Expats to exiles

Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_Port_Ruysdael_-_Google_Art_Project copy.jpg
JMW Turner, “Port Ruysdael”

Sometimes leaving home means not coming back. 

Scientists were globalists before the term even existed. From the very beginnings of the profession, science has had an innately international outlook in terms of both perspective and, for its practitioners, personal situation. Scientists have always maintained contact or at least connections with friends, collaborators, and competitors from all over the world, and have themselves moved wherever patronage and support was most favourable. Today, that mobility is enshrined as one of the badges of honour in the community.

Of course, the choice to pack your bags isn’t always made from a position of luxury. In some countries, scientists can spend several years abroad at whatever location best suits their career plan, safe in the knowledge that equivalent or even better openings remain in their own land. In other countries, with less of an established scientific culture and infrastructure, or maybe a less politically favourable environment, the choice to leave can be made less voluntarily, and perhaps more reluctantly. 

For citizens of such countries, the choice to move is a choice between having a world-class career, or staying at home. American academia in particular thrived for many years in being a welcoming haven for all, and a magnet for overseas talent. The lure of being able to test your full potential is an inviting one, but it may still not be easy to leave, and especially where family considerations come into play.

Whatever the motivation for relocation, it means that many – if not most – scientists spend a portion or even a majority of their lives and careers as immigrants. They will be dwelling in a different land, a different culture, and often getting to grips with a different language. Whether it’s correlative or causative is hard to judge, but because of that immigrant status it’s perhaps not surprising that many scientists tend to be at the more tolerant and socially liberal end of the spectrum – one reason why they have often found themselves as the targets of repressive regimes pushing an authoritarian agenda (ongoing events in Hungary being merely the latest in a long list of examples). 

And it’s not just the experience of being in a minority that’s likely to breed insight into and respect towards others, it’s also the international nature of science itself. Scientists quickly learn that regardless of their native tongue, they all speak a common language, and that sense of kinship with people you’ve never even met – and the automatic assumption of a kind of familiarity through awareness of shared philosophy and outlook – is a key step in the acquisition of a truly internationalist mindset.

But these lengthy expatriate periods tend to produce ever more existential soul-searching the longer they go on. In fact, there may come a time when a person has been abroad for so long that they realise they are closer aligned to the values and attitudes of their host country than those currently professed by their native one. When you’ve been gone for so long that you’ve changed, and in a direction that wouldn’t perhaps have been followed had you stayed at home, does that mean you have simply assimilated into your adoptive home country? Or have you instead shed some of the prejudices that you never knew you had? 

Alternatively: Has your country changed more than you have? 

There are times, dark times for any émigré, when the realisation dawns that home has become a very long way away indeed. “This is not the country that you left” is something no expat wishes to hear, whether delivered as observation or warning. In 2019, political trends in a number of countries across the globe are undoubtedly prompting some soul-searching amongst their respective scientific diasporas. Would they still fit in if they moved back? Or would they realise they didn’t belong any more?

It’s the fate of the immigrant that the country you left behind is almost always preserved – for better or worse – in your mind. Whenever you return, your current experiences are compared with your remembered ones. It’s a fallacy of memory. Countries aren’t frozen in time, any more than people are. Friendships change, relationships mature or wither, and political institutions slowly mirror the changing currents in society. As time passes, the discrepancy between what’s remembered and what’s now seen can become a gap so stark as to be painful. 

At this point, the expat may realise that they’ve left home not just temporarily, but perhaps for ever. The solace? Such an insight marks the transcendence of the individual, like the protagonist of Hermann Hess’ “Demian”, into a new and international world. The unplanned banishment can be celebrated as the adoption of a new identity in a community spanning the globe. 

The expat has become an exile, but is not alone.  

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