“Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply… Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division… only the future revisits the past.” – Ocean Vuong
Digital nomad; vagabond; travelling freelancer; roving journalist; the drifter; expat.
Words abound to describe a wanderer, or those who work abroad, or those who choose to work remotely in exotic locations. But how many would describe themselves as a migrant?
It has become a charged word. Prefix it with two extra letters: I and m, and it becomes a word weighed down with heavy, negative associations. It polarises opinion, stokes fury, politicises conversation. Why? It is an extraordinary situation when a word is saddled with such a burden and has become a weapon.
Let me be clear: I am a proud immigrant and an even prouder migrant. It is because of migration that I have become the individual I am today. These days I believe migration, movement, and pushing yourself away from familiarity, and out of your comfort zone, is vital to gaining the courage and self-awareness that unlocks your life. It certainly did for me. But first; backstory.
Thirty years ago, I was born in China, in the southern city of Guilin. I was moved to the UK when I was five years old. My parents were already there, having emigrated to England earlier. First, my father left mainland China by swimming to Hong Kong. He had been a participant in the Chinese Democracy Movement of the late 1980s and he needed to escape. He was granted political asylum by then Prime Minister John Major, after reaching Hong Kong, which was a British colony at the time.
My mother, a couple of years after my father’s dramatic escape, followed his progress by paying a boatman to ferry her across. But I had to be left behind. I eventually joined them, and I grew up with my mother in the small seaside town of Hastings.
When I got older after university I decided to reverse this migration. I took myself out of the cosy seaside town in which I’d grown up. I left the familial home and I marked my graduation ceremony in absentia. I was already flying halfway across the world.
I moved to Beijing at the age of 23. The Chinese capital is home to around 20 million people and is a vast metropolis, far bigger than Hastings and the southern Chinese city of Guilin in which I’d been born. In this metropolis, I met other foreign migrants who, like me, were chasing some kind of adventure. And after a while I started to notice the Chinese migrants, the ones from the countryside, and those who had moved from smaller cities to Beijing.
It was only later that I realised this echoes the migratory patterns British people, and people from all over the world, make. We move. We move around – for education, for work, for love, for careers, for family.
We move from small towns to the big city. We move from rural pastures to university towns. We migrate from Bath to Barcelona; from Brighton to Bali; from Southampton to Sydney; and in my case, I migrated myself to Beijing in order to kickstart my journalism career.
When I arrived, my first three months were extremely lonely. I was apprehensive and anxious. But ambition burned within me. Yet it took a while to find my footing. I remember sitting in my bedroom, in an apartment I shared with strangers whom I rarely encountered, and looking out the window at the grey autumnal light, filtered by the polluted air, and thinking to myself, just exactly what am I doing here? I find it hard to imagine now, how far I’ve come, peering back at that scared, younger self.
Over the course of six years, I learned so much. I rediscovered my Chinese tongue. I made friends and dated cross-culturally. I learned about the Chinese concept of networking – guanxi – which is a far deeper concept. A concept that is more about developing a social web, or a robust cloud of connections, that you are bound to as much as they are bound to you. I witnessed the transformation of a country: from major Asian power to a geopolitical and economic titan. I met Americans, Italians, Germans, Koreans, Japanese, French, Brits, even a Greenlander! All of us migrants; all of us unsure of how temporary or permanent our mode of existence was.
I gained bylines. Lots of bylines. I wrote for The Atlantic, New Statesman, The Guardian, The Independent, Aljazeera, Daily Telegraph, CNN, Foreign Policy, The National, WIRED. I spoke about China on BBC Radio and the World Service, and for a Canadian national broadcaster. I travelled a lot and reported from around Asia: Hong Kong, Nepal, Burma, South and North Korea. I learned how to freelance.
But for seven months, I also lived in a tiny room, in Beijing, that was as wide as my wingspan (I’ve got the YouTube video to prove it) and I lived on sweet potatoes for a time, to save money. There were lots of ups and downs. But overall, I climbed an upward path. I still remember, deeply, the feeling of what it was like to finally move to a new apartment, with a room that had a couch and a big bed and space to move around. It was a feeling like I’d made it; that I’d managed to forge a proper life for myself, and the achievement all the more soulful for having done it abroad.
From 2012 to 2018, Beijing was my home. But it was a chance encounter, in 2014, that provided the idea that we westerners were also migrants. Professor Caroline Knowles, a sociologist from Goldsmiths University, spent five years researching the lives of British migrants in Beijing. I was one of those she interviewed. Her subsequent report Young Londoners in Beijing (2015) offered a fascinating insight. These were some of her key findings:
- The resources which young migrants think migration supplies are interconnected, but for analytical clarity, I have divided them into: adventure; The Beijing Party; Beijing’s impact on their personal transformation; employment opportunities and alternatives to the insecurities of London.
- The young migrants like living in Beijing. It provides them with the freedom of viable adult life they cannot find in London because of limited opportunities, especially in arts and culture industries, and because of the gap between wages and living costs. This is a brain drain of highly educated young talent.
Her report made it clear that we were looking for employment, for opportunities, for experiences. She also touched on the dark side that was involved with this lifestyle:
- The young migrants navigate these new landscapes of uncertainty with growing anxiety about how to piece together the elements of viable adult life in jobs and intimate relationships.
It seems this kind of liminal space, where you navigate independence, forge connections, and make discoveries about yourself, is vitally important. This Harvard Business Review study summarises it: How Living Abroad Helps You Develop a Clearer Sense of Self:
“We focused on ‘self-concept clarity,’ the extent to which someone’s understanding of himself or herself is ‘clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable’. Self-concept clarity has been linked to a host of benefits, such as psychological well-being, the ability to cope with stress, and job performance, but research on how it can be cultivated is very limited.” Perhaps one of the greatest threats to the happiness of individuals is stasis; and that cloying, pickled feeling that you can’t do anything about it. It’s like being trapped by a cave of your own making and difficult to find your way out of.
But it can start, very simply, from getting off the sofa and going for a walk. To move! To remember again how good it feels to use your body, to inhabit your limbs and your senses: run; sprint! Feel the wind on your arms and your pulse quicken. Travelling and living abroad delivers heightened sensorial experiences and I am addicted to those experiences, but migration, at its simplest, is about the simple act of moving.
These days, I have left Beijing and I am roving around Asia as a freelance journalist and copywriter. It’s a new challenge. Every week I am making new discoveries, making new connections and feeling pulled onward by the journey of life. It is not for everyone, I know, and I still feel lonely and insecure from time to time. But I have also learned that constant happiness is not the be-all and end-all.
Politically, I have also learned how narrative and the stories we tell can be changed by the people telling them. Facts, however, remain constant. And the fact is migration is a constant of all peoples, regardless of their background. Over 5.5 million British people are living abroad, many of them in Australia, Spain, the US, and Canada. In the latest ONS report 343,000 people are recorded to have left the UK in the past year.
But these statistics do not reveal how many British nationals are travelling abroad with the intent of living, studying and working in a foreign country. Figures are hard to obtain but a pioneering 2006 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that 41 foreign countries have a UK expat population of at least 10,000 and 112 nations have at least 1,000 Brits among their populace.
Moving around Asia I often encounter Brits especially in its former colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore. In China and Southeast Asia Brits are not migrants in the sense they have permanently moved to that country. But they are resident in a way that extends beyond this narrow definition. They have arrived to piggyback on the opportunities inherent in these emerging economies.
Going back in history, it is because of European migration and colonialism that we have fiery Asian food (chilli peppers come from Mexico and arrived in Asia via Portuguese traders); fish and chips (potatoes come from Peru) and delicious Italian pasta sauces (tomatoes also come from the Americas). The movement of peoples and cultures is an age-old story and this “history” is still continuing.
The greatest lesson migration has taught me? On the macro scale: the past is not past; history is still happening. And on a personal level? That one can do anything if you face the uncomfortable and the unfamiliar with courage.