Brexit & Zero-Sum Games

Pordenone, Italy

I recently flew through London’s Heathrow airport, and I happened to land on the first day of the UK’s official withdrawal from the European Union. I must admit, I didn’t necessarily feel like things felt any more British than usual… which isn’t surprising. But it made me think about the reality that at the heart of arguments used by many in support of Brexit is the notion that to become more British, the UK had to become less European.

That’s a great example of what is known as a “zero-sum game”. A zero-sum game is like a see-saw: when one side goes up, the other correspondingly comes down. To be more British, we have to be less European; to be awake longer, we have to sleep less; and so on.

Those who oppose Brexit would be more likely to argue that British and European identities are not mutually exclusive – you can be both British and European without the two concepts adversely effecting each other.

Many Third Culture Kids, Cross-Cultural Kids, and Expats have to work through constructing identity outside the bounds of a zero-sum game. A student with a passport from Germany who grows up in Singapore may feel attachment to both countries – one through heritage and family influence, the other through experience and familiarity. Those are difficult forces to pit against each other.

There can be great advantages to working through identity in this way, like cross-cultural skills and adaptability. But it can also cause confusion in a world still modeled on a system of exclusive national identity, leaving some TCKs to feel rootless or “fake” when compared to others with fewer international influences on their upbringing.

The argument regarding to what degree identity is zero-sum or not is actually playing out on a scale far more global than just the UK. In a recent poll of more than 20,000 people from 18 different countries, it emerged that the majority of people in developing economies saw themselves more as global citizens first and foremost, while the majority of people in richer nations felt the exact opposite: they were first and foremost national citizens. The divide between the two is only expected to grow…

Money, time, even attention are all limited resources which point to the fact that most things in life are zero-sum. The more time you spend with someone the less you have for everyone else, that’s what makes us feel special and valued. Perhaps that’s part of the reason we can so easily attach the concept of a zero-sum game to identity: it helps us feel special.

But sometimes we can do great harm by assuming everything is zero-sum.

One of the underlying causes of bullying is the assumption that for one person to have more happiness, someone else has to have less. So by picking on someone and making them feel worse, the belief is that it’ll make the bully feel better about themselves. That’s not how happiness works. We can create unlimited happiness, it is not a rare or scarce resource!

Whether in Brexit, the wider debate on global vs national identity, or even our relationships with those around us, it’s worth looking at how we see the world: do we assume everything is zero-sum – because while many things are… some things definitely aren’t, and they can easily be subconsciously overlooked. At the same time, a lot of our resources are limited and we have to make tough choices regarding them. Where does a resource like identity fall on that spectrum?

What do you think? Are you a global citizen first, or a national citizen first, or are you both? Is your identity something to be protected, or something to be shared, or a bit of both? Ultimately, how we think about concepts like identity has a real impact on the limited resources we all have to work with.

Global Village

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

This week I am in Dubai, and one thing that I always try to make time for while in Dubai is a stop at Global Village. Global Village is a pretty large park on the outskirts of the city that recreates famous architecture, food, and even dances from various countries and regions around the world, and gathers them together in very close proximity. Not many of my friends in Dubai are willing to make this regular pilgrimage with me – the crowds and overly-touristy-feel seem to be off-putting… but not to me!

I think Global Village is a great visual for some of the complexities we’re all grappling with in globalization. There are aspects of globalization we love: easy access, huge variety, overcoming geographic limitations to our creativity and cooperation… But there are also challenges we’re not so fond of: preserving uniqueness, protecting history and culture, and resolving identity.

That last challenge, resolving identity is one I see at play constantly with Third Culture Kids (and adults). The words we use to categorize people and cultures are less and less accurate. For many people, nationality is not a neatly concise label to cover beliefs, traditions, and experience. Many TCKs grow up with a passport that may have less to do with their experience even if it is a reminder of their (or at least their parents’) heritage. More and more people around the world have an increasingly diversity set of cultures that play into who they are and how they see the world.

I think identity is more dynamic that we realize, and while I certainly won’t say that I can explain, justify, fix, or even completely make sense of globalization – I think adjusting the way we see even the concept of identity can certainly be a useful tool on the journey. I feel identity is a bit like a zoom lens… On one extreme if we zoom all the way in on ourselves, it’s just us. We’re unique at the tightest zoom level, but also alone. On the other extreme if we zoom all the way out, we share a planet with 7 billion others and have a lot in common, but we’re easily lost in a crowd.

There are times in life we need to be unique, and times we need to belong… and sometimes those needs are so close together that we’ve got to zoom the lens pretty quickly to make sense of ourselves and those around us. We often forget there are lots of “stops” between the two extremes of this lens. Nationality is one stop, so is food preference, ethnicity, religious belief, musical taste, and so many other ways we find commonality or difference.

Some of the biggest obstacles in identity, globalization, and just about any relationship arise when we get stuck on a certain zoom setting and refuse to budge. We’ve got more in common than we think and that can be a unifying and disarming realization. We’re more unique than we give ourselves credit for – and that makes us useful and precious. Those are positive takes, but both of those statements can be used divisively as well. I think our responsibility in an ever globalizing world is going to be to use the full span of our zoom lens in constructive and positive ways. How we wield perception has incredible power in this Global Village we’re part of together.

Complacency

Bahrain

I’ve just landed in Bahrain and I feel a deep sense of shame. Not at being in Bahrain, that’s pretty exciting – I feel shame for my behavior on arrival as I cleared immigration. You see I’ve been to Bahrain before, though it’s been a few years – and I am fortunate enough to travel frequently around the Arab Gulf… but I’m afraid this marvelous frequency has made me complacent – and complacency is no good at all.

I can remember visiting friends in Germany a few years ago who went into great detail telling me about their plans and preparations for a trip they would be taking to the US. Even though the trip was roughly 6 months away, it was already occupying a fair amount of their time and conversation. They shared planned itineraries, what they would do on the flight, what they were packing, what they were looking forward to… it was impressive. By contrast, I would visit 7 countries between seeing them and when they would actually take their trip, but I had to concentrate intently to remember the names of those countries, let alone expound on details in the way my German friends could.

Some of the reason for all this is that with repetition things become normal. We have to normalize things to some degree otherwise life would be exhausting. Think of something you do everyday, like brushing your teeth. Imagine if every time you undertook this mundane task you did so with the wonder and excitement of someone who’s never brushed their teeth before. You’d eventually be exhausted, and you’d probably exhaust the people around you by getting that excited at least twice a day (as recommended by dentists) and sharing this excitement on social media, over the phone, or in person. (Maybe we should start socially inviting friends over for teeth brushing parties, just a thought.) So we normalize routines to save energy and be efficient.

The danger is that if we get the balance wrong, we can normalize too much and lose out on the wonder of the moment – or find ourselves vastly unprepared. As I landed in Bahrain, I made my way to passport control and slid my passport to the waiting border guard. The official in front of me flicked through my document and asked for the address of the hotel I’d be staying in. Ummm… I didn’t know. Panicking slightly, I dug into my backpack on the floor to find my phone and try and look up an address… I had to connect to the wifi, fill out a form to get online, scroll through emails… all the while holding up the queue of people behind me. The officer waited patiently as I fumbled about and finally got him the required information.

Then he asked how I would be paying for my visa… what?! I forgot I had to pay to enter Bahrain! I had to drop back to the floor and rummage through my backpack for a wallet. Would they accept Emirati currency? I didn’t have any Bahraini currency yet? Was a credit card okay? All the while, the line of people behind me looked on with exasperation.

I hate holding up the line. I loath being the slow down in a system. Had it not been for the fact that I probably would have gotten arrested, I would have run screaming back towards the plane I’d just disembarked, and begged them to take me back from whence I came – I don’t deserve to travel anymore, I’m a line-holder-upper!

My complacency held up a line of innocent civilians… but it can have even further reaching ramifications. It’s easy to become complacent with people, places, and events. Because of our tendency to normalize (which, in balance, is healthy) we can far too easily take people, places, and events for granted. Growing up as a TCK, I picked up the notion that every “hello” is just a “goodbye” waiting to happen. Nothing, nobody, and nowhere lasts forever.

If anything, that means I should know it’s worth the discipline and investment to consciously choose the balance between what I allow to become normal, and what I choose to keep remarkable, sacred even. We have the power to decide what will normalize and what won’t. We don’t often devote thought to the process, instead allowing it to run on auto-pilot, but I think we’d all benefit from a little more intentionality as far as preserving the remarkable. Life is short, and as many TCKs and expats know: every “hello” IS a “goodbye” waiting to happen, so we should be encouraged to treasure and be intentionally present for what happens between those two markers – don’t let normalizing rob you of your moments… besides, we really do need to keep the line moving at passport control.

Home for the Holidays

Oregon, United States

We’re nearing the end of what much of Western culture considers the holiday season… and I have been on the ground, in the same country, for THIRTY-SEVEN DAYS. That’s a really long time for me.

I learned a while ago that change almost always causes some degree of stress – but not always in the ways we think. For someone used to stability, disruption is… disruptive – that’s pretty common knowledge. But the reality is that for someone used to transition, stability can actually be just as… disruptive.

For loads of expats and international students around the world, this time of year can be unexpectedly disruptive. Loads of families living outside the country they came from (or at least the country or countries the parents came from) have ventured “home for the holidays” to reconnect with family and friends.

While it is hopefully a time to see loved ones we don’t always get to see, it can also be a stressful confrontation with the harder-to-understand-than-we-think concept of “home”. If your home for most of the year is an international context with a mix of people from different nationalities, beliefs, customs, and traditions – you’ve likely spent some time adapting to all of that… and now suddenly being in your old “home” you may not be ready to… “un-adapt” for lack of a better term. Sure the initial newness and novelty you bring will carry you for a while, but what if you’re “home” long enough for that to wear off, what then?

Coming home for the holidays can reveal that your experiences may not be relatable, your insights may not be welcome, and your priorities may not be shared. This is often felt all the more sharply because you’re supposedly… “home” – the place you came from, where you should feel a sense of belonging, rootedness, and easy connection.

It’s often said that repatriation (returning “home”) is harder than a move to a foreign place… and sometimes, if you’re around long enough for the vacation-like-novelty to fade, being “home” for the holidays exposes us to a little taste of repatriation.

The reality is, you’re more adaptable than you think. The fact that you’ve adapted to your life abroad and now feel less adept in your previous context is actually evidence of your adaptability: well done! Does that make it easier… no. No it does not. But let’s take a moment to appreciate your adaptability once again, it’s no small feat!

“Home for the holidays” is a learning experience. I think “home” is more fluid than we think. The privilege of reconnecting with loved ones, family, and friends from our past, our previous home, or our history is a phenomenal blessing not to be taken for granted… and as a bonus it may well reveal that we appreciate more about our current home or living situation than we realized.