The Global Nomad Experience
Global nomads typically share similar responses to the benefits and challenges of a childhood abroad.
Global nomads are persons of any age or nationality who have lived a significant part of their developmental years in one or more countries outside their passport country because of a parent's occupation. Children raised as global nomads can be the offspring of diplomatic, international business, government agency, international agency, missionary, or military personnel, or indeed of people living internationally mobile lives for any professional reason. Typically, global nomads share a unique cultural heritage.
Risks and Rewards of an Internationally Mobile Childhood
The life-long effects, of course, vary from individual to individual, and many variables influence the experience. The variables include:
Despite the variables and consequent rich diversity within the global nomad community, research now clearly substantiates four themes common to all global nomads: change, relationships, world view, and cultural identity.
A problem often cited as a by-product of the global nomad experience is a deep sense of rootlessness. Certainly, global nomads typically find it difficult to answer the question, "Where are you from?" This question is in fact the bane of many a person raised between countries and cultures. Articulating an answer is an important part of a global nomad's maturation and is facilitated when we allow a broader understanding of "home." Typically, home does not exist for the global nomad as a single place but as a multiplicity of relationships; it is not a "here or there" but an "everywhere."
Grief is associated intimately with global nomad relationships. Parents often try to reassure their children that they will find friends in the new location and will settle down and feel at home once again. This is true, of course. However, when these children feel sadness, they do not need the assurance of future joy but a recognition of the current reality. Allowing the tears, encouraging emotional expression through the creative arts or physical exercise, and providing opportunities for family members to share their hopes and fears support global nomads in releasing their grief. When grief is accepted and allowed expression, the many other emotions associated with transitions, be they joy, fear, hope, anger, or anticipation, also can be expressed.
Global nomads typically have a high sense of security in their understanding of the world and a high motivation to affect the international arena. Although they may not be able to enumerate specific intercultural skills, one of the advantages of growing up internationally is the opportunity to develop those skills without conscious effort. Their "birth right" includes a comfort with ambiguity; an ability to see a situation from several points of view and to hold inquiry and curiosity in relationship to judgment; refined observational skills; bi/multi-lingualism; and a capacity for working effectively with many different people in many different situations.
It is not always easy to have a multidimensional view of the world, however, especially if those around you do not. Global nomads may find themselves challenged by those with less of an international understanding. They may be perceived as arrogant when speaking of their "exotic" adventures, may face a confusion of loyalties, and may be accused of lacking conviction. The reality, however, is typically less a matter of confused loyalty than a deep understanding of the complexity of the human condition.
Intercultural scholar Janet Bennett defines two dimensions of cultural marginality. On the one hand, it can be "encapsulating" us in our experience of difference and making us feel at home nowhere. Conversely, it can be "constructive" us to make use of our differences for personal and professional gain and enabling us to feel at home everywhere.
As with the experience of "home," it is important that we broaden our definition of identity. We too often impose limits: US American or Kenyan, British or Japanese. For many global nomads, nationality will form but one part of a complex identity influenced also by the host countries in which they have lived, by the experience of mobility itself, and by a multicultural heritage forged within one or more international expatriate communities. Global nomads become constructive in their marginality when they recognize and understand the multiplicity of their experience and when they have the language to communicate about it.
Living in Liminality
Remember first that one of the defining themes of the internationally mobile childhood is frequent change. Consider, then, that for every experience of change by their own mobility or another's nomads experience a parallel process of psychological transition.
William Bridges has written extensively on the three developmental phases that compose this internal process: the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. Movement through each varies from individual to individual. Different members of the same family, engaged in the same change process, may have different transition experiences. It is influenced by the individual personality, the kind of change precipitating the transition, and the broader environmental support (or lack thereof) offered the individual in terms of both the change process and the transition experience.
What Bridges called the "neutral zone" is what we are calling liminality. When a person is in liminal space, he or she is on the threshold, no longer part of the past and not yet part of the new beginning. For many global nomads and their families, in particular for multi-movers, the experience of liminal space becomes the most constant, lived experience.
As with change and transition, liminality also is intertwined closely with the global nomad themes of relationships, world view, and cultural identity. For many internationally mobile children and adolescents, relationships exist primarily in liminal space. They and their friends are forever on the threshold, simultaneously saying goodbye and hello, finding their own precarious balance between getting close quickly while not getting too close. At the same time, as members of multinational expatriate communities, global nomads make friends across race, ethnicity, and language. Their developing world views become balanced in liminality as they learn through daily interaction that truth is contextually relative. Liminality also weaves its way through the global nomad experience of marginal identity. Indeed, cultural marginality is a quintessentially liminal reality. Exposed to multiple cultural traditions during their developmental years, global nomads have the opportunity to achieve identities informed by all, constricted by none, balanced on the thresholds of each. Liminality, then, is a construct powerfully resonant for global nomads. Understanding it encourages them to celebrate their marginality: It is not necessary to choose between the United States or Kenya, between Japan or the United Kingdom. Living in liminality encourages complex, multiplistic perspectives. Their daily experiences persuade them to think in terms of "both/and" rather than "either/or." Liminality reinforces that it is a blessing to be able to "dance in-between," with a foot planted gently in each reality.
Liminality is the byword of a self-reflexive human being. We all contain within ourselves multiple intersecting identities example, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and race, physicality, native tongue, profession. In any given moment, one of those identities may be more relevant to us than others. At the same time, the identities in our backgrounds continue to make up the whole of who we are. Liminality reminds us to stand tall at the intersection of our multiple identities, aware of our contradictions, and proud nonetheless to acknowledge all the facets of who we are.
Without a doubt, living in liminal space, making a home in that intersection of multiple identities, is more complex than living in a singular reality. It is also the experience of increasing numbers of people the world over, not just global nomads. There is, in fact, an immense interest today in what it means to live within liminal space. Educators, researchers, and writers; people of mixed race and mixed nationality; scholars in cultural, multicultural, ethnic, and gender studies are addressing the same question in their varied ways.
The world in which we live today is no longer easily defined by "either/-or." The complexities of an interdependent human community increasingly are calling us to experience the "both/and," and from that place of ambiguity and uncertainty to find a sense of home in the in-between.
Barbara F. Schaetti, a global nomad, is principal of Transition Dynamics, Seattle, WA, a consulting group specializing in the human dimensions of change. She works extensively with expatriate families.
Shiela J. Ramsey is principal of the Crestone Institute, Washington, DC, the purpose of which is to design environments that promote creativity, innovation, and human development.
Note: This article was originally published in the September, 1999 issue of MOBILITY, the monthly magazine of the Employee Relocation Council. Copyright ©1999, Employee Relocation Council. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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