Pulled apart by horses
Image courtesy of
Pulled apart by horses
Image courtesy of

Like a pair of old slippers…


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he comfort of familiarity isn’t limited to thoughts and feelings. It’s a physical sensation. Seeing, hearing or smelling something that was once everyday and ordinary, but isn’t anymore, is like the reassuring weight of a soothing arm around your shoulders – you can feel the warmth, your muscles relax and tensions dissipate, you lean into it like a hug. If you were hooked up to machines measuring your body’s signals, they would register the alterations in your vital signs as you physically respond to memory…Don’t underestimate its power; it’s like coming home without leaving your present location – you feel a strong sense of belonging. It’s real and immediate.

It happened to me the other night. I was following the UK local elections being dissected on the BBC and a sudden rush of recognition engulfed me, tsunami-style. The effortlessness with which all the pieces fitted into their correct slots to give me a holistic understanding of what was happening was relaxing and enjoyable, like a sedative to my strained senses. Language, tone, situation, facial expression and humor were all grasped instantly. I had forgotten what it felt like to absorb information so intuitively.

On a basic level, we’re hardwired to seek pleasure. So it’s logical that the reassuring feelings brought about by familiarity encourage us to stick to what we know, to stay where we belong. But what happens when you have a strong sense of adventure and a drive to explore?

You become torn.


A journey of self-discovery…


When you move to a new country the heady exhilaration of discovery is addictive. Having all your senses on overload is a buzz and the growing sense of trust in your abilities as you learn to navigate new locations and situations makes you feel more complete as a person than anything ever has before. You bond more tightly with those that matter and life is full of potential, urgency and feeling. Your senses are sharper, you’re fully alive – you’re a nomadic ninja, travelling the world, living on your wits!

Even when all that calms down and you become more established in your once-exotic locale, there are still things that make your heart swell – that didn’t exist back home – the frequent manifestations of the raw power of nature, the openness of the people, the slower pace of life. How could you ever walk away from those? Give them up and return home?


Losing your place…


It’s easy to hate expatriates. They’ve done what some people only dream of. They didn’t let the excuses tie them down. When people leave the country in search of a better job or life those left behind can feel betrayed, seeing it as a rejection of national/familial loyalty; as if the expat somehow opted out of, and no longer has feelings for, their homeland – “rats deserting a sinking ship.”

Few, neither those that leave nor those left, realise they are embarking on a life of “living on the outside”. It’s one of those things that, once you do it, it can’t be undone. The sense of belonging that grows out of a shared history and context can’t be easily replicated elsewhere. Some people try for years and never achieve it. The space you occupied in your old life is absorbed into the changing landscape of the lives of those you left behind. You give up that comfort forever.

There’s a little part of me, locked away deep inside that cries out for that unquestioned acceptance and instinctive familiarity, like a child crying for their favourite toy. Most of the time she sits quietly, knees drawn up, thumb in mouth, index finger curling over her nose. Then someone asks, “When are you coming home?” and that little voice screams, “Right now! I want it back, that space where I used to fit…” Oh, sometimes it would be so nice to just slip back in; to rest for a minute, take a break.

But I know it’s an illusion, a travelers mirage. That space isn’t real – it exists only in my imagination. In my heart I fear the suffocation, the end to the highs exploring the rest of the world brings. If the space wasn’t enough before, how could it ever be now?

Get used to feeling torn…

Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. Sometimes we do try to “go back”. Raraely is is successful. Been there and done that myself and watched others try too. “bacK’ is never how you remember it, plus being away changes us. The match isn’t there anymore.

    1. I’m fascinated by the times in life where those irreversible changes take place. Sometimes, they’re obvious, you can feel the significance as they’re happening. Sometimes, you don’t realise their full significance until a long time afterwards…

    2. I have read all the comments and agree with them all. I moved to India when my children were all very young. My oldest son is going back to England to go to University after 10 years overseas. His school (a former British Hill station) has a term for children who have spent so long abroad that they are not sure where ‘home’ really is. They call them Third Culture Kids, which just about sums it up! They know where they are originally from but their life experiences set them apart from their peers in their own country. It can be confusing and isolating for children when they have to relocate to their ‘home’ country. Has anyone else found this when their children relocate after a long time abroad?

  2. And the real truth is that now you’d lived abroad, you never can go back again. Not exactly to that same place. The overseas experience has changed you forever. Yes, you can go back, but you will have to create a new place to fit in. A TCK, Sarah Janney Stoner, just posted this on the Families in Global Transition Facebook wall, which I thought was very telling “‎”Parts of me exist only in a particular country at a particular moment in time. Truth is, I haven’t found a way to connect the pieces.”

    1. Thanks for sharing this—-Parts of me exist only in a particular country at a particular moment in time. Truth is, I haven’t found a way to connect the pieces.” This is a very real feeling that is nearly impossible for those who haven’t experienced it to understand.

  3. Smells have an overwhelming effect on me, sometimes the effect has been so overwhelming that I almost wanted to cry, even if I am not an emotional person. I agree with Team Oyeniyi, the mental image we recorded is not there anymore. In the meantime, people and things have moved on.

  4. Wow—you really nailed it. I love bouncing from country to country and I have recently become aware of my deep, dark fear of settling down. It really can be an addiction, can’t it? “Your senses are sharper, you’re fully alive – you’re a nomadic ninja, travelling the world, living on your wits!” You are absolutely right that once we’ve left home, we’re never the same again. I share the fear of the suffocation you described. Can I keep my creative momentum going if/when I need to stay home? Thanks for putting into words something that that is extremely difficult to explain to others 🙂

  5. At some point you have to face the music and either find peace with your situation (you stay, embrace it, love it with no regrets) or you return to where you came from (you had a great time but long-term and culturally it wasn’t for you). I felt this feeling of having one foot in each place when I first left the UK but over time I realised it was only ‘me’ preventing me from returning. Once I understood that I wasn’t trapped or stuck here for all time, I grew to love my new home with less angst and remorse. Stick with it kid. It doesn’t have to be forever.

    1. I know I can go back any time – we still have a home there. But I also know I don’t want to go back. It’s this dichotomy, that I’m largely unaware of but reminded about now and again, that causes me to question the general perception of “belonging”. My head says that belonging is a learned, conditioned state and that it’s possible to live a completely happy life without feeling the need to “belong” anywhere. Then my heart gets tugged by a reminder of home and I experience the instinctive, intuitive side of belonging. I think it only carries as much weight as we choose to allow it. Thanks for the support 🙂

  6. Or the way you’re torn when somebody asks “When are you coming home” and your heart says “soon” and “but I am home” at the same time. Which is where I am now. Deeply in love with two countries. Yes, get used to being torn, well said.

  7. Ooooh, very well put, the heightened awareness that comes from living out of your comfort zone, and the reverse when you look back. Excellent post.

    Thing is, I hated the feeling of relaxation I got when I came back, especially when I came back ‘for good’. Except now I have got used to it, we are thinking of moving back again and I am wondering if I have the stamina. That’s the kids’ fault. They are quite enough excitement for me these days.

  8. This is exactly how I feel right now. We have had 2 years in Montreal and I’m no closer to making a decision about our long term address than I was after the 1st month. I fear allowing myself to fully immerse in ‘the here and now’ as I really don’t think I’d leave, and that is something too painful to think about too! Torn? Just a little…

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