Maybe you're a kid wondering how a move from the United States to a foreign country might change your life. Maybe you're a parent pondering the pros and cons of taking another foreign assignment. Will multiple moves irrepairably damage a youngster's psyche?
Here are some of my thoughts, based on my personal experience. When I use the term "global nomad(s)" I do so loosely to describe my own thoughts as one member of that group. This is not an academic treatise on the subject -- only a sketch of some elements of the experience I have found particularly noteworthy.
Who is a global nomad? A global nomad is an individual who, spending a significant part of their developmental years in another culture, develops some sense of belonging to both the host culture and the home culture, while not having a sense of total ownership in either. Elements from both (or multiple) cultures are blended, resulting in the third culture.
Global nomads don't all have the same experiences in the same countries. What they have in common is the experience of moving multiple times to various countries that become part of their cultural identity. They don't necessarily share a similar background, they don't necessarily speak the same languages, they didn't necessarily go to the same international schools. But they share the experience of growing up in culture(s) not their own.
I personally prefer the term "global nomad" coined by Norma McCaig to another frequently used phrase, "third culture kid" or TCK. Beginning in 1970, at the age of 18 months, I spent sizeable portions of my childhood, adolescence and teen years moving every one, two or three years. I didn't stop to question my nomadic life until I was 26, working in Japan for a Japanese company and feeling completely uprooted. The comments that follow relate mostly to my experiences of being a US passport holder, but a mix of Japanese and American cultures with a dash of European for spice.
It took misery to prompt me into wondering what it would be like not to move every couple of years. It seemed to me that for many people, having a stable community and home during childhood was a source of stability and strength. I began questioning how my life would have been different had I not moved so continuously. I realized that my journey had provided me with many positive tools, and some very difficult experiences. I needed to sort them out, so I made a list and pondered it. The following is a result of my thoughts.
I like to start with the bright side. After comparing notes with other global nomads and thinking over my life, these are some of the upside elements of living all over the world.
Cross Cultural Skills
It took me a long time to articulate and value the concept of cross cultural skills. This shouldn't happen anymore . . . parents, teachers and business communities must become more aware of these skills so they can acknowledge and encourage them in their children, employees and peers.
Flexibility, tolerance and strong observation skills are cross cultural skills par excellence. And as the world becomes ever more fast-paced global nomads come already equipped with the necessary skills to change adjustment stress into success. As cultures and communities come increasingly into contact, global nomads know how to respect, observe and learn from cultural differences. We don't assume that our way is the best or only way. We are life-long learners, and the world is our classroom. These are critical skills in a world looking for economic prosperity and peace, when in the past there has been a tendency to destroy what we don't understand and annihilate those who are different.
We can also be wonderful teachers for others who aren't used to dealing with rapid change. Global nomads tend to think quickly on our feet and can take the initiative to troubleshoot -- but we often do so in a context of understanding the currents and observing the situation first. Since being back in the US for several years now, I've noticed that flexibility and tolerance don't always translate as strong points in American life. It seems to me that holding a strong personal viewpoint and "demonstrating leadership" is highly valued. A person's forceful thinking and handling of a situation garners kudos. Observation in particular seems to be underrated. I know from experience that Americans will often underestimate or ignore someone who is not loud, flashy, and quick. Many cultures point out that we have two eyes, two ears and only one mouth. . . for good reason. The Japanese have a saying, "Silence is golden". Global nomads try to figure out which way the river is flowing before we jump in. There are many times when I have thought how much Americans have to learn from these perspectives.
Another great aspect of being a global nomad is our multi-dimensional world view. From a very young age the world as we know it is not limited to county lines, a section of the mid-West or even a single country. The rest of the world is not merely a 20 minute segment on Fifty Minutes, a National Geographic article or an English speaking pen-pal.
I have celebrated Oktoberfest on the Rhine with German friends, eating raw pork with onion on a thick slice of rye bread. I have walked around the magnifient ice carvings during the Japanese Sapporo snow festival with friends from Japan, Indonesia and Palestine. I know as much about British history and geography as I do about the United States, and I remember when commemorative coins were issued in Solihull, England to celebrate the marriage of Diana, Princess of Wales, to the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles.
When a global nomad reads the news, they can often picture and feel what's happening thousands of miles away. This does not generally apply to kids who grow up in one culture. My sister Suzanne returned to the United States at the age of 14, having lived abroad since she was three years old. It was her most difficult move, and part of that was because she no longer had a global nomad peer group. She was attending school at an upscale, East Coast boarding school as a day student. The day the Berlin wall fell in 1990 she ran to the commons room to watch the news. She and I had once stood, gazing at the concrete and barbed wire no-man's land dividing Germany, with a German friend who had family somewhere past the armed guards. Excitedly thinking about how the Froelich family must feel, Suzanne asked her fellow students to turn to the news. It was 12 o'clock. Several other young teens deemed a popular soap opera more important.
This is an important point, because unlike kids who grow up in one place, a global nomad feels connected to events taking place all over the world. When an earthquake toppled highways in Kobe in January of 1995 and killed over 5,000 people, I wept with the rest of Japan. When floods destroy parts of Bangladesh and typhoons sweep away hundreds of people in India, I think of my friends, and their families, and I pray for their safety, just as I do for people killed in mudslides in Seattle. We recognize that people everywhere share the joys and pains of life. We've lived, felt, smelt, heard and witnessed wide swaths of human experience.
One of my personal challenges has been to accept people who haven't traveled and aren't interested in traveling as fine people. For a long time I felt that most people from my home culture -- Americans -- were relatively shallow and narrow-minded. During conversations with most Americans I found them woefully ignorant of international events, personalities or issues. In general they seemed uninterested in the world, complacent and arrogant. Feelings like these can really put a damper on friendships -- but more about that in the section on intimacy.
Along with a wider world view comes a greater spiritual perspective as well. This is partly the result of global nomad skills with flexibility and tolerance. It is also because we observe that different people's experience has created different truths in their lives -- from how to relate to self and others to how to relate to spirituality. When you spend your childhood observing and experiencing so many wonderful variations on how and what to eat (most Americans won't touch raw fish and visibly cringe at the idea of raw pork), how to speak and dance and organize in groups -- it's easy for the global nomad to question those who promote a belief that there is only ONE way to nourish a spiritual life. Rather than be threatened by different belief systems, global nomads often relish the beauty in the diversity of religious systems, taking something from everything.
And then there is maturity level. Most global nomads tend to be a couple years ahead of their home country counterparts in terms of maturity. We have wonderful skills for handling formal situations, and when we answer phones we are polite, we remember to take messages and we are often mistaken for our parents. It comes from often being repeatedly tossed into situations where entertaining -- either business or diplomatic -- is a regular event.
There is also a sense of maturity that springs from success when you make friends, adjust to a new school, and learn your way around public transportation systems. By the time I was a senior at the American School in Japan getting around Shinjuku station was a breeze, a daily 2 and a half hour commute to and from school was nothing, and my day away from home generally stretched from 7 am to 6 pm -- with homework until late at night. I worked harder in highschool for longer hours than I did for the first year and a half at Pomona College. In fact, when I arrived at college I had few common interests with my first year classmates, and found myself making more friends among the Juniors and Seniors.
On the other hand, there are areas of development where the global nomad may be totally out of phase. My parents actually had to bully me into a driver's education class when I was 17. We were in Maine on homeleave for two months, and I didn't want to do it. What was the point? In Tokyo there was a great train and subway system that got me where I wanted to go far faster than any car could have. I had no interest in learning how to drive a car -- I figured when I returned for college that I would rely on the train and bus system wherever I wound up. There were kids in my driver's ed class who were 14 and a half and couldn't wait to be able to drive -- and couldn't believe I had no interest in learning how to drive. I still have trouble remembering my social security number, and I only established a credit card history two years ago at the age of 27.
Being bilingual or multi-lingual is valuable. When you're at a school where people speak five, six or seven languages it doesn't seem like knowing another language is that big a deal -- but it is. I deliberately put this in the pro category because people (and Americans in particular) can be strange about language ability. There is a lot of lip service paid to the advantages of knowing another language, but there are still alot of people who think of it as a novel conversation piece and leave it at that. Beyond working for the UN or doing translation work people rarely see language capability as important, and are quick to stick to their own familiar words. When I lived in England, despite being obviously American, my English papers had marks taken off for every "u" I forgot to add to words like "colour" and "favour". Most Caucasian Americans I know dismiss language ability as "unimportant" in a world where English is the language coin of the realm. Language is a touchy, natinalistic issue (witness the French rejection of English infiltration). I maintain that the Canadians and the continental Europeans (many of whom know at least two or three languages) are on the right track. Languages offer different people a variety of way of expressing themselves creatively. Who wants only one kind of art? Why would we want only one kind of language?
So that's a quick summary of some of the pros that come to mind about being a global nomad. Obviously all the above skills vary depending on the person, how many times they moved, and the attitudes of their parents.
So what's on the darker side of the global nomad experience? I have found that to get to the place of celebrating the pros of being a global nomad, I had to deal with some painful emotional issues -- and I still do. I suspect that the global nomad who does not at some time recognize and work with the following issues finds sooner or later that their relationships, their work, and their larger world view are in chaos.
One of the drawbacks is a sense of rootlessness. The belief that you belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. When I meet people and they ask me casually, "So, where are you from?" I always determine what level answer I want to share. There's the short story -- "Seattle." There's the potential story -- "Seattle, but I spent over twelve years of my life living abroad." And finally there's the all out response -- "I call Seattle home now, but I lived in Japan for ten years, Germany two years and spent a year and a half in the United Kingdom. I consider myself to be different parts of all these places and people." The struggle in answering the question "Where are you from?" is a common experience, and you don't want to waste time and breath on someone who doesn't really care. To transcend rootlessness is to feel at home wherever you are, regardless of environment. Home is reframed to include the world. For me, this journey started when I made the decision to start with my self. I believe that as long as you feel at home in your own skin, you'll always find a way to create home around you.
Restlessness is a kindred spirit to rootlessness. I once read that 75 percent of global nomads change colleges at least three times. Neither I nor my sister changed colleges once. . . so someone out there is doing a lot of moving around! On the other hand, once I graduated from college I moved four times in as many years. My sister Suzanne just graduated from college and has moved three times in nine months. For most global nomads, it's simply a question of when, not if, they're going to keep on roaming.
Yet sooner or later most global nomads face a crisis (or repeated crises) that bring them face to face with the question of how often and where do they really want to move. How restless are they? Why do they feel that way? Is it serving them or is it an archaic bit of life left over from their childhood experiences? It took me until my late twenties to acknowledge the deep sense of rootlessness and insecurity that my "exotic" overseas life masked. I'm still in the process of trying to figure it all out. Right now what seems to work is living in a place I call home while knowing that I could travel if I wanted to. Pretty soon I will have been in Seattle for three years. . . the longest I've lived anywhere since I was nine. . . and I'm curious to see how that will feel.
Trouble with intimacy. Global nomads know how to be mobile. Traveling for business or fun poses little problem. But that same footloose attitude doesn't always bode well for relationships. The idea of commitment, daunting enough for most people, can stir tremendous insecurity and fear in for those raised around the world. It's ironic. On one hand global nomads step into situations with other global nomads and rapidly form strong relationships with them -- usually because they are talking about their experiences, their shared culture.
But on the other hand global nomads know how to keep emotional distance. Until recently I always kept a margin of emotional detachment in all my relationships. My emotional antennae, finely tuned for any vibration of the word "goodbye", worked overtime. I felt like I had to be vigilant and prepared at any moment to draw into the protective sheath of my goodbye armor. Global nomads say goodbye multitudes of times -- not only to people, but to schools, to homes, to cultural identities, to aspects of a country they have come to love. Trusting a relationship to stay the course through the joy and the pain of life flies in the face of accumulated global nomad experience.
We all handle the separation from friends and places differently. Some global nomads attempt to maintain friendships long distance. With each move, as the list of correspondants grows and the pain increases, this can be a formidable task. The Internet, with it's gift of e-mail, is a godsend for global nomads. Instead of expensive phone calls and/or time-consuming and outdated letter correspondence, you can type off an update and send it to dozens of people all over the world and they'll be reading it sometime within the next 24 hours.
Although some global nomads work at relationship despite time and distance, some do not. Some can end relationships on the turn of a dime. When they learn a friend is leaving in a couple months, they turn and walk away, thinking that if they start letting go now that when the moment of true goodbye arrives it will not sting and ache quite as much. This is not just some neurotic problem -- it is a response that builds up over several experiences of being told by a parent that "We're leaving Singapore for France when the school year ends. Isn't that a surprise?" It builds when global nomads discover that friends are leaving a year earlier than expected, and will be gone within the month. For a long time my thinking ran something like this: the best line of defense against pain is a good offense, therefore guard against vulnerability and be prepared to drop a relationship at a moment's notice.
Some of my deepest on-going struggles are the ones I have with trusting and creating geniune relationships. Because I am asked again and again to be vulnerable. To reveal my true feelings. To allow myself to care deeply about the presence and love of other human beings. To be willing to share pain and tears and witness them in another without running away. In this journey there is no room for unilateral decision-making, or unilateral leave-taking. This will be part of my life-time work.
Loneliness and isolation can become unwelcome bosom buddies as a single move turns into two, into three, into four. It is a lifelong challenge for anyone to handle the balance of past and present in a way that leads to a fully lived present. Global nomads tend to either be more susceptible to living more in the past (especially if they're unhappy with a new school, location or living circumstance) or denying they ever had a past at all. Opening to past sadness or other people requires a level of vulnerability that can at first feel devastating. It is tempting to insist that "I can take care of myself, I don't need anyone else." Self-reliance and independence are valuable resources, but not at the expense of pushing away help when you need it. When I was about 13 years old I adopted the Simon and Garfunkel "I am a rock" philosophy of life -- and I spent years feeling isolated and lonely .
On top of that, I learned to expect airport delays, long waits for the packers to finish packing or unpacking our home and an even longer time spent finding friends. I filled those hours/days/months with books and thoughts. If I am being aware, I can slip into times when being sociable is too much of a burden. . . it's easier, more pleasant, and more fun to be by myself. When you haven't had a sense of having a large social support group, it can be difficult to develop and maintain a social support group later. Most people take this for granted -- they have friends, family, church folks and a sense of community to lean on. They know that they are isolated only if they choose to be. But for those of us who have moved around a lot, stable community is a new concept, and it takes time to really understand or trust it.
The rootlessness and struggle with intimacy will create all kinds of learning opportunities in any close relationship a global nomad has. Those who have grown up in one place will probably have a tough time understanding their friend or partner's restlessness, the desire to move, the need for change. And if you're with another global nomad. . . who gets to choose where to live next?!
Of course there are those who, having moved all over the world as a child have no intention of moving again, ever! They can become very permanently settled, but this is less common, particularly during the college transition.
Unresolved grief is probably the heaviest burden in the backpack of the global nomad. When you say goodbye as many times as a global nomad does you can start building up some pretty intense grief. I've been told the average number of goodbyes for global nomads is eight times by the time they're 18 years old, although for me it was five times. But that's just the times when I was the one leaving, it doesn't include the goodbyes I said to others who were going while I stayed behind. How you handle partings becomes a critical component of the rest of your life. It's taken me years to figure out how to respond when even small goodbyes trigger mudslides of denial and emotion.
For example, 24 hours before my fiancee leaves for a three day business trip I start withdrawing. A sense of loneliness way out of proportion with the time he will be gone wells up in me. And as I'm driving away from dropping him at the airport, I always cry. Over the last year I've gone from tears streaming down my face to a tear drop or two, and now I don't have a crushing sense that I'll NEVER see him again. Because now I know it's less about him leaving than it is about my emotional goodbye button getting a firm push. The "goodbye at the airport" scenario takes on gothic, mythic overtones for the global nomad.
Grief happens and it can't be reasoned with. The truth is there's only way out of it -- and that is by going through it.
If nobody gives you time to say what you're feeling out loud, to listen to you in your sadness, or to acknowledge that it hurts to be away from people and places you love, you tend to stuff it all inside. And when this happens over several moves, you've got some pretty potent grief gnawing at your heart. Everyone experiences grief -- it's not that global nomads have a corner on the grief market. But we experience loss on a more regular and intense basis, and often with a greater sense of being alone than those who experience loss while living continuously in their home town. Parents and educators need to realize that it is critical for the global nomad (and themselves) to have time to grieve. Parents need to witness to that grief. Without guilt, without defensiveness -- but to really hear the sadness. Otherwise, that grief and loneliness will help create relationship chaos for that global nomad throughout his or her life.
Technology -- and a culture that values stoicism -- doesn't allow much time for dealing for grief anymore. Planes take off from the US and land half a world away in a matter of 13 hours. Air journies don't lend themselves to grieving. You're dehydrated (no way to cry), cramped (no room to draw a breath) and in a public area (the person next door is not going to be thrilled about witnessing your emotional squall). There used to be time to process grief associated with travel. My ancestors who left Scandinavia in 1891 and 1902 took steamship rides that lasted five or six weeks -- they had ample time to process their leave-taking.
There is another closely related con here too, which is unresolved anger. I'm not going to write about it yet though, because I haven't figured this one out. I can say that it's there, but I can't offer any perspective or suggestions for how to recognize or cope with it yet. . . but give me time.
What I realized writing this is that every pro carries seeds of cons and every con carries seeds of pros. Because global nomads have ached at the loss of locations and friends we love, we tend to be highly compassionate and empathic folks. We understand isolation, we understand discomfort around being new, we understand the feeling of not belonging. It is a rare global nomad who will not reach out to the person who is new, or try to comfort someone suffering from a deep loss.
To this day certain memories are a source of joy and wonder to me. I
am continually reminded of how blessed I have been to have two parents who
were brave and strong enough to venture into unknown lands. They wanted
to get to know people in various countries on a deep personal level, rather
than isolating themselves comfortably in ex-pat communities. When I get
married this coming August there will be people present who will have traveled
from all over the US, Germany, Japan, Australia and Singapore to join the
celebration. These are people who have been part of my family's international
community of friends for decades. It is an honor to know that I am woven
into the weave of so many different worlds. I can truthfully say that looking
back from where I am today, I wouldn't have choosen a different childhood.
©1997, Debra Carlson, WorldWeave Publications.