The eternal traveler

Beyond borders, a journey with no return

15 APR 2017

We are always moving – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because we are forced to do so. Wars, economic crisis, unstable, dictatorial or separatist governments, exile, walls or just a personal curiosity for learning, getting to know and experiencing other places, other people, other cultures: all these things push us to change. Whatever the reason, a common factor accompanies us on our journey: the fear of uncertainty. We set out with our backpack loaded with everything we learned in the place where we come from. And once this first step is taken the first step, by necessity or by choice, there is no turning back; we will never be the same again, even if one day we return to what was our home. We become, without being really aware of it, eternal travelers, culturally homeless, destined to live between different worlds and to develop our capacity for survival through adaptability.

The beginning of the journey

Just by looking at the countless screens in our lives, or by paying attention to our environment, we can get an idea of the reasons that drive us to abandon our places of origin in search of destinations potentially more favorable. The large displacement from the southeast to the northwest of the world shows us the direction of migration and, accordantly, of economic flows. Some people flee from threats and dangers, from war and destruction, from hunger and death, from helplessness and pain… compelled by the survival instinct to travel thousands of kilometers in search of refuge. In addition to the obvious difficulties of the journey caused by the limited resources of the travelers, the possible rejection from the host societies, and the struggle for obtaining the right of asylum or the refuge status; the traveler will also need to deal with the fear that implies facing an uncertain future in an unknown destination.

Others find their motives in the instability, precariousness, unemployment, debts, the lack of opportunities, frustration… and fill their suitcases with expectations willing to undertake the journey. Some of them are prepared: in their pockets they have valid passports, university degrees and local language knowledge. They may even have a job to go to, and always the possibility to return. But there are also those who travel with empty pockets, desperate for a better life. They jump fences and borders, cross seas in boats, sometimes managing to escape from the authorities, and become illegals sentenced to live in hiding or under another sold identity. All of these different travelers are accompanied by fear due to the uncertainty of the future. The emptier their pockets and the more clouded their future, however, the more powerful and distressing their fear will be.

There are also those who take the decision to travel willingly. Work opportunities, studies, learning languages, experiencing different cultures and lifestyles – all are reason enough to embark on a new adventure. They probably feel somewhat concerned by the unknown, although they can always find relief in the feasible and safe option of the return ticket. This is the case of short-term visits for work, business and academic, leisure or tourist reasons. Touristic trips can vary by destination and length of stay, depending on economic resources, disposition and personal curiosity. For instance, the so-called "backpacker" is not afraid to cross highways and cities, towns and villages or oceans and streams in order satisfy their hunger for adventure and discovery.

The arrival: encountering the unknown

Whatever the motives for the farewell, there is a common factor in all journeys: the arrival and the meeting with the unknown. In facing a different society with its own language, mentality, behavior and customs, we experience what is known as culture shock1. This shock can cause confusion, insecurity, anxiety and even stress or depression while we feel lost and misunderstood in a different culture to ours. On the other hand, we can also understand this as an opportunity to explore, learn and grow as a person. Our predisposition towards this new challenge and how we manage the uncertainty that this situation generates is determined by number of factors: previous (similar) experiences, reasons for travel, legal situation, knowledge and familiarity with the country of destination, length of stay, type of host society, if there is a cultural pluralism, prior immigration or social structures that facilitate the integration of newcomers.

In addition to these reasons, there are other factors that will be influential in how we deal with and process this challenge – our values and personal qualities2. A general distinction is made between two types of opposite personalities. On one hand, there are individuals with a “certainty-orientated” attitude and “conservative-power” values. This type of personality tends to avoid the ambiguity and complexity of the unknown, and to seek safety, conformity and a clear status limitation. As a result, these people are more likely to have difficulties with integrating into a new society and managing uncertainty, and they are more reluctant to undergo the internal transformation that this experience entails.

On the other hand, there are individuals with “uncertainty-orientated” motives and “openness-to-change-universal” values. These personalities are open to risk and experiencing the unknown, often trying to find information to resolve the ambiguity, always willing to learn, and they consider all individuals equal. This type of personality, therefore, has more facility to adapt, to manage the uncertainty positively, acquire knowledge and transform itself within a new culture. In spite of the usefulness of the categorizations, only we, with our personal experience, can define how we combine these opposite personalities in ourselves.

The stay and transformation

The set of circumstances, motives and personal values will determine not only our arrival, but also how we will continue to deal with our fears and build our future at our destination. After overcoming initial shock – or not – we will usually try to adapt and find our place within the new environment. This process is known as acculturation3. This is not always this is case, however: sometimes newcomers choose or are forced to do the opposite, by "marginalizing" or "excluding" themselves. This happens when people avoid having relationships and contact with others in the host society, because they are or feel excluded or discriminated by them, as well as with their countrymen, because they reject or lose interest in maintaining their culture of origin. Usually this isolation creates great difficulties for survival, increases the feeling of insecurity, and causes confusion, stress and even depression.

The opposite may also happen: the person searches for security and shelter in their cultural identity and native community, and shies away from relating and adapting to the dominant group of the place that has received them. Then "separation" or "segregation" takes place, in which the host society is the one that imposes this division through discrimination and rejection of other cultures. Although this situation can also cause anxiety in the individual due to their uncertain future in an environment that they refuse to get to know, or from which they are excluded, support from his native community could offer him some comfort and stability in his new life.

On the contrary, there are people who tend to break away from and even discard their original identity and culture, and pursue interaction and daily contact with the predominant group in order to be accepted by them. This is the stage of "assimilation", or "the melting pot", according to the logic of the host society. Here, the opposite of "separation" occurs. Now, the newcomer finds the necessary support to face their uncertain future within the host society by being apart and denying his own culture and native community.

Going one step further, we have the ideal adaptation: "integration" into a "multicultural" host society where the cultural and ethnic diversity is accepted as something inherent to it. An individual is considered integrated when they are able to maintain their original culture, and at the same time interact with the dominant group according to its cultural patterns. As a result, the individual would be able to adapt and to coalesce into the new environment more easily and reduce the stress of uncertainty. If the circumstances and the host society type allow, the person will get closer to the ideal “integration”. However, they could also go forwards and back through all the previous states, depending on the context and personal experience.

The illusion of Integration

While all of the above cases involve a transformation in the individual, either the tendency towards isolation, the reaffirmation of native culture and identity, or the absolute assimilation of the host society culture; integration represents the greatest challenges of change. There are several theories that explain how an individual can integrate two or more cultures into their original personality in order to survive in different contexts.

  • Fusion Model4: according to this model, the individual incorporates new cultural patterns into existing ones, without bringing them into conflict, in order to cope with the new environment and not give up their native culture.

  • Alternation Model 5: this describes the individual’s ability to instantly switch between behavior and cultural patterns depending on the environment in which they are in.

  • Hybrid Model 6: this defines how a new personality emerges in the individual as a result of the merger of their native culture and the one which is developing through interaction with the new cultural environment.

The outcome is a bicultural or multicultural individual able to adapt and survive in different contexts. However, this does not guarantee that the person believes that they are integrated in both cultures. In fact, it is likely that there would be the opposite effect. It may happen that, although the individual understands and knows how to adapt to different dynamics and cultural patterns, they could feel they do not entirely belong to any of these cultures. It is the case of the so-called cultural homeless7.

On one hand, these types of individuals have a great capacity to adapt to new contexts and environments, to learn languages, social and cultural behaviors, and to process the anxiety generated by the encounter with the unknown in a positive manner. On the other hand, they are unable to identify with and integrate completely into one single culture, since this would entail denying or rejecting part of their bicultural or multicultural personality. This feeling of not belonging can generate confusion, identity conflicts and low self-esteem, isolation, and depression.

Heading home: a journey with no return

The clearest example of this uprooting feeling occurs when, after a long time abroad, you decide to return home to where you belong, where everything is familiar and there is no need to deal with the unknown. After initial happiness and joyful moments (because of the reunion with your family, friends and familiar surroundings) it is very likely that a feeling of disorientation – or even vertigo – arises unexpectedly, since you discover that everything is different and you do not actually feel at home. This is the reverse culture shock8. Time has passed for all: you and your relatives have changed, somehow everything is different and you feel out of place. It is when you begin the same adaptation process that you went through when you were abroad, but in reverse.

Again you can experience different adaptation phases. At the beginning, the feeling of confusion and misunderstanding may take you to a state of despondency and you tend to exclude or distance yourself, at least for a while. Or perhaps the urgent need to feel that you belong makes you ignore and forget everything you learned during your stay abroad, and you decide to take back the role of the person who you were before, and who people around you expect you to be. Or it might be that you prefer to pursue the illusion of integration and maintain the new multicultural personality that you acquired, even though you have to accept that you will never be the person you were before you left. You will probably always feel that you either don´t fit or identify with a single culture or lifestyle, that you will never have a single home. You feel that you have become an eternal traveler, who will constantly be ready to face new challenges, learn about the world, and transcend geographical, social or cultural boundaries that many insist on building.


1Berry, J. W. (1997). “Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation Applied Psychology: An International Review”, Volume 46 ,Issue 1, pp. 5-68. Hermans H. J. and Dimaggio G. (2007). “Self, Identity, and Globalization in Times of Uncertainty: A Dialogical Analysis”. American Psychological Association, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp. 31–61.
2 Roccas, S. and Brewer, M. B. (2002). “Social Identity Complexity Personality and Social Psychology Review”, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp. 88–106. 3 Berry J. W. (2005). “Acculturation: Living successfully in two cultures. An International Review”, Volume 29, Issue 6, pp. 697-712.
4LaFromboise, T.; Coleman, H. L.; Gerton, J. (1993). “Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory”. Psychological Bulletin, Volume 114, pp. 395-412.
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7Hoersting, C. R.; Jenkins, R. S. (2011). “No place to call home: Cultural homelessness, self-esteem and cross-cultural identities”. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp. 17-30. Vivero, V. N. and Jenkins, S. R. (1999). “The existential hazards of the multicultural individual: Defining and understanding "cultural homelessness"”. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Volume 5, pp. 6-26.
8 Corey Heller. Returning Home After Living Abroad. Multilingual Living Magazine.