of a career Army officer, it explains a lot to me about my own penchant for risking everything on a whim. It also explains to me why I never thought twice about moving to Ireland and becoming a lifetime immigrant. It also tells me that while I've settled here and am happy here, Ireland has never quite been my home.

It tells me why I've been able to make a go of it here, yet also why I continue to miss a home that probably doesn't exist anymore.

So tell me. If you're considering a move to Ireland - or anywhere outside of the United States - do you have a similar background? Are you a tumbleweed who revels in your own rootlessness? Who enjoys the challenge of trying new places and people, and that desires to push the envelope by now trying a completely different culture?

I'd appreciate your posts. I'm really interested if there are other people out there who are as puzzled as I am when I ask myself the question: "Why did I move to Ireland?"


  1. Thanks for posting. I think I feel the same way. I ended up at 3 different high schools and 2 different colleges. I'm also a little embarrassed to admit how many different career fields I've worked in.

    I've often thought to myself that getting comfortable somewhere is the most uncomfortable thing I could do. Since I moved out of my parents' house 15 years ago, I've lived in 10 different places not counting all the overseas moving I did while in the army. Two of those places I did stay in for about 5 years each though.

    I think I've given up on trying to find home in something external to myself. I often have that nagging feeling that I don't belong here or that I might be missing out on life by not going somewhere else and experiencing whatever there is to experience.

  2. If you don't count the 10 months I lived in Sydney, I've lived in the same town all my life. 38 years. My family are here. Many of my friends are here. I know every nook and cranny of this town. It is home, always has been.

    ...But I often have that nagging feeling that... I might be missing out on life by not going somewhere else and experiencing whatever there is to experience... This sort of background makes you want to move again and again and again...

    Funny how the grass is always greener, huh?

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Louis, I really understand, and appreciate your insight. I particularly appreciated '...getting comfortable somewhere is the most uncomfortable thing I could do.' I remember the move to Chicago possibly the most. I was 12. I wanted so much to 'fit'. And as the few years went by, I did. And yet...I knew that if I did what I could to settle I'd have to make a commitment, and rely on friends and neighbors that might 'disappear' any day. That was tough. But I did it...and then moved again.

    If you get a chance, check out the military blog above. When I read it I discovered people that had the same sort of psychological needs and desires that I did. And for the first time in a long time, I realized that maybe I wasn't the only strange potato in the pot.


  4. I've posted here before, and said how I went "the other way", so to speak; from Scotland to the USA. I met my American wife in Scotland and one thing led to another and we got married in Scotland a year or so later.

    We talked about it, and at that time we mutually agreed it made more sense for me to move to the USA than for her to move to Scotland. I don't think I have ever regretted it. They do say "home is where the heart is" and 99% of the time "home" is here, with my wife.

    There have surely been times when I get a twinge of nostalgia, or sorrow over something that happened in Scotland while I was here and unable to be involved, but never regret.

    In that regard, I feel very blessed.

  5. Thanks for the post, Skippy. Forgive me, but I can't remember where in the States you now live. I'm fairly sure that the transition to America - at least at the time - was somewhat daunting. But you've obviously survived the States! You should start a book: A Survivor's Guide to Living in America. We could co-write and turn the whole thing into a franchise! How I survived China. How I survived Scotland. How I survived...I think you get the idea.

    Also glad that you've settled so successfully. Moving to a new culture can be a difficult process as you well know. And hats off to one Scot that made the transition so gracefully!

    My bestest


  6. Tom, thanks for the kind words. If I had your gift for writing, I would consider it! That would be a nice little franchise, actually.

    I have lived all my time in the USA in Ohio, firstly in the northern part (Cleveland, Akron), then the last three years in the center of the state, in Columbus (the state capital).

    I think I have been fortunate that my temperament or demeanor sort of lends itself to "cultural immersion" or "blending in". I still sound Scottish, and people pick that up pretty quickly; occasionally they will think I am perhaps Canadian if they can't quite place the accent immediately.

    I quickly learned to modify some vowel sounds, etc. otherwise most Americans would just look at me blankly when I spoke to them. I work in tech support too, so that has helped me "tune" my speech patterns to be more palatable to the American ear, so to speak.

    Skippy2057 (aka "Richard" - I have not figured out yet why I sign in the same way using my Google account, and yet show up under different "handles" - my actual name is Richard, though...)

  7. Hey Richard, and good hearing from you again. I TRULY understand the 'modify my vowel sounds' etc. In Ireland, I do the same thing. I find that my Chicago accent becomes a bit less pronounced here. Yet when I travel home to the States, that accent becomes tuned into the culture that is my heritage. Mind you, Americans often look at me quizzically: I find that my speech patterns have changed. Too, I have a tendency to swear much more than I did back Stateside and have to be VERY careful! (Wonder where I got that from? Te-he!)

    My very best


  8. Tom,

    I related So much to this article. I have NEVER felt like I belong anywhere! and my "home" is just where my family is although I don't really think of it as home anymore because EVERYTHING about it has changed. I moved EVERY SINGLE year of my college career...e new dorm room, a new apartment, or a new basement. (6 or 7 times) I also traveled a lot as a kid and in college. Been over to Europe twice now and outside of the country 4 times and all over the U.S.

    I also consider myself an chameleon. I am an opera singer (As I have shared with you before) and am often required to take on various roles and always feel as thought I am slipping in and out of different character's lives...maybe I enjoy music because I love learning new things. I always like to move forward; Read the next book; learn the next song....I think my life as a musician has also shaped this feeling of "gotta keep moving" in me.

    This is also why I think I will fare well in home will be where my husband is but I will constantly keep trying to make everything work. It's going to be a challenge, and I like challenges.

    Thanks for this post!


  9. Hah! An opera signer. Perhaps that explains it. I loved to sing and sing and sing: Barbershop quartets, musicals, chorus (I sang bari), madrigal groups - even in the shower! So maybe that's the answer to 'tumbleweed-dom': it's the scoring of our own personal inner-music that's the cause of it all! Thanks Diana. And let me know how things go in Ireland.

  10. Unlike you Tom, I never moved as a child. But since hitting adulthood, I've lived in 7 countries for extended periods. It's the challenge which keeps me moving and serious levels of curiousity (or nosiness maybe!) I think I almost prefer being the person who almost fits in: sometimes you just have to own who you are.

  11. Hey Tom,

    Great mentioned in the Sunday Times.

    I've done the full circle emigration thing and have been an emmigrant 3 times in my life now and I'm only 42. Itchy feet I guess.

    Born in the UK but my family went to Canada when I was young and I grew up and went to university there. Finished with a PhD and started looking for a teaching gig, and ended up at a great liberal arts college in upstate NY (one of those that costs $50,000 per year, as noted in a different post). Only went to the US for the job, no other reason as I had a great life in Canada. Seven years in the USA and constant battles with the immigration authorities made me start to look elsewhere for work and a better style of life. A year back in the UK before finally landing in Ireland (North County Dublin) for a great job and a great place.

    Most Irish seem shocked that someone would give up a Green Card to move to Ireland in the midst of a major recession. But I don't regret it for one second, and now I've got a whole new bunch of government wasters to bitch about.


  12. Hey Stephen and good hearing from you. You saw the blog URL in the Sunday Times, eh? Must say that it was really nice of Siobhan to include that... So, you've been around? Where are you lecturing, pray tell (DCU?) and in what? I teach screenwriting (one term a year) at Maynooth. We should compare notes! Glad you're well and thanks for the really nice comments. Tom

  13. Hi Tom,

    No, not DCU....I run a study abroad program in Dublin for American students.

    as for comparing is my blog

    All the best, Stephen

  14. Hey Tom,

    You are a really talented writer. You speak in such relatable terms.

    My name is Kathryn and I have always lived in Canada. I'm only 17 but my whole life I've wanted to move away. Its not that I don't like Canada because I do; its just that I never had much of a relationship with my parents and I know in a few years I want to start clean.

    As a little girl I was consumed by the dream of one day travelling the world and settling down somewhere unlike my home. Something about Ireland has just sort of stuck with me over the years.

    I have never moved further than a few streets away but I recently went on a missions trip to Africa. I am the kind of person who loves doing adventurous things like spelunking (caving).

    I just don't want to make too big of a leap before I look. I am working very hard to finish my Royal Conservatory of Music degree so I can teach private piano lessons. If you have time to respond I would really apprieciate if you honestly told me how difficult it would be to achieve a green card (or basically whatever I need in order to reside in Ireland).

    Thanks so much,


  15. Dear Kathryn: thank you so much for writing, and I appreciate your lovely thoughts. Getting into Ireland can be difficult, particularly in the current economy. You'll either need to be directly related to an Irish person (in which case you are entitled to citizenship) or you can attempt to apply for a work permit. Google Ireland's Department of Justice for more information.

    Hoping that you have had a lovely Christmas,