Global Nomads: Finding Home in the Age of Technology

Global Nomads: Finding Home in the Age of Technology

By Alice Wu

Published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 20 | Sept/Oct 2015

shutterstock © Ollyy3This morning, my teenage daughter FaceTimed a friend in Maryland, Snapchatted another in Utah, Facebook-messaged one in Denmark, and sent or received 500 texts. Imagine what life would be like without technology – a world without iPhones and iMessages, Facebook and FaceTime, Skype and Snapchat, texting and Twitter, email and the Internet?

Strange as it may sound, that was the reality for global nomads at Cornell University in the 1994 video, Global Nomads Cultural Bridges for the Future (Wu and Clark, Bojer and Barzilay).

At the Families in Global Transition 2015 conference this spring, I facilitated a session on ‘Global Nomads: Finding Home in the Age of Technology,’ and showed video clips of students from 1994, 2001 and 2014. We discussed how technology has affected global nomads’ experiences over time.

1994 – Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the Future

Our first video featured 15 Cornell students from various backgrounds and a videoconference of experts in the field.

The students were so happy to meet each other that, after participating in the video, they formed an active global nomad club. The videoconference used software newly developed at Cornell for PCs called CUSeeMe. We relied on the head of CIT to set it up, and sent special video cameras to participants (Norma McCaig, who coined the term ‘global nomad’ in 1984 and founded Global Nomads International (GNI) in Virginia, Barbara Schaetti in Washington, and Bruce LaBrack in California) to attach to their Mac computers. David Pollock, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, came to join us at Cornell. Despite occasionally fuzzy images, we were excited to use this innovative videoconferencing tool.

“People tell me, ‘It’s so cool you have friends all over the world,’ but they’re not the friends I could just call up if I had a problem. If you’ve left your friends that many times, you learn not to attach yourself too much to them.”   

In 1994, students used telephones to communicate, which was challenging and expensive because friends and family were often in other countries. Their frequent moves resulted in some shared opinions about home. “I couldn’t really consider anything home – that’s in some ways very liberating,” one commented, while another said, “Home has been my family – I’ve never really called Guatemala, or Australia, or wherever, home.” Their mobility also related to cultural identity and marginality, as one student pointed out, “You feel out of touch with each country – you’re not part of the neighborhood.”

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

2001 – Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium

Our second video in 2001, Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium, was a collaboration with NAFSA’s (Association of International Educators) Global Nomad Special Interest Group, and included college-age students from six schools: San Diego State University, Colorado State University, The College of Wooster, Syracuse University, and Cornell University.

One participant insightfully remarked, “The Internet’s going to change what it is to be a global nomad in the future,” foreseeing the positive impact of new developments in technology.

“I’ve been very grateful for the invention of email,” another student added, describing how newly-available technology facilitated staying in touch with friends in other places. “For the first time, I’ve moved from one country to another and been able to keep in touch with friends via email, which really facilitates the transition; it’s not the severing and cutting of ties I remember as a child when moving.”

Development of technology also allowed students to find friends from the past. One student exclaimed, “Just within the last year, I have reconnected with people I never would have imagined I would see again!”  Previously, whenever she moved, “It was an automatic cutoff – I didn’t want to deal with the mourning period of losing people. It’s been a tremendous awakening to realize I’m not alone.”

“What contributes to one’s sense of home is the people you grow up with,” another student explained, describing how moving to the U.S. and meeting friends from previous places felt like coming home. Technology contributed to this sense of home by providing more tools to communicate with friends, and this greater sense of connection helped alleviate some of the grief of leaving them: “I’ve found a real outlet for my roots through the Internet, and my roots are all over.”

However, students also described challenging transitions: “When I came to college, that was really difficult for me, losing the one thing that was stable in my life – my family; they were somewhere else.” Since many global nomads defined home as ‘their families’, this student may have felt that he had lost his home.

2014 – Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges in the Age of Technology

In 2014, we filmed five panels of students at Cornell for a new video currently being produced: Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges in the Age of Technology. Students shared experiences and insights about advantages and disadvantages of their mobile lifestyles, as well as effects of technology. 

“It’s interesting to think that people even 10-15 years back didn’t necessarily have these kinds of resources to reach out. We are the first generation to be reckoning with this, defining the way we go about relating to one another.”

This observation captures how different life is for this generation of global nomads, with the amazing development of technology since 2001, and multitude of current communication tools.

By 2014, technology had become an essential part of college students’ lives.

“I can’t say what it was like without it; I Skype with my parents at least once a week. I’m always up to speed with them,” one student commented.

“With Skype and all these things, it’s literally feeling like we’re still with each other – they can’t hug me if I’m sad or happy, but we can always talk. I really love all this technology because, imagine without this, it’s like you’re just on a lonely planet.”    

Their transitions to college were greatly facilitated by the advent of tools like Skype and FaceTime, and contrast sharply with the experience of the student in 2001 who said he had “lost his family” when going to college.

Recent forms of social media further improved the scope of communication in 2014.

“Being able to send someone an iMessage – no matter where they are, they get that, or a Snapchat – no matter what you’re doing, somewhere someone who’s really far away can see what you’re doing too – you come back and pick up exactly where you left off.”

“Facebook is the only tool that I can use to keep in touch with all of my friends – there are other tools like email, but realistically when you have people living in different cultures, you only have Facebook.”

Technology enabled students in 2014 to have more frequent, ongoing communication with family and friends regardless of time or place, which helped maintain long-term connections. The increased opportunities to communicate contributed to a greater sense of home for global nomads.

However, some students also had reservations about technology and how the ability to be in constant contact with so many people could feel overwhelming. Others wondered whether social media, like Facebook, were good for active communication, or simply for providing information.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

Finding home in the age of technology

A common concern for students over the years was where they considered home. In 1994, 2001, and still in 2014, some students were unsure. In 2014, one student said: “Whenever someone asks me – ‘Where is home?’ – I answer differently, depending on where I am at the time. I guess home is just where you aren’t at that moment.”

However, students in 2014 described some unique ways of finding home.

“Wherever I go, I want to make that place home as much as possible and do as much as I can. Also, I feel like I could pack up all of my things and just move somewhere. That can be a little freeing, that you can both be very involved in a certain place and also OK with moving on to somewhere new.”

“A lot of people have this pull to a certain place – I don’t have that and, in a sense, it’s both unmooring and also freeing. I have family who are in New Zealand, who would gladly welcome me with open arms if I want to go spend time there… same with England, and Massachusetts, and Seattle. So maybe I have 4 [homes].”

These ways of viewing home as “freeing” recall the student in 1994 who found it “liberating” to not consider anything home. However, the students quoted above seemed able to both consider a place home and to leave it without great difficulty.

Thanks to recent innovations in technology that enhanced global nomads’ relationships with far-flung family and friends, in 2014 some students described feeling at home in more than one place. This contrasts with previous years, when many students said they did not consider any place home.

Finally, just as in 1994 when students mentioned how essential their families were to finding home, 20 years later this was still true: “When I’m with my family, no matter what place in the world it is, I’m home. To me, home is wherever my family is.”

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[Image: © Ollyy, under license from Shutterstock] 

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