A Geographically Rooted Childhood

When I meet sons and daughters of diplomats or globetrotting CEOs, they tend to have a complicated answer to the question, “Where ya from?” They’re not from any one place, really. First Chicago, then Singapore, then Beijing, then Sydney, now Los Angeles. Wherever their parents’ work took them.

I’m an example of the opposite. Same bed, same house, same neighborhood in San Francisco the first 19 years of my life. When someone asks where I’m from, San Francisco is the easy answer. I’m unequivocally rooted from a very specific geography.

Usually, after the “Where ya from?” conversation, both of us envy each other: I envy the son of a diplomat for his travel experience, his worldliness, the comfort he must have in knowing he can be dropped anywhere in the world and make it home. He envies my rootedness, my sense of belonging, my strong sense of identity.

Neither upbringing is objectively better than the other.

But I must say, from my own biased perspective, the college students I’ve met who had a geographically rooted childhood tend to be more confident and happier, if less interesting. The diplomat’s son has an attractive cosmopolitan veneer; but the insecurity which stems from a lack of true “home” somehow also comes through.

8 comments on “A Geographically Rooted Childhood
  • I like your point about a more stable childhood, but I wonder if it has to do less with a desire for “home” and more to do with a lack of stable friendships while growing up.

  • That guy, the rolling stone, would gather no moss – the proverbial driftwood that’s sure to reach the shore. He may not get easily emotional since he will have far less sentimental attachments and will have his own sense of patriotism depending on where he is at any given moment or worse, what is politically correct under the given circumstances. He will adapt to situations in an instant and will not have any rooted views or bias. In a sense, no cultural alignments with the past, no sense of history of any one geography.

    In all, his exposure to many cultures is a sure plus. But absence of singularity will also be the big minus. After all the sojourns, when he finally chooses to settle down at some place, the sudden cessation of mobility will haunt him.

    Eventually the twitching in the gut will start if he often gets to hear “back home, it [something, anything] used to be better” !

  • I 2nd Andy’s point: I know a lot of kids who’ve lived in same place their entire lives and have no connection to their homes, and lack the strengths of the rooted people you describe. I think it’s all about the ease with which you make friendships and the depths of those friendships. And I think a lot of that is just determined by your natural disposition.

    Maybe there is an insecurity from the lack of a consistent place to call home, but I think I’d argue that some fraction of those “nomadic” kids are more personable than the “rooted” ones because they’ve had no choice but to pickup their lives and make new friends many times, and so they’ve sort of mastered the art as it were.


  • I think you are chasing your tail, Ben. The real question is one of parenting. The parents of the international students often put the interests of their career above the interests of their children. They globetrot without thinking about the ramifications of raising children with our roots, without lifelong friends. What a pity.

  • I’m one of those “not really from anywhere” kids. It took me longer to figure it out, but I totally agree that “Neither upbringing is objectively better than the other.”

    And to Charles: Your comment presupposes that the best childhood is a rooted one. My father made very little money as an elementary school teacher, but chose to teach internationally because he loved other cultures. I was able to have incredible experiences as a child that we never could have afforded had my father remained in the states.

    From my experience it seems that many international families are that way not because of selfish parents chasing money, but because of parents that wanted more for their kids (and themselves) than could be found in a normal suburban life.

  • I’m one of those ‘international’ kids and I think there’s value to travelling when you’re younger.

    I think you’re more accepting, less judgemental, less likely to view the world through the prism of your own culture and you become more a part of whatever culture you’re in ‘osmotically’ than is possible when you’re older.

    And I think that’s important in a world where so many problems stem from a basic lack of understanding making it easy for any one culture to demonise another.

    Having said that, these days, being cosmopolitan is more about an attitude than the number of stamps in your passport – I’ve known international kids who were rigid & parochial and small-town kids who were wise beyond their years.

    While it is nice that I can make my way around several countries, what’s more important to me is that I can talk to anyone anywhere and connect on a human being to human being level. And you really don’t need to have spent your life bouncing between countries to achieve that.

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