Me: “I find it easier to work with the Italians.” Classmate: Really? No, wait. I know. You are American. But you aren’t really American anymore…..You’ve visited and lived in so many places. You’re not as used to being around a lot of Americans all the time.” Hmm, he might be onto something.
Life abroad has recently become a hot topic with the Wall Street Journal even creating a portion of their website called ‘Expat’ with blogs aimed at “global nomads everywhere.” Its premiere blog mentioned an up-and-coming Facebook group titled ‘I Am A Triangle’, which then went viral and now boasts over 2,200 members. According to its founder, Naomi Hattaway, “Going from one culture/country (as a circle) to a second culture/country (the squares) forms a “shape” more like a Triangle.” If I can’t be a Third Culture Kid – “a kid raised in a culture or multiple cultures outside of their parents’ culture(s) for a significant part of their development years ” – then I am certainly a Triangle.
I love living abroad. I love the opportunities, the challenges, the food, the people I meet, and most importantly, everything I learn. Thanks to an omnipresent hunger for knowledge, my mouth waters at the thought of gorging on a place rich in social, cultural, political, and religious nutrients. It is more than wanderlust; it is an insatiable desire to connect with and become a part of the world around me by learning more about it. Life abroad, coupled with constant travel, has worked to make me feel like a patchwork quilt of experiences, that, when stitched together, combine to create my story. With each bite of a journey, I grow hungrier and hungrier. As I set out and about, words of encouragement from friends and family echo in my ears. The question remains, will the hunger ever subside?
Right now, the answer is, “I’m not sure.” I have plenty of grandiose multi-country five and ten-year plans swirling around in my head. Simultaneously, fears exist. Will I reach a point when I’m just too tired to go again? Am I really OK with missing 99% of my friends’ weddings and births of their children? Should I settle down? And my family – they are immensely supportive of me but doesn’t it pain them at least a little bit to have me so far away? So far, the benefits of and opportunities for both personal and professional development outweigh the cons. Furthermore, I am able to work on my goal of leaving the world a better place than when I entered it. Amidst all of this, I get so excited that I feel like I’m on a sugar high when I get to see a good friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time. Planning mode goes into high gear if there’s even a 5% chance I might be able to meet up with who inspires me in some random location.
But let’s return to the Triangle notion and throw in multiple countries and cultures. Can we “shape-ify” their impact? Again, I’m not sure, but perhaps, we can take a look now at how relationships can twist and turn due to these influencers. In learning how to survive and thrive in foreign cultures, we adapt, assimilate, and emulate and thus, adjust how we form relationships. In the US growing up, I made friends through school and activities such as Girl Scouts and various sports teams. In college, I linked up with others in business school, my sorority, and my business fraternity. This is not to say that I did not have friends outside of these groups. Rather, my heavy involvement in these organizations fostered strong friendships that continue today.
As Michele Phoenix aptly put it, Multicultural Kids and TCKs treasure the time they have with people more so because they anticipate that there won’t be much of it, due to another move. Consequently, they form both friendships and deeper relationships in shorter time spans. He calls this the “time/depth dilemma”, in which “MKs and TCKs generally require depth in forming relationships while mono-culturals require time to form meaningful connections.” As a Triangle (or Multi-cultural Kid), it is clear I have developed this propensity. Like fellow frequent fellow travelers, it is easy for me to bond with people I meet at my hostels, on trips, etc. The bonding takes place over a short amount of time and the relationship is then forced to continue online until (if possible) we meet up again.
Just as being ‘multi-cultural’ has upsides, it most certainly has downsides. I have inadvertently become more “selective” in how I form relationships with others. I can quickly connect with fellow so-called expats, students, children, those with similar visions/interests/motivations, travelers, kindred spirits, people I’m working on meaningful tasks and projects with for a common good. I can talk world affairs all day long with anyone willing to engage and never be bored. Still, stick me in a room with someone from Kansas who’s never left the state and I’m not sure what to do. I also find it more difficult to connect with and relate to fellow Americans I am meeting for the first time unless they have gone through at least a few of the same experiences. Hence, the feeling that working with non-Americans now comes more naturally than working with Americans.
I’ve created a paradox within myself. In my own open-mindedness with regards to the world, I can tend to exclude those who don’t also exhibit it. This is the problem Hansen explains, “When we instantly judge someone because we don’t like their narrow-mindedness or because they do not appreciate how big the world is and think only of their own petty interests, we create an instant barrier and cease to be open minded ourselves. Conversely, when we firmly and stubbornly believe that no one can possibly understand us, we have already created a situation that precludes anyone entering into our world.” As a result, in my own fierce independence and flexibility that I’ve developed throughout years of moving, meeting new people, and experiencing new things, it has become slightly more challenging for me to foster deeper relationships with those who may be in outer social groups, those who lack an awareness of the world around them, and those who may not have an immediate link to me. At times, for this reason, I may seem chilly, in stark contrast, with my usual energetic personality.
In light of this, I’ve taken to listening more and speaking less. I’m not ready to significantly loosen the grip on my independent nature just yet though reaching out and thanking people for inadvertently increasing my interdependence with others has done wonders. I’ve realized that I still have a lot to learn about my own country and the people in it! While I have made some strides in improving my patience, I know I have miles to go. I’m grateful to say that I still believe that if I end up with one or two quality, lifelong friends from each longer meaningful experience – for example, living in a foreign country – then I’ve “won”. I would love to make more, but like most, I prefer quality over quantity.
To pull everything together, living abroad can result powerful growth opportunities but it is important to be mindful of ways in which we may subconsciously devolve into a lesser version of ourselves, blinded by our believed open-mindedness. Remain cognizant of the different processes others may go through in forming relationships no matter what side of the fence you’re on. Questioning, learning, living, adapting, and flourishing are all part of your story. The urge to move, to see, to engage with others may not dissipate so it must be seized and valued as long as the fire inside burns. Because life is too short to miss out on being happy. Really happy.