Reflection on a childhood of travel, and being raised in cultures distant to my own
Born in a country, which was on the verge of collapse a mere one year after my birth, I never found a place which I could call home.
But no, I do not mind this at all.
As the saying goes, “home is where the heart is,” and my socio-spatial independence has allowed me to find a niche in my heart for each and every bit of culture I have encountered during my travels.
Although a far cry from the nomads you hear about today, my parents always had a global outlook, even when the Iron Curtain hung intact. My mother through her studies of the Danish language, and my father, impassioned by foreign film.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the path was finally clear to go abroad. Or at least to the visa sections of foreign consulates.
By the age of 12, I had traveled to ten countries, and lived long term in another three. I made friends in Italian, Czech and Danish kindergartens without speaking a single word in the languages of my peers, joined a German primary school, only to publish an illustrated newspaper with my Vietnamese classmate, and then attended a French middle school, only to self-study Japanese for my finals.
When people hear my story, the initial excitement is followed by an avalanche of concerns. “Poor boy, you probably never had any friends as a child!”, “How stressful it must have been to move from school to school!”
Truth is, my childhood was great. It was exciting, instructive, and inspirational. It prepared me for life in an ever more globalized world of today, and instilled independence which helped me bootstrap a successful edtech startup while living as a digital nomad.
I’d like to take this opportunity to answer some of the common questions I get about growing up in a mobile family.
How did you overcome the language barriers?
Spoken words are not the only way to communicate, and the sooner you learn that, the better you’ll be at fitting in in foreign cultures. Being in a foreign language environment in preschools wasn’t easy, but I learned to deal with it through assimilation, and imitation.
My parents like to joke about my time in the Italian kindergarten’s choir. I’d confidently walk on stage with everybody else, and open my mouth to the rhythm of the music, producing no sounds, and of course oblivious to the lyrics.
Later on I started to pick up some basic words and phrases to get me through a regular day, and learned to sense out what my peers and teachers wanted.
Quando si mangia non si parla. (Don’t talk with your mouth full.)
Once I got to school, things became more intense, as I suddenly had to do homework in a foreign language. International schools are used to students like me, however, so there’s enough support to help you plow through the initial difficulties, and learning a language through immersion is weirdly exhilarating!
These days there are many organisations that enable students to go on study exchange programs. So, you don’t need to live in a nomadic family to get the benefits of mingling with native speakers of the language you want to learn.
Was it difficult to make friends with all the constant changes?
If anything, the experience taught me how to make friends faster, and be more open to people outside my social group.
Friendships rarely lasted, but this taught me to appreciate the present and all the good memories with people I might never see again. It also made me acutely aware of how my behaviour can change depending on the kind of people I socialize with.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending a few good years with one group of friends, then saying ‘bye’ and joining a new circle of friends somewhere else. It does not devalue the relationships you had, or threaten the memories you shared together.
Again, studying at an international school helped here. Most of my classmates would be in a similar position, moving every few years with their parents on expat packages and in foreign service. We all quickly learned to treat each move not as an unfortunate ending, but rather as a new beginning — an opportunity for change and self-discovery.
Would you wish to have experienced a more traditional childhood?
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a small community, go out for coffee with the same group of people all my life, speak one language, and enjoy the unexciting, but familiar status quo.
I have no regrets though, and deep in my heart, I feel like the world would be a better place if more people would come out of their cradles, grow a thicker skin, open up to outside views, and appreciate the boons of independence.
Is there a place you call home? What is your identity?
I believe everyone is better off staying clear of labels, and forging an identity of their own.
It forces you to be more self-aware, reason through everything you do from first principles instead of following the masses, and ultimately think outside the box — something we need now more than ever if we are to solve climate change, and other global quandaries.
I do feel a strong connection to some places and cultures, and feel less at home in others, but this connection does not always correlate with the amount of time I spent in the country, or with a particular person.
My Russian and Tatar heritage has had a strong impact on my thinking, but so has my life in Europe, education in the US, and words of philosophers far and wide. I feel like a local in Moscow, but also in London, and Hong Kong.
Natives of all three cities might frown on my self-declared identity, and it goes against the etymology of the word. Maybe it’s time to start talking about selfhood instead?