I’ve been thinking a lot lately about women who travel. My own travels have recently brought me to the UK, to take up a job at the University of Exeter. I arrived just over a week ago and from new colleagues, yoga classmates, and bank managers, the most common things I’ve heard are Why did you come to the UK? (asked with incredulity) and That’s so brave (said with awe). To the former I usually respond tritely with Because they offered me a job, but to the latter I am dumbfounded. In the age of A380s and the Internet, it doesn’t feel that brave.
In earlier times, women who moved to other countries had to board ships, for a journey of several months, to a country about which they knew almost nothing and from which they could never return. One of my female ancestors boarded a boat from England to Australia with seven children in tow, not all of whom survived the journey. Another went by boat from America to Australia, bound for Gympie, a country town that today is a four-hour drive from the nearest city, but then would have been a journey of several days by horse and cart. Both travelled without a husband.
Even today, women fleeing conflict zones are forced to travel by foot or in unseaworthy boats to reach the relative safety of a refugee camp, where they face the prospect of sexual assault, a long wait to be granted asylum, and the horrendous possibility of being turned back.
In contrast to these women, I am not brave, I am lucky. By virtue of being born in Australia, to a white, middle class family, all I had to do was pay some money and get on a plane. My safety was never in jeopardy, I was welcomed with open arms, I already spoke the language, and I can return any time I like.
Except I’m not in any hurry to return. Like Laurie in Little Women, who had always known that he was meant to be a part of the March family, I have always known that I was meant to live overseas. The real answer to Why did you come to the UK? is so much more complicated than Because they offered me a job. It is because I have never wanted to be the sort of woman who spends her entire life 5km from where she was born. Because the books of my childhood were filled with adventurous girls and women. Because as a woman who is financially independent and childless by choice, I have the freedom to go wherever I chose. Because I like cold, quiet places. Because I am passionate about doing good research on an international scale. And, of course, because they offered me a job.
This isn’t the first time I’ve moved overseas though. Six years ago I moved to Singapore. It was a brief and ill-advised move that left me emotionally and financially shattered. So awful were both the experience and the prospect of returning to Australia, that I contemplated suicide.
But this move has been different. More than a year in the making, I did my research, prepared myself physically, emotionally, and financially, and had the support of family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve only been here a week, but already it feels like home. I’m writing this in a country pub, next to a fireplace, with a glass of wine in hand and Nina Simone wafting over the pub chatter. My new colleagues have been amazingly welcoming, I’ve found a fantastic yoga studio, and the single digit weather fills my heart with joy. This is the life I’ve been dreaming of.
Sometimes, however, as I prepared to make the move, I wondered whether the Singapore experience was the result of a weak character. Perhaps, despite it being my heart’s desire, I just wasn’t cut out for migration. Maybe I wasn’t as tough or as adventurous as the women I’d read about as a child. Maybe I didn’t have what it took to be an international academic. When these moments struck, I reflected on other women travellers. The women who boarded ships or trains or horse-drawn carts. Women of true courage who set the example I was so eager to follow. I read Gloria Steinem’s My Life On The Road, listened to my heart, and practiced yoga. I also thought about all the women – including my grandmother – who never had the opportunity, but would have loved so dearly, to do something like this. I silenced the voices of doubt – which were never mine to begin with – and found peace in my own strength.
I once attended a suicide prevention conference where an eminent professor was asked about suicide rates among migrants. He responded by saying rates were low because those who chose to migrate were, by nature, resilient, adventurous, and up for a challenge. Well, he proceeded to say, except for the women… because they just followed their husbands. I almost walked out in protest.
Women who migrate are resilient. They are adventurous. And they face challenges head-on; with or without a man by their side. I might not be brave, but I am proud to count myself among a group of women who have left the familiar for the unknown, who have forged paths that others might follow, and who have dared to dream that there is a world beyond their front gate and that they might help to shape that world.