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Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium

By Alice Wu

A clinical psychologist at an Ivy League institution was eager to learn about the concept of "global nomads." She said that although she had been working with cross-cultural counseling for many years, she had never heard about global nomads until we talked about them this year. She herself had grown up in Japan and the U.S. A student from Egypt with diplomat parents, who had lived around the world, was excited to meet other students with similarly mobile backgrounds during a panel of these students. She was glad to learn about the concept of global nomads, which she said was the first concept she could "totally identify with." A student with Chinese Parents and U.S. citizenship, who had lived in L.A., Hong Kong and Nigeria, participated in a panel discussion with other global nomads. He went on to found the Cornell Global Nomds Society, together with the student from Egypt and other student panelists. A few years later, he said that if he had not learned about global nomads and met other similar students, he would still be "very confused about defining myself and what I had experienced."

Because of global nomad students like the ones mentioned above, Alice Wu created a video presentation, 'Global Nomads Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium,' (Wu, 2001; 40 minutes) to help raise awareness about global nomads, and to provide information and resources about global nomads and the effects of their internationally mobile backgrounds, as well as to affirm the value of this unique type of background. The video was filmed on six college campuses with the assistance of panel organizers Norma McCaig, Julia Findlay, Ann Baker Cottrel, and other members of the Global Nomads Special Interest Group of NAFSA: Association for International Educators. The video features experiences and insights of global nomad students from a variety of backgrounds. They discuss transition and adjustment; cultural identity and cultural marginality; commitments, roots, and decision making; and developmental stages.

Here are some thoughts about being a global nomad, from some of the participants in the video project:

On Cultural Identity:

'I realized early on that my childhood was unique: because I spent the summers in the states back from Cairo, Egypt, and I would encounter all these kids my age and they all seemed so fascinated, and wanted to know if I rode camels to school, and lived in pyramids and spoke hieroglyphics and things like that. And it became apparent quickly that the kind of life I was living wasn't the norm.' - Greg, US global nomad

On Being a Cultural Chameleon:

I've always blended in so fast. Even a lot of people thought I was American right away... When I was in Kuwait, people would never think I was not Kuwaiti, when I was in England, I was easily an Englishman. I've always blended in very quickly in any culture I've been in contact with. - Azeez, Kuwait

On Sense of Home:

'It's funny...like in the summers, we'd always be traveling. At the beginning of the summer, my parents would say: 'we're going home,' and we (kids) would say: 'we're going on vacation.' Then at the end of the summer, when we were going back to the Philippines, my sister and I would say: 'we're going home,' and my parents would say: 'no, we're just going back to work.' ' - Lynn, US

On Reentry:

I guess I always took it for granted that I would come back here for college: we came back every summer and I considered myself American, my parents were from here, it was just kind of assumed. Then when I got here it was a big adjustment identity thing: I didn't feel American, I didn't understand a lot of American culture, I didn't understand my American roommate, or her friends or anything that most people were obsessed about, and I quickly realized that I wasn't that American at all. - Lynn, US

On Friendship:

People tell me: 'wow, that's so cool that you have friends all over the world,' but they're not the friends that I could just call up if I had a problem. And so, if you've left your friends that many times then I think you learn not to attach yourself too much to them: while you still keep in touch, you don't attach yourself, you don't depend on them as much - Marianne, Denmark

On Commitments and Roots:

I guess my problem was I never wanted to put down roots... roots that were going to get ripped out... - Brian, US

On Decision Making:

I think a lot of decision makings that I make are based on norms, on someone's societal norms, and I try to change them by not adhering to some of them. And it's hard because I might be doing something with my friends and according to my other cultures its not something correct: I shouldn't be doing it. So there's an inner struggle going on whatever you're doing: there's always battle in our brain: should I do this or shouldn't I? - Miro, Afghanistan

On Global Nomads as Cultural Bridges:

'Global Nomads have the ability to educate others...to reach across boundaries that might not otherwise be crossed ...there's a different sense of perspective: being able to look at more than one side, being able to mediate, being able to hopefully bring tolerance.' - Liliona, Ghana


'You try to take the best parts of every culture that you've been in, and you shape a culture of its own, and...that's more satisfying than to have to identify with just one culture...especially today when there's more and more clash between people from different cultures, culture becomes kind of a restriction, and maybe that's the best part of our culture, that it's not restrictive.' - Marianne, global nomad

Alice Wu may be reached at aw17@cornell.edu

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