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The Shaping of a Global Identity

I often refer to the well known saying of Charles Darwin “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” These wise words resonate profoundly not only with me but also for my children, all having lived a life of movement.

Most people identify with one place as home; the place they were born, where they grew up and occasionally stayed on into adult life. “Where are you from?” is the standard question that is asked every time we meet someone new in order to place that person into their own societal pidgin hole, as it were.

When I’m asked this question, I’m immediately put into a tailspin....do I say where I was born, what nationality my passport is, where I’ve lived the past two years.

Me and my family

My family is one of those who has always been on the move, never truly settling in one place, going back many generations. I’m proud to say that I am fourth generation global nomad and my husband and I are raising four fifth generation global nomads.

To be clear, my family’s story of movement is not the nomadic life out of necessity, like the devastating stories we hear about in the news of refugees fleeing their country of origin due to war, famine, racial and/or religious discrimination. No. My ancestors and descendants story is much less harrowing and is bound with one commonality: movement. We were fortunate to be born in lands full of choice, promise and freedom.

I was born into a life of movement with my parents moving to different countries around the world every few years due to my father’s work. On the one hand, I count myself lucky to have had this eye-opening yet nomadic life. By the time I finished high school at 18 years of age, I had lived in eight different countries, on four different continents. It gave me the unique opportunity to learn several languages, to be introduced and immersed into different cultures other than the European mishmash of my own, and to gift me with the space, mindset and privilege of being, or rather, the hope of being an open-minded global individual. The downside is the constant feeling of being outside the social circle norm. It can be lonely and often leaves me wanting to have a traditional sense of roots. And maybe there is that constant search for that place to call Home. A place where to belong.

My world roamings continued on into my twenties, adding two more onto the long list of “Places I’ve called Home”. When I met my husband, a fellow kindred traveller, we continued the trend of movement that I was used to and managed to add four more countries to the already expansive list.

Raising the fifth generation global nomad family

My four children were swept into the same world as mine, since the day they were born. Two of them were born in Italy, their paternal homeland, the other two in The Netherlands. They have lived on three continents themselves; Europe, Asia and America, and have also been fortunate to learn some languages along the way. They hold a passport of their father’s nationality, not mine. The reason for that is a long story which will be told another time.

There is a term that has been coined for these types of kids growing up in these situations. They are called Third-Culture-Kids (TCK). My children are TCKs. I am a TCK. My father and paternal grandmother are too as well as my paternal great-grandparents. That’s five generations of TCKs in one family.

One of the hallmarks of a Third Culture Kid is adaptability. I like to refer to this as their super power; their ability to change and adapt according to their surroundings. Not the chameleon-like transformations, but the ability to say goodbye to one set of friends, and embrace a new one, to adapt to different cultural nuances, habits, and language and so on, and to begin all over again in the next place that they will call Home, and so on and so on.

Until the age of thirty-two I always lied about where I was from. The reason was that the truth always felt complicated and, simply put, it was easier. My usual response when asked was “London”. Due to the ten years I spent at boarding school in the UK I have a strong British accent so it seemed the logical response. That was until one day my daughter, who was four years old at the time, caught me in the lie. “But Mummy you’re not from London you’re from everywhere”.The person who I’d lied to looked at me with a puzzled expression, his eyes demanding an explanation. My beautiful and precocious little girl was of course right to call me out and since then my answer to this question is “I’m from all over”. This may sound pretentious to most but as time goes on I realize that if the person asking is looking for a quick answer they usually stop there. If they are genuinely interested and they have time, I’m, of course, very happy to oblige them with the details.

Nowadays, the world feels so much smaller with the ease of travel. People are more global in their views and with the web, people have a much more knowledgeable perspective of the world outside of their own bubble. However people still ask that same “where are you from” question expecting a simple answer. I’ve always wondered why the broader question of “What’s your story?” hasn’t caught on more. This would give people like myself, my children and my ancestors before me, more space to answer truthfully.

Time to stop, think and revaluate

This question has been particularly apt in our household the last few months. After having moved together as a unit of six for the past twenty-two years, this next move has been different. A year ago my husband’s work situation changed unexpectedly and we had to make the decision to move again. Unfortunately the timing was not ideal. It came during a crucial time of our kids’ education; Our eldest was in his final year of college, our second in her third year in college, our third in his final year of high school and our baby in her second year of high school.

Although moving had always been in our family’s DNA, the reality of this next move was challenging. We prided ourselves in raising our kids in a global environment, to be multi-cultural, world travelers, to be comfortable with change. This ideology will hopefully stay with them for the rest of their lives. But moving as a split family was a whole new concept for us, no longer having the strength and comfort that our unit of six relied on. Were they ready to plunge into this nomadic world without us? Were we ready to let them go?

The feeling was unsettling. It prompted questions from all of us, but especially from the kids like “where will home be now?”, “how will home be Italy when I’m not even living there”. Family discussions were full and emotional and hard. “Home is where the heart is” just didn’t cut it as the heart has been the six of us in the same place up until now. But like with everything in life, time moves on and realities change whether we like it or not.

From my own experience of a life of movement, I felt it crucial that my husband and I try to instill in the kids a sense of belonging to the family, not just to a place, but to a feeling. A feeling of love, unity and gathering, of home with friends and family they love rather than any particular place.

This is a notion that is being embraced more and more now due to Covid-19 and the changes it has brought to the working world and to remote working. People are no longer constricted to staying in one place, in one town, their place of work. This has opened so many doors to so many people in a positive way and people are starting to venture outside of the traditional home and work remotely not from their classic living rooms but from remote islands or camper vans.

My husband started his new job in Italy in early January 2020. We had decided as a family that I would remain in the US with the kids so that our two high schoolers could finish out the academic year without too much disruption. Little did we know that the world would be hit by the pandemic six weeks later, resulting in us being separated from him for almost seven months. In order to keep a semblance of family unity, we face-timed everyday and each weekend we would zoom-cook together - due to the nine hour time difference, he would cook his evening meal, I would cook an early lunch. It was a challenging time for all of us, but we got through it by continuing our daily chats and maintaining the strong unit that we were used to, despite being on opposite sides of the world.

As they grow into young adults and begin to have more of an awareness of how their lives differ from most of their peers, realizing the differences in their upbringing vs. a traditional upbringing, my hope is that they are able to see the positive attributes this way of life has brought to them and to see the type of humans they have become with good hearts and open minds able to face a challenge with courage and strength. Hopefully this will continue to serve them throughout their lives.

Where are we today?

The six of us are now spread all over the world. Our eldest decided to stay in Oregon after he graduated from college. Our second is finishing her degree in California. Our third is starting his college path in Spain. My husband, our fourth and myself are in Italy where he is working for a local company there. Who knows where we will all end up? Judging by the constant moving we’ve done so far, I know that this town in Italy is not our last stop. Who knows where the kids will end up? Maybe they will feel the draw back to Europe, which would be such a blessing for us, but maybe they won’t and that’s alright because they are global citizens and the world is their oyster.