The Global Nomad Experience

The Global Nomad Experience

Living in Liminality
By Barbara F. Schaetti and Sheila J. Ramsey

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
Significant research has been conducted during the past 20 years that has revealed the 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:

  • nationality, culture of origin, and native tongue;
  • degree of mobility;
  • number of years abroad;
  • age at expatriation, at each subsequent move, and at repatriation;
  • sponsor dynamics and the quality of expatriate services both offered and used;
  • family dynamics, including the family’s degree of international understanding and intercultural sensitivity;
  • type of schools attended and the degree to which students’ cultural transitions are addressed;
  • host-country cultures and the extent of involvement with them;
  • diversity and degree of involvement with the “expatriate microculture”; and timing of particular moves and pivotal intercultural experiences in light of the individual’s own cognitive and psycho-social development.

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.

Change is one of the few constants in the lives of internationally mobile children, whether they are moving themselves or their friends are coming and going while they remain relatively stable. If only as a survival skill, global nomads learn to be adaptable and flexible. It is not uncommon that they develop a measure of confidence in the process of change, and perhaps even become so accustomed to change that life without it seems somehow incomplete. Even those nomads who as adults settle in one place— conscious decision or otherwise— generate periodic and regular change in their lives: cyclical jobs, cyclical relationships, or simply a regular rearranging of household furniture.

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.”

Global nomads typically have extensive experience making and losing friends. They learn what to say and what to ask so that they can get to know one another quickly. They also learn how not to get too close-how much distance to keep so that when a relationship ends, as their experience tells them it has and will, it does not hurt too much. Both the ability to make friends and the tendency to enforce a certain distance are global nomad survival skills.

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.

World View
People raised internationally have the opportunity to gain a three-dimensional world view. For them, international news reports are more than ink on paper; global nomads associate sights, sounds, smells, and feelings with the locations. Global nomads know that people different than them share with them a fundamental humanness. They understand that truth is relative. They demonstrate ethical maturity by being able to maintain the paradox between their appreciation of differing truths in differing contexts and a commitment to a personal truth.

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.

Cultural Identity
Global nomads inevitably are influenced by multiple cultural traditions. As such, and particularly when they return to their passport countries, they may experience themselves as “culturally marginal.” They typically will find that they do not fit into the cultural mainstream of the society that they have been raised to consider their own. They often find themselves to be “hidden immigrants” and experience themselves as “terminally unique.”

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
As we have seen, global nomads make up a population whose developmental years are marked by frequent geographic transitions and multiple cultural influences. At the heart of this experience is the social-psychological construct of “liminality.” From the Greek limnos, meaning “threshold,” liminality describes an in-between time when what was, is no longer, and what will be, is not yet. It is a time rich with ambiguity, uncertainty, and the possibility of creative fomentation. How does liminality serve as a connecting thread in the global nomad experience, weaving its way through each of the four central themes? And what particular advantages does living in liminality offer?

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.

Lee Knefelkamp, a professor of higher and adult education at Teachers College, Columbia University, NY, was asked about mobility, cultural marginality, and the human need for roots. She responded, “Living in the liminal without a home is different from living in the liminal as a home.”

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.