Phoenix Rising: A Question of Cultural Identity

by Barbara F. Schaetti

It was a beautiful Spring Sunday in Switzerland. My aunt, uncle, a cousin and I were on a "wanderweg," following one of the many walking paths that weave through the Swiss countryside. We roamed through forests, passed vistas sweeping towards the Alps, meandered through farm villages. I felt at ease, familiar in the memories of many other such walks from both my childhood and more recent years. We stopped for a moment to greet other walkers on the trail. My aunt introduced me as her "American niece." I felt my body stop; I wanted to cry out "no!".

Why? I am American. I've traveled on an American passport all my life. I spent a good portion of every childhood summer in the United States. I lived here from the ages of 13 to 15; I attended University here; I live here again now and have done so consistently for the past twelve years.

The thing is, I don't think of myself as "American." Rather, I identify myself as an American-Swiss global nomad with a very European-influenced international background.

Why is this so important to me? It has to do with fitting in and belonging, with my intent to be a part of society rather than apart from. It has to do with finding integrity and direction in my experience as a cultural marginal.

Cultural Marginality

Cultural marginality describes an experience; one typical of global nomads and others who have been molded by exposure to two or more cultural traditions. Such people don't tend to fit perfectly into any one of the cultures to which they have been exposed but may fit comfortably on the edge, in the margins, of each.

Cultural marginality is in and of itself neither bad nor good although the experience has the potential to be both. It is characterized by the potential for, on the one-hand, feeling at home nowhere and, on the other hand, feeling at home everywhere. Whether our cultural marginality hinders us or helps us depends on what we do with it. We can allow ourselves to become "encapsulated," trapped by it, or can learn to use it "constructively," as a strategic advantage.

Janet Bennett is Co-director of the Intercultural Communication Institute and director of the ICI/Antioch Master's Degree Program in Intercultural Relations. She has written a paper titled "Cultural Marginality: Identity Issues in Intercultural Training." (Education for the Intercultural Experience. E. Michael Paige, ed., Intercultural Press. Yarmouth, Maine. 1993.) In it, Bennett discusses these two possible responses to marginality: encapsulated and constructive.


Encapsulated Marginality

Those who are trapped in their marginality tend to be unsure of who they are. As Bennett puts it, they are "buffeted by conflicting cultural loyalties." (pg. 113) They surrender their own opinions, their own concerns, to follow somewhat aimlessly the action of those around them. They may have difficulty making decisions, defining their boundaries, identifying personal truths. They often feel alienated, powerless, angry, that life is devoid of meaning.

Encapsulated marginals typically experience themselves as isolated. They perceive their circumstances as so unique that they do not, cannot, envision a peer group with whom they can relate. Bennett says "this captive state can be called 'terminal uniqueness,' for it seems irresolvable to the encapsulated marginal." (pg. 115) They "may report feeling inauthentic all the time, as if any engagement in society is simply role-playing, and there is no way to ever feel 'at home'." (pg. 115) Global nomads may respond by abandoning their international selves in order to try and assimilate into the society in which they find themselves. This can be exacerbated by others: I remember hearing of one young global nomad whose fiancé warned him that he'd have to give up that "international stuff" if he really wanted to marry her.


Constructive Marginality

People who are constructive in their marginality have also been buffeted by conflicting cultural loyalties. In struggling to understand themselves, however, they have come to understand their cultural marginality. They have developed a strong sense of who they are. They have a clear commitment to a personal truth and are able to "form clear boundaries in the face of multiple cultural perspectives." (pg. 118)

Bennett notes a term coined by Muneo Yoshikawa: "dynamic in-betweenness." (pg. 118) Dynamic in-betweenness suggests that the constructive marginal is able to move easily and powerfully between different cultural traditions, acting appropriately and feeling at home in each, and in doing so simultaneously maintains an integrated, multi-cultural sense of self. Rather than the either/or identity of encapsulated marginals, constructive marginals experience their movement between cultures as both/and.

Constructive marginals tend to put their multi-cultural experiences to good use. Global nomads, for example, come to recognize that the knowledge and skills they gained through their internationally-mobile childhoods can further their personal and professional goals.

Bennett notes that "unlike the encapsulated marginal, the constructive marginal feels authentic and recognizes that one is never not at home in the world." She continues, "this comfort may be partially due to the acknowledgment that one does have a peer group. It is not fellow member's of one's... [passport] culture, but rather a group of fellow marginals with whom one has more in common than with anyone else." (pg.118) For many global nomads and third culture kids, it is when they first discover those terms, first learn about Global Nomads International, that they finally "come home." They can finally name a community to which they fully belong, where they don't need to explain themselves, where their experiences are understood and celebrated.


Nationality and Cultural Marginality

What does all of this have to do with my reaction that Spring Sunday in Switzerland when I was introduced as "American?" Such a reaction is certainly not unique to me: many adult global nomads to whom I've posed the question agree that they too have such a reaction when introduced by citizenship.

I think global nomads who don't like to be introduced by citizenship don't like it for two reasons. First, it doesn't adequately describe us. It renders invisible the multiplicity of our experience. It ignores the fact that who we are was shaped through exposure to more than one national culture and by the experience of international mobility.

Second, it renders invisible the work we have done to develop a strong sense of identity as cultural marginals. Many of us first experienced our marginality in a significant way upon re-entry to our passport countries. We typically experienced it as something painful and encapsulating. It has taken hard work (even if only that of getting older and, we hope, wiser) to change our experience of marginality to one that is constructive.


A Multi-Cultural Reality

Let me use my own story to illustrate.

I was raised to consider myself American. While my Swiss citizenship was always proudly acknowledged, it was the United States which served as "home-base." Summer vacations included short visits to relatives in Switzerland and long visits to relatives in the States. In Switzerland we went hiking and swimming and did all those things one does on holiday. In the States we also went to doctors and dentists and did all those things one does at "home" before leaving again for distant lands. When we misbehaved, my siblings and I were reminded that the world's impression of America rested upon our actions; we were our country's ambassadors. We went to expatriate-sponsored celebrations of the 4th of July. The international schools I attended had a heavy American influence. My parents assumed that my sisters and I would attend University in the States, as indeed we all eventually did.

Though I was raised to consider myself American, my core identity was formed by peoples and places, sights and sounds and smells, from all over the world. My father is Swiss by birth, my mother American; both were born in India. I was born in the U.S. but left at the age of fourteen months. I lived in ten countries on five continents by age eighteen and moved internationally twelve times by age twenty-two. I first attended schools in the French system and then the British and finished my secondary education in international schools. We used words of Urdu, Tamil, Swiss and Arabic in our family's private language. We were evacuated out of Algeria during the war of independence from the French. I celebrated Guy Fawkes day when we lived in England; was given the full series of rabies shots when we lived in Morocco; participated in the naming ceremony for my batik teacher's son when we lived in Singapore.

Like me, most global nomads are raised to consider themselves full members of the countries on whose passports they travel. A Nigerian expatriate spouse attending one of my programs a few years ago told me the following story in a voice filled with both frustration and laughter. When asked where they were from, each of her children named in turn the country in which he or she was born - Belgium, England, France. Her response, she said, was to follow after them saying, "no, no, you're Nigerian." Her children, however, had little direct experience of Nigeria, even less than I had had of America. Their knowledge of "home" was mediated by their parents, by what news of Nigeria reached the host country media, by what they heard host nationals and other expatriates say.

Being Nigerian meant little to those young Nigerian global nomads. Indeed, national identity means little to many global nomad children. Some may romanticize their passport country, others may absorb a dislike and mistrust. Few really question their identity until they re-enter the country they have always considered theirs. I certainly did not question my identity. I was raised to consider myself American, and so I did - until I went "home" to the States to live.


Re-Entry and Cultural Marginality

My first re-entry took place at the age of 13, my next at nineteen. It was a painful experience both times. I learned each time that the American I was raised to be was not "American" in the way my new peers experienced it. I shared none of the popular knowledge and few of the common experiences. The things I cared about were irrelevant to those around me. I behaved in ways considered "foreign" and spoke with an accent. I felt "terminally unique." We could all have better understood this, my American peers and I, if we didn't all consider me to be "American." I simply didn't fit in mainstream America. I was a cultural marginal. I felt trapped by my difference. To use Bennett's term, I was encapsulated by my marginality.

This is a very common description of the global nomad's re-entry experience. I've worked recently with several different groups of global nomads on issues of re-entry. One was a group of mostly university-age global nomads whose re-entry experiences were still very fresh. The other groups consisted of global nomads in their thirties and forties, with some in their fifties and sixties. Without exception, they all reported how difficult it had been to be so different. For many, re-entry was the first time they realized that they were culturally marginal. It had never been an issue abroad. Once "home," each had to find a precarious balance on the outside edge, on the cultural margin, of the country they had been raised to think of as theirs.

I went abroad twice more at ages 15 and 22, each time finding comfort and solace in being someplace where it was obvious to everyone around me that I "didn't belong." I could fit comfortably into the cultural margins because nobody expected me to be in the mainstream. I didn't have to deal with my marginality, it just was.

I returned to the States finally at 23 and once more was confronted with my marginality. I learned over time to fit in by not fitting in. I went to graduate school, studied intercultural conflict management and trained to be a mediator. In both that and subsequent work as a corporate consultant, I found that my marginality benefited me: it was a professional advantage as well as personally comfortable. I moved in and out, between and among conflicting parties, building bridges across their differences but never settling firmly on one side or another, in one place or another. I began to learn to use my marginality constructively, to help me become a part of society rather than apart from it. This was an ongoing process, not an event. Now, at last, I value and celebrate my cultural marginality.


Developing a Constructive Experience of Marginality

A lot of things helped me move from encapsulated to constructive marginality.

My graduate studies and early work in mediation and corporate consulting helped me learn to use my marginality constructively, as I have said. I was introduced in my late twenties to the term "global nomad," and thereby found a community of people with whom I belong. I discovered the field of intercultural communication wherein my international experiences and mobile childhood are valued. I function personally and professionally in environments which require me continually to use my intercultural skills. As I get older I'm evolving a personal truth to which I am fully committed while maintaining my ability to appreciate the truth of others'.

As adult global nomads, parents of global nomads, and teachers of global nomads, there are many things we can do to help internationally-mobile children avoid altogether or escape from a painful experience with encapsulating marginality.

One of the most important actions we can take is to foster global nomads' multi-cultural identities. We too often seek to contain our children within a single national identity: French or Nigerian, Indonesian or American, British or Peruvian. Instead, better to acknowledge that nationality is only an overlay to the international experience. Better to encourage global nomads' identity development as global nomads, multicultural people with much to offer a multicultural world. We foster experiences of constructive marginality when we allow people to be all of who they are.

International schools have a role to play here too: multicultural curriculums; transition programs addressing entry, leave-taking, re-entry; discussion and activity groups addressing global nomad identity issues.

Identifying a peer group can in and of itself be transformative. Introduce global nomads to people with whom they can relate, with whom they can feel authentic and speak about the whole of who they are. Many adult global nomads, talking about how they learned to manage their own re-entry experiences, report finding other global nomads (even if they weren't so identified) or joining with foreign students on campus. Indeed, the importance of no longer being terminally unique is what leads to membership in such organizations as Global Nomads International and the formation of local global nomad communities around the world.

Bennett argues that the single most essential ingredient when building a constructive experience of marginality is developing a sense of one's own truth. Certainly it is valuable to be able to understand different truths as represented in different cultures, to withhold judgment and interpretation. This is part of the global nomad birthright. At the same time, however, it is important for the adult global nomad to plant his or her feet in personal truth, one not dependent on circumstance. "This is what I believe, regardless of the cultural context in which I find myself. I may alter my behavior according to changing circumstances, but my truth remains my truth."

We owe it to ourselves and to one another to encourage the constructive experience of cultural marginality. There is so much power, so much to celebrate in the positive expression of the global nomad experience!

Barbara F. Schaetti is President of Transition Dynamics, an international training and consulting firm serving expatriate families. Bobbie is a dual-national, second-generation global nomad. She works extensively with international schools, parent associations sponsored by international schools, on-site expatriate support organizations, and the employer organizations which send families abroad. Contact Bobbie at