Transitions. What does the name dial up for you? Perhaps “life transitions” such as getting married, starting a new job, or having a baby? Those are all definitely transitions. However, if you are a global nomad, a Third Culture Kid, a military brat, or you work for an NGO, you have all the “normal” transitions such as having a baby and changing jobs, while also moving to another country.
A case in point: my mom was six months pregnant with me, and my older sister was a two-year-old when my parents decided to move to Brazil. “Big deal,” you say, “Brazil is a modern country; it is a host to both the World Cup and the Olympics, right? It would be so wonderful to live there—or at least visit.”
Well, here is a little history lesson. I was born in 1960, when most Americans could not put Brazil on the map. To Americans, it was a world of jungles and monkeys, exotic people and … what? So little was known then about this land that was the size of the United States. At the time, it was a Third-World country; it had not yet entered the world stage.
At that time, my very-pregnant mom got on an airplane with my dad and my older sister and trekked down to Brazil on a very long flight—with many stops along the way. Then the “fun” began. Finding a home, a car, the nearest hospital, doctor, grocery store, clothing store, gas station, and the myriad of other things needed that make up life—all in another language, culture, way of doing business, and set of expectations. (Did you know that dogs in Brazil only understand Portuguese? You can’t even give a dog the command to go lie down—it just simply looks at you like you are the dumb one. Do you need to buy a simple bag of nails to hang your beloved pictures? Well, just look it up in the dictionary and try it out! Except there are different words for the kind of nail you put in the wall and the one on the end of your finger. My poor dad tried to buy a bag of fingernails. The look he got from the store owner? Priceless.)
The day finally arrived for me to be delivered. Fortunately for my mom, there was a fellow American colleague who was a nurse and accompanied her to the hospital. Those of you who are moms, can you imagine the scene, and the translations that would have had to go on for my mom to understand what she had to do while in labor? (Ugh. Just give me the drugs, and wake me up when it is over—before I hit someone.)
Well, I made it safely into this world. I was the only white kid in the hospital. (Later, when I wondered if I could possibly have been adopted, that I was somehow switched at birth, mom just laughed. It simply was not feasible!) The nurses were wonderful—they gave me tea to let mom sleep through the night (my caffeine addiction started early)! However, to make sure I made it past my first birthday, they gave her strict instructions to be sure not to put manure on my umbilical chord. What?! I guess it was a Brazilian custom at the time—the belief that manure cauterized the wound in some way. Of course, my mom had no such intention, being brought up in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Back to the theme of transitions. My parents experienced a new job, new baby, and new home—all at the same time! Those of you who live cross-culturally know what it is like to make the big transitions that everyone makes, such as packing boxes, booking flights, getting visas and passports, and so on, while also adding a layer of cultural transition. Your kids know it too. They experience culture shock but may not know how to express what it feels like—except to other global nomads. They might wonder, “Will my new classmates like me?” or “Will they like what I am wearing?” or “The school year starts in January where we live, but we are moving to the United Stated in May. Will I miss a year of school or repeat one?” or perhaps “I really want to bring our pet with us! Why do we have to leave him behind? He will miss us too!”
For the college-bound, a few words can say it all, “I am leaving for university in my passport country, but it is not my home.” The fellow TCK nods, understands, and gives a hug. Those few words carry so much weight, so much heartache and loss, so great a burden of identity confusion and angst. Sometimes it feels easier to simply shut down.
Many TCK’s have a love/hate relationship with their lifestyle. They have a rich worldview, they know many languages, and they have friends all over the world. However, the losses can be great too; they may envy those who still have friends from kindergarten, who can point to the school they went to and have a clear sense of identity.
However, I think the key to being a successful global nomad is to be kind, patient, and express gratitude whenever possible. This goes a long way in healing wounds of all kinds.
Question to consider: What are some other keys to being successful global nomads?