The global job trend right now is filled with the idea of becoming a digital nomad, someone who can work from their laptop anywhere in the world. Instagram is full of glamorous shots of girls in bikinis, lounging at pools with their computers, #digitalnomadlife. Our own nomad living is a little different, and I hope we portray a more realistic and balanced picture of what life working abroad is like.
For the past two years we have been living in Korea, never in one location for more than a year. This year we are making the move to Vietnam, and to be honest, we’re not sure if we’ll stay put for super long there either. Nomad living (a term I’m using here to describe the lifestyle of moving around the world for different work contracts) is addictive if you love travel, but it also comes with it’s own downsides, the biggest of which, for me, is having to re-imagine the idea of home.
Nomad living: Why is Home important?
When we are young, home represents a solid base from which we can feel safe to explore the world. Interestingly, that solid base isn’t even necessarily a place, but rather takes the form of our primary caregivers. These people who are dependable and constant, and they give us the courage to try new things and meet new people, safe in the knowledge that they will be easily accessible should anything go wrong. I’m basing all of this on Bowlby’s attachment theory, if you’d like to read more about it.
It may be a popular love song theme, but it is true nonetheless, our idea of home really is more a person than a place. And it is wherever the our home people settle that we come to call our home. These structures that hold all of our childhood memories, all the complexities of family life, and the greater metropolitan areas in which our physical homes are located. All of these ideas come together to form our idea of home.
For me, who grew up in one house, and didn’t move out till I started traveling and studying, I didn’t even begin to think about what home was for nearly two decades. I think that if you moved a lot as a child, your ideas of home may have been layered long before I even realised that home was a thing that might change.
But regardless of when you started to think about it, our home people and places are part of our formative years. Once we start to strike out on our own, many of us feel the nostalgic tug for where we began, even if those memories are complicated and difficult. This is a natural thing, but it can lead us to a pretty dark place if we feel ‘homeless’ in our nomad living.
Nomad living: Feeling homeless
Between our South Korea and Vietnam contracts, we’ve been lucky enough to spend a few short weeks back in South Africa. It is a wonderful feeling being back in Chris’s childhood home, and the home that I came to spend hours in all throughout university. It simultaneously feels as if nothing and everything has changed, and I’m sure you’ll understand the feeling if you’ve ever returned from a long trip. Our nomad living means that it has been over a year since we’ve been back to South Africa, and about two years since we’ve been back here together.
The last time we were staying in this house together we were anxiously waiting to hear if we had gotten the job teaching English in Korea, and we spent ages wondering what was going to happen when we made the move. It’s so interesting that we return here together two years later, again on the cusp of another big move into the unknown.
It is the language of returning to our hometown that has made me realise how complex home has become. To our family we are returning home for a visit. To us, we had to leave our home in Korea to make the trip back here. Then there is the fact that we don’t actually have a fixed address anywhere right now. We have moved out of our accommodation in Korea, and will stay with our friends until we go off to start a week of training in Vietnam. While we’re there, we’ll stay in an AirBnB until we finally know where we will be placed and can start the search for a flat there.
It’s the ultimate in nomad living, and it takes a long time to get your head around. We have tons of homes: places we can stay in different countries, people we love dotted all over the planet, but also no real home that is ours, with our names on the lease and rent to pay. If modern life makes everyone feel pretty rootless, we’ve gone a step further and removed the soil too.
I think that for me home was always where you knew what was going on in people’s lives, and where you could be included in loved one’s life events. It doesn’t take long for you to be completely out of touch with your home town once you leave, even with all the modern convenience of social media and Skype. And the longer you stay, the more events you miss, and the less you feel a part of anything important that ties you to your hometown.
It isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just what happens when you wander off into the world and start nomad living. It really only bothers me when I’m far away during major family events like Christmas, or when I’m spending time in my hometown. Sometimes when I see photos on Facebook of weddings and babies, I wonder if I was missed, and if I let my anxiety get the better of me, I can start to believe that everyone was relieved I wasn’t there. In reality though, everyone is just going through their lives, making the best of it. We don’t forget our friends purposefully, nor do we remember to reach out to them when they are missed. But it is feelings like this that can start to hurt when you feel homeless out in the world.
Nomad living: Re-imagining home
Right, it’s time to save this utterly depressing article by focusing on what we can do when we’re feeling a little lost in the world! I swear I don’t mean to be so dark, I just want to create space for us to talk about these things, so that we don’t get stuck in the trap of only presenting our best life on social media, when the reality is that life is tough and we sometimes need some help.
If you’re like me, and you tend towards the depressive, it can be really easy to convince yourself that you’re all alone. Reaching out to the people that you love is a good way to combat this. And it’s really important to reach out to more than one person. Our lives get so busy, and with the added difficulties of time-zones, it can be easy to forget to reply to an email or text. So reach out to a few people, and give them some time to respond. Remember, just because someone doesn’t reply immediately, it doesn’t mean they hate you, just that they have stuff going on. If you’re really struggling with depression, check out my article on how to manage and get help when you’re depressed and far from home.
Lean on your partner
This part is for my readers in relationships, whether they are near or far. We can be tempted to hide these feelings from our partners, and convince ourselves that we’re just being stupid or emotional. This is nonsense. The whole point of being in a relationship with someone, especially when you are nomad living, is to create a home in and with them. If you feel lonely with your partner, there is something seriously wrong, and either you are with the wrong person, or you need to open up and be vulnerable with them so that they have the opportunity to care for you.
And don’t try and put it off because they are going through a tough time. There is never the perfect time to talk about your troubles. When your partner is super happy, you can convince yourself that you shouldn’t mess with their joy, and likewise when they are struggling, it can be difficult to feel like you are adding to their pain. But the reality is that relationships only work when we are honest with each other in all circumstances.
You might find that your partner already feels like you are going through something, and is worried that you are unhappy with them. Or you could find that they feel exactly the same way as you, and were having difficulties opening up as well. Either way, being open and honest with your partner is a way of strengthening your connection, and it is not too much to ask of your significant other to shoulder some of your worries and fears alongside you.
I honestly cannot stress this enough: if you are open about your feelings with your partner and they make you feel in any way guilty or stupid for having those feelings, it is time to seriously re-evaluate your relationship. When we are nomad living, we can be tempted to attach to someone and fixate on them regardless of how they treat us. Think about whether you would still be in the relationship if you were in your hometown. Of course all relationships have their problems, but don’t get stuck with someone just because they feel a little bit like home.
Figure out what home is for you
Spend some time reflecting on what it is that you are missing about home, and try to figure out how to re-create it in your nomad living. If it is people, find a way to stay in contact more regularly. When I get a 17 second video of my bestie’s cat giving a sassy face, I immediately feel more connected and loved. Find a way to integrate staying in touch into your routines so that you don’t get caught up and forget to reach out. It takes work, so give it time.
If home is a place for you, figure out when you can visit, and work towards that. Even if you don’t have the time or cash to get home right now, get Google to send you emails about price drops to your destination so that you can know of any specials. The other option is to set yourself a date and work towards it, getting your savings plan going so that you can make it happen. This will also help if you’re not super excited by the work you’re doing, as you can put up with a lot if you’re actively working towards something you want.
Nomad living: Accepting and making it work
At the end of the day, if you’re committed to nomad living, feeling homeless occasionally comes as part of the deal. The best thing you can do for yourself (and this goes for any uncomfortable or ‘negative’ emotions), is to be honest about how you are feeling, accept that this feeling has a purpose, learn from it, and let it go. It is absolute nonsense that there are positive and negative emotions, and that a happy life is all about positivity. All emotions are important, and they each are trying to teach us something about our life down on this little green planet hurtling through the universe.
What becomes unhealthy, is becoming stuck in any one emotion. We are made to be fluid and emotional creatures, and when we can recognise and accept each emotion as it comes, we can learn to let it go when it no longer serves us. Anger can help us to fight for justice, sadness can help us remember what is important to us, there is nothing wrong with feeling any of these things. Remove judgement from your vocabulary and just let yourself feel a little. After all, the only real home we have is our bodies, and we need to learn to value and look after it as best we can.
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