Reflections from a conference; can expats use their skills to influence the world?

I am not a third culture kid.

I grew up in the house my parents bought before I was born, where they still live today. My dad prefers to travel to places where he has been before – I’m sure you can all imagine how that influenced my childhood holiday pattern.

Still, I knew early on that this was not a life for me. I always wanted to see the world and all its diversity. When the other kids on our street played football, I sat in the grass mashing up flowers to make a paste that I spread onto flat rocks, imitating women in a documentary from Africa I’d seen on TV.

At university, I studied anthropology, and completed an 8 month long qualitative field study on expats in Oman. Many of my fellow students saw it as a ‘sell-out.’ Well paid, privileged expats; sponsored by a large oil multinational. Whatever happened to changing the world and our ideals of a better place to raise our children?

I’ve had this nagging thought for some time now. It goes something like this: “but wait a minute; expats, all these people who have truly lived diversity. Through their experiences and skills, they do hold the power to help change the world”.

At the Families In Global Transition conference in the Netherlands last week, I met and heard people who share that thought. The potential it holds, is very powerful.

Anne Copeland, founder and owner of The Interchange Institute, started day two of the conference with an excellent keynote speech, Do TCKs Have Unique Skills? The Childhood Experience of Being Different and Its Impact on Expatriate Living. Here, she stated that being different can be an asset, it helps us realize that ‘what you see may be different from what other people see.’ Third Culture Kids, through the nature of their childhood, bring a set of skills into the world with them. Most TCKs have strong observation skills. They are cross-culturally sensitive, comfortable with diversity and they have the ability to take another’s point of view.

Raising three third culture kids, I have always believed that one of the most powerful tools I give them, is their experience with diversity. To them, diversity is ‘normal.’ That people come from different places in the world, speak different languages, pray to different Gods, look and act differently, is the only reality they know. I am convinced that this worldview will shape their lives, and that of the people they meet. I also think it holds the power to make the world a better place. My kids don’t focus on differences. They focus on unity. When my son described the new boy in his class last week, he didn’t say ‘he is not from Norway, he doesn’t look like me, he hasn’t lived anywhere I know, he doesn’t know anyone I know and his food looks weird’. He said, ‘his name is Tami and he likes football, just like me.’

Claudia Baldini and Christina Baldan of What Expats Can Do – Bringing Hope to the World followed up on the theme of skills with their concurrent session. As expats, they say, we have unique experiences and skills, and we can use them to do good. Through experience in mobile lives, Cristina told us, expats have learned how to ‘deal with diversity to find workable solutions.’ As expats, we have access to a ‘treasure chest of skills.’ Communication, the ability to create a community, patience, empathy and endurance; learned through experience. We were all encouraged to ‘go out in the world and do something.’ As a community, Cristina and Claudia insist, we hold vast resources and skills. Using them, we hold the power to influence our world for the better.

One expat who has used skills to purposefully change her world for the better, is Basma al Rawi. In her kitchen table conversation, Positively Curious, she told us how she had started her expat path closed off to the world, alone in her apartment, refusing to reach out and make connections. She was unhappy, and recognized the need for change. ‘I am not a curious person by nature,’ she said, ‘but I taught myself to reach out and use curiosity as a tool to discovery. Curiosity was my tool, but knowledge was my goal.’ She told us how she trained herself to ask questions, to observe others, to meet others with empathy and give of herself to create connections.

Empathy. The ability to take another’s perspective. Relativism. Observation. Participation. Respect for diversity. Respect and appreciation for difference. Reaching out.

Are these skills that expats learn through their experiences? Can we use them to influence our world? If we know how to, do we have a duty to make connections and build bridges: to push the doors open?

What do you think?






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