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"And Your Past In Three Seconds, Please"
by Suzanne Carlson

 

Where are you from?

I groan inside.
After all, does this person really want to know?
I think of how many times
I've tried to answer
And ended up
Looking,
Seeming
Like a snob.

I have been all over the world
To cities and slums
To palaces and soup kitchens.
Where have you been?

But that's not what I mean.
That's just how it seems
To a person who's never lived
Overseas.
I can not explain it all in just three seconds
Even if you do say please.

—by Suzanne Carlson
US American global nomad
[written as a young adult]

"Where are you from?"—this question is the bane of every global nomad. As Suzanne illustrates, the immediate internal response is inevitably an attempt to discern what to say, how much to share, "does this person really want to know?" As others have suggested, the question serves a diagnostic function: if the respondent hesitates, it's likely she or he has an interesting story to tell and may in fact be a global nomad.

As Suzanne illustrates here, the problem with the question is more than how to answer. The problem is also in the concern for how the answer will be understood. Global nomads learn at a very young age that talking with passport country peers about their international experience is frought with pitfalls. Not least amongst these is that either one won't be believed or that one will be perceived as bragging, "looking, seeming, like a snob."

As an expatriate once wrote," You simply can't describe the feel of hot wind on your skin in Sicily or the noise and commotion of traffic in Rome. It just can't be reproduced in conversation. When I try to tell people, it probably sounds like I just want them to envy me. But it's not that. I just want them to know how I felt, who I am." 1

This concern with being seen as arrogant is paramount in the re-entry experience. It is one of the primary reasons adolescents will council each other prior to their departure for university not to speak of their international experiences. They want to fit in, not to stand out; they want to be accepted within the group, not ostracized as braggarts. The problem here, however, is that feeling constrained from talking about one's international experiences can also constrain one from expressing the knowledge and skill gained through those experiences. The noise and commotion of traffic in Rome is more than simply sounds and sights: the memory symbolizes a deeper learning about cultural differences, about learning to live in a foreign land, about tolerating ambiguity and managing change. Riding a camel in the Sahara is more than a fun story: it symbolizes an understanding of the breadth of the human condition and all the skill the global nomad has developed to live and work effectively across cultures. Constraining the story constrains the skill, and that is to waste a valuable resource—valuable to the individual and, indeed, valuable to an ever-more interdependent global community.

I particularly like Suzanne's last lines. Part of the concern about seeming like a snob is the reality that a complex answer takes time. Whereas people asking the question are typically looking for a one-word response, a global nomad can't answer "in just three seconds, even if you do say please."

—Barbara Schaetti

1 anonymous author, as found in The Re-Entry Reader by Bruce LaBrack, Ph.D.

We welcome your comments, and we invite you to share your own experiences of international mobility through poetry, stories, or other prose.

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