Often a very simple question for most people, yet the hardest for a global nomad. Norma McCaig revealed a secret world of “cultural chameleons” who travel the world, connect with others and understand foreign cultures better than most.
In honor of Norma’s birthday today, I share her groundbreaking (at least for me) article on Global Nomads.
Happy Birthday, Norma!
GROWING UP WITH A WORLD VIEW
Nomad Children Develop Multicultural Skills
By Norma M. McCaig
(As appeared in Foreign Service Journal, September 1994, pp. 32-41.)
I can still hear the wind from the dust storm that hit Delhi during the waning days of my trip this May. Powerful images of Tamul Nadu, further south, are equally vivid—of 70 picnicking street children from the Madurai and Bethabia orphanage striking unsteady dancing positions and then collapsing in delight around me. Memories of this chance two-hour encounter near my childhood school in Kodaikanal—five weeks and a world away from my Virginia home—are a source of both pain and wonder. Pain at having said yet another goodbye and wonder at the circumstance that brought me to that moment.
I am acutely aware that had I not been given a childhood overseas, this melange of memories from the old and recent past would likely not exist. But they are indelibly part of my heritage as a “global nomad,” someone who has lived abroad as a child because of a parent’s job. These include the children of diplomats; other government workers, including the armed forces; business people and missionaries.
These children often live a privileged lifestyle, with exotic vacations, servants, large homes and private schooling, but the long-term benefits of this upbringing are unique and more far-reaching. In an era when global vision is imperative, where skills in intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy, and the ability to manage diversity are critical, global nomads are probably better equipped than others. A tendency to view the United States from the perspective of a foreigner is a trait common to many nomads. A nomad who spent much of his childhood in Africa recently commented, “I feel I am an American, but not to the exclusion of other countries, cultures and peoples.”
Carolyn D. Smith, in her 1991 book, The Absentee American: Repatriates’ Perspectives on America, reports that for many adult nomads, living and working overseas is a lifelong goal. “A study of 150 repatriates enrolled in college who had spent at least one teenage year abroad found that none wished to pursue a career exclusively in the United States,” she wrote in the book. More than 50 percent wanted work exclusively or periodically abroad, 12 percent wanted job-related foreign travel, and 74 percent reported that they feel most comfortable with people who are internationally oriented.
Sociologist David Pollock, director of intercultural programming at Houghton College in New York, has studied the personality and psychological adjustment of what he calls “third-culture kids.” He defines them as “individuals who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develop a sense of relationship to all the cultures while not having a full ownership in any.”
These children become “cultural chameleons” early in life—keen observers who modify their behavior so they fit in wherever they are. Many actually appreciate diversity, and seek it out as adults. The ease with which young global nomads roam the world can create for them an enhanced world view, a concept validated by the recent research team including sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, who pioneered research on third-culture kids in the early 1960s. Her study-in-progress documents that “About half (47 percent) of those who report volunteer activities include an international dimension.” Global nomads often serve as cultural liaisons and interpreters between U.S. culture and the rest of the world. They are the “prototype citizens of the 21st century,” according to Ted Ward, author of the 1984 book, Living Overseas.
Brian Lev, a Foreign Service child and now a computer network security analyst at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, spent five years in Chile and three years in Belgium with his parents. Although based in Washington, Lev works in an international community and travels abroad frequently. “I sometimes think everyone around me view the world in a terribly simplistic way,” he said. “Even my best friends often shake their heads and change the subject when I find their viewpoint too ethno-or Ameri-centric.” This sense of having the world as a learning ground is very common. Few global nomads interviewed said that they would opt to have been reared in Hometown, U.S.A.
And yet, anyone who has been either a child or a parent overseas knows that it is not uncommon for a global nomad children to feel rootless and out-of-step or marginalized. They sometimes appear indecisive and noncommittal or have difficulty establishing and maintaining long-term relationships. Occasionally these feelings are played out in the form of alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders, depression or other dysfunctional behavior. Problems may appear during overseas postings, but are more likely to show up in the years between moving from a life abroad to a life at “home” in the United States. Many parents are surprised at the metamorphosis of their compliant, pleasant teenager into a rebellious, petulant, angry, withdrawn and irresponsible adolescent. Even more astonishing, but not necessarily uncommon, is this delayed adolescence in the twentysomething-year-old who is supposed to be beyond that age.
Usually, the Foreign Service or business career family abroad is better educated than the average U.S. family. Useem’s research findings show that 81 percent of grown global nomads earned, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree (vs. 21 percent of the general U.S. population) with fully half completing master’s and doctorate programs. Today only 40 percent of Foreign Service families consist of a married couple with children. Last year a random sampling of Community Liaison Office (CLO) reports suggested that more than three percent of the Foreign Service are single parents and many more are dual-career couples.
Parents go abroad feeling somewhat prepared for duty in a specific place, but many are less prepared to deal with multiple moves on two or more continents and the birth of one, two or four children, perhaps each in a different corner of the globe. Like many globe-trotting parents, their upbringing was probably geographically stable, a relatively monocultural upbringing. Global parents roam the world rearing children without a road map. Extended families and long-trusted friends are often inaccessible. To complicate things further, the children’s grandparents may actively disapprove of the routine uprooting of their grandchildren, spoiling them with an unrealistically privileged lifestyle, and exposing them to constant danger from microbes and terrorists. Other support systems need to be developed to supplant family and friends, such as the networks and resources from the embassy committee.
A unique characteristic of the global-nomad family is the high degree of interdependence of family members. Because the nuclear family is the only consistent social unit through all moves, family members are psychologically thrown back on one another in a way that is not typical in geographically stable families. Close family bonds are common. Siblings and parents may become each other’s best friends. Patterns formed overseas fly in the face of conventional theory about when children leave home, emotionally and physically. Kay Eakin, education counselor at State’s Family Liaison Office, writes, “Many [expatriate] children have gotten used to an international lifestyle and hate to give that up.” These “boomerang kids” have a need for a strong continuing relationship with parents, the only “home” they know.
The strength of this family bond works to the benefit of children when parent-child communication is good and the overall family dynamic is healthy. It can be devastating when it is not. Compared to the geographically stable child, the global-nomad child is inordinately reliant on the nuclear family for affirmation, behavior-modeling, support and above all, a place of safety. The impact, therefore, of dysfunction in this most basic of units in exacerbated by the mobile lifestyle.
Constant unresolved family tension can become chronically debilitating. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, sometimes prompted by adult alcohol abuse or depression, may go unnoticed or unacknowledged by others for a variety of reasons, such as misguided notions about “respecting privacy,” or fear of repatriation or family disgrace with colleagues. Finally, parents may be unaware of abuse of a child by a household employee, sometimes prompted by different ideas of discipline and affection than those of the U.S. family. Good communication between parent and children is key.
When parents step on the plane with their children for a life abroad they become a bicultural family, one which may well be on its way to becoming a multicultural family—even when each member holds the same national passport. Why? Because the context of the parents’ upbringing and that of their children may vary vastly. A first child may teethe in Uganda, tie a first shoelace in Belgium and come of age in Thailand. In the process, of course, the child is observing human interaction in a variety of cultural contexts, of which the parents’ is only one.
Cultural influences include schools, the caregiver’s culture, host cultures, the parents’ cultures of origin, the expatriate community culture, and the culture of the sponsoring community, in this case the Foreign Service. Considering the variety of cultural influences on a child at just one post and multiplying these by the three-plus posts, indicates how the children’s hearts, souls, minds and identities are shaped by a multitude of factors.
Brian Lev, now in his mid-thirties, recalls home as “made up of those memories and emotions I have collected over time from which I draw comfort and strength as needed. In effect, home is the place where I can go in my mind where culture is a mix from many places and belonging can be taken for granted. … It’s as if we [global nomads] have replaced the physical home of non-nomads … with an internal home we can go to when we need a respite from the world. I think of us as looking out at the world from a place inside that we share with other nomads.”
Schooling demands close attention from parents. Curricula designed to meet the needs of a specific national school system reflect different academic standards, cultural norms, languages, learning styles and patterns of thinking. Thus children who move from one education system to another need time to adjust and may require tutoring and extra classes. But the adventure-child who is innately more flexible may respond well to, and indeed benefit from, experiencing more than one educational system during a childhood abroad.
However, choosing one system and maintaining it from post to post is of particular importance to a child who finds adapting to new situations and contexts difficult. This includes the learning-disabled child for whom resources at many international schools are limited. In this case, a U.S. boarding school with special facilities is an option to be considered.
The degree to which a child is affected by the host culture depends on the length of stay, the degree of contact with the local culture, and most importantly, the parents’ attitude toward host nationals. Perhaps the strongest connection a child can have to a host country is through a caregiver. Often it is this person who shares the culture’s language, behavior, and, to some degree, values. Of greatest influence on the [expatriate] child is the impact of the [expatriate] community itself . . .
In general, parents can adopt a four-tier strategy for coping with the challenges of raising global nomads. Communication: Keeping the lines of communication open is important, not only between parent and child, but also between spouses. Get the issues out there and work them through. Children are like lightning rods for parental discord and family tension. A 1993 study by State’s Office of Medical Services showed that children who allowed to fully express their feelings and concerns make a better adjustment to moves.
Encourage children to talk about their lives, reactions, feelings, and observations. Learn to accept or challenge what they say in the spirit of developing their skills in critical thinking rather than as a means of judging or controlling them. Gently get them accustomed to communicating with you when times are good, so they will do the same during bad times. Keep reminding yourself about the difference between discipline (guidance) and punishment (power) and the effects of each on parent-child communication.
Collaboration: Give your child as many real choices as you can. Many global nomad children, as do some spouses, feel that they have little control over their lives. For example, withholding knowledge of an impending transfer from children until shortly before the packers come does not spare them pain, it magnifies it. There is no time to adjust to the thought of moving; what should be a normal international move feels more like an evacuation.
Transfers can, in fact, make the global nomad child feel like a piece of luggage carried on and off planes at regular intervals. Whatever life has built up, whatever feelings of attachment have been formed, can seem devalued and considered expendable by parents. Eating disorders, particularly anorexia, are for some global nomads a manifestation of the need to control something in their lives when the stress and ambiguities of an international lifestyle are too overwhelming. Unwillingness or inability to commit or set goals in later adolescence and beyond may be related to early feelings of powerlessness. One way to deal with that is to include the child as much as possible—and as early as possible—in a family decision-making process at an age-appropriate level.
Continuity: Three elements come to mind, in a addition to the family itself, in considering continuity during a life abroad. These include things (furniture, favorite possessions and toys), photographs and family rituals. Hang on to the first as much as possible from post to post, take lots of the second, and create and maintain a good number of the third. Rituals are the visible signs of your family’s heritage, the glue holding the pieces of former lives together with those found in new places. In our family, we could always count on having waffles on Sunday night, wherever we were. Three decades later, each time we use the little syrup pitchers we each had I am taken back to a different home.
Single parents and tandem couples should tenaciously guard their time with their children. Relying too heavily on a nanny can heighten a child’s sense of abandonment. Although a number of social events may seem to be “mandatory,” take a good look at missing some.
Friendships in a highly-mobile lifestyle sometimes seem short-lived, yet many adults report that the renewal of old friendships is a source of unexpected joy and continuity. To reinforce the notion of maintaining friendships over time and space, on birthdays some parents give their children the gift of a free telephone call to a friend anywhere in the world. Such efforts encourage children to view their life using other than conventional constructs: they are not rootless, they are rooted in a different way—through people rather than places.
Global nomads recognize each other. Regardless of passport held, countries lived in, sponsoring agency differences or age, nomads have a sudden recognition of kinship, a sense of homecoming that underlines the powerful bond of shared culture. Universities and colleges, such as George Mason University, Duke University, the university of Virginia and at least 10 others in the United States encourage the forming of global nomad clubs on campus to reinforce this community.
Closure: This is a critical part of the journey. With as many uprootings and replantings as internationally mobile families experience, many parents are either unaware of, unwilling or afraid to address the need for closure—good goodbyes—before moving on. Yet the reality is that many global nomads go through more grief experiences before the age of 18 than others do in a lifetime.
Sometimes parents struggling with their own feelings of grief find it difficult to address similar feelings in children. But when one’s sense of loss is unacknowledged, a natural emotion process is thwarted. Repeated often enough, it can kick back in the form of diffused depression, anger or another dysfunctional expression.
Well before leaving, parents are urged to talk about the new destination to get them used to the idea of leaving. Giving children permission to express their sadness at leaving their caregivers, treasured friends, pets and places is key, as is sharing your own feelings with them.
Small wonder also, then, that the global nomad child often finds transition to the country of passport to be a startling experience at best. It is at this point that differences in cultures and expectations between parent and child become most apparent. Parents returning to their country of origin are coming home; their children are leaving home. No doubt parents are changed by international travel and experience the impact of reentry, but they are usually on more familiar cultural and geographical ground than their offspring. Children step off the plane “riding on their parents’ mythology,” as global nomad Timothy Dean, now a TV-producer, remarked. Noted another mother, the spouse of a World Bank executive: “For my children, home is just another somewhere.”
Children often feel and function like hidden immigrants when they reach home shores. Because they look and talk as if they should belong, their outlook, actions, and lack of knowledge of local cultural trivia are often bewildering to others who either don’t know they have lived abroad or don’t care. The child is left on the outside looking in, skirting the margins of the group along with the druggies and geeks.
In terms of timing, research indicates that transitions during the early adolescent years—from age 12 to 14—can be particularly tough for children. Their re-entry can be made easier by parents and extended family who can accept that these children are really of another culture and who are realistic about how long it will take the children to adapt.
The long-term cultural identity of children presents perhaps the greatest challenge and potential conflict between generations. Foreign Service life dictates that U.S. diplomats maintain their “Americanness” for properly representing the United States. On the other hand, their children are absorbing a wider environment, one that emphasizes cultural flexibility and an expanded world view. Other cultures may fit children’s personalities and values more than does the U.S. culture. Children may also continue to identify with the mobile expatriate life and seek that in adulthood—or conversely, they may rebel against such rootlessness and seek a stable stateside life.
“Even now I find myself reacting to the world as a nomad,” says Lev. “I have no room in my basement because I can’t make myself throw away all those perfectly good packing boxes. I still get a really bad case of wanderlust every four years or so, and the dirtiest word I know is ‘goodbye.'”
On a cultural continuum with total identification with the United States at one extreme and total identification as a world citizen at the other, each child may choose to alight at a different point. To name a few: a dual-culture marriage with a partner of a different passport, different race or different religion; a different country of residence (children may not be going “native,” they may be going home); staying in the United States but not feeling fully at home.
Parents having chosen their children’s childhood lifestyle, need to provide affirmation and support as they try to make the pieces fit. As one established adult global nomad put it, “I don’t feel different, I am different.” For global nomads, these feelings are not a phase, they represent a state of being. Provided an environment that acknowledges and values their global background, [expatriate] children can—and many will—make positive changes in the world.