Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
Although many people travel extensively for business or pleasure, they usually return to a place they consider home. However, to those who call themselves "global nomads," home is everywhere and nowhere.
With its notably international assortment of students and faculty, MIT probably has more than its share of global nomads-people who had internationally mobile childhoods because their parents' work (usually in the military, the diplomatic corps, international business, education or as missionaries).
One of those hoping to start a global nomad group here at MIT is Gabriel Bochi, a fourth-year graduate student in materials science and engineering whose father was in the import/export business. He was born in Lebanon, but his family left in 1975 when the fighting in that country broke out. He subsequently spent four years in Egypt and eight years in Italy, then got his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Canada before coming to MIT. Like most other global nomads, Mr. Bochi, who speaks five languages fluently, has seen much of the world but doesn't call any one country home. The closest for him is Italy, "because that's where I lived the longest," he said.
Therein lies the rub. Compared to the majority of people who've spent most of their lives in one geographical area and are consequently "of" that place, global nomads have experienced two or more cultures but are full-fledged members of none. Thus, they adapt quickly to living in unfamiliar countries but always feel a bit like outsiders. Also, a sense of wanderlust may become part of their nature as adults. "Every three or four years, you get the feeling you want to move to a new place," Mr. Bochi said.
"For me, it's every two years," said Anora Sutherland, accounting analyst at the Sloan School of Management, "because we were transferred every one to two years." The daughter and granddaughter of foreign-service officers, she grew up in more than 10 countries around the Mediterranean. She attended French, Italian, Arabic and American schools of all types: public, Catholic, experimental, boarding and even correspondence.
Even after she finished high school, Ms. Sutherland attended four different colleges, including two in China, before enrolling at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. "Whatever pattern of moving you had as a kid, you tend to want to keep that pattern as an adult," she said. Her love of travel is symbolized by the wall of her office, which is entirely covered by a large and colorful National Geographic map of the world.
All that mobility can sometimes result in a feeling of rootlessness. Some global nomads even have trouble buying homes or large pieces of furniture because they're so accustomed to picking up and leaving. "When I'm not moving physically, I'm moving my furniture around," Ms. Sutherland said. The peripatetic lifestyle can also make it difficult to form permanent relationships with others; Mr. Bochi noted that he sometimes worries that if he keeps moving to different countries, he won't be able to settle down and have a family.
Nathalie van Bockstaele, an MIT alumna who lived in France until she was 21, doesn't find parenthood and globe-trotting incompatible-she's the parent of two young global nomads. "I made a conscious decision to give my children a multinational upbringing," she said. She also married a global nomad, Joachim Theilhaber (a 1982 MIT graduate who now works at Thinking Machines in Cambridge), and they have lived in Japan, France and on both coasts of the United States. "My oldest son [now five] has lived on three continents already," she observed.
What Ms. Bockstaele believes-and what she wants to convey to her children-is that "there's this concept of globality that everyone's talking about, and this belief that we should all feel we are citizens of the world. The question is: how do you achieve it?"
"I definitely want my son to identify not so much with a country, but with the world," Ms. Sutherland added.
Since global nomads are accustomed to moving between cultures, they often wind up acting as informal (if not actual) diplomats. "The role we naturally take on in groups is bridging differences between people," she said.
The term "global nomad" was coined by Norma McCaig, who founded Global Nomads International (GNI) in Washington, DC, in 1985. The group promotes understanding of and research in the global nomad experience in all its aspects (mobility, reentry, cultural differences, etc.) through its institutes, conferences and newsletters. Members can discuss how their experiences have shaped their personalities and outlook and made them subtly different from "rooted" people.
This difference becomes apparent as soon as someone asks them where they're from, a question for which there is no short answer. A well-traveled early life often makes a person self-reliant, easily adaptable to change, linguistically proficient and more aware of the multitude of personal and professional opportunities that the world has to offer, according to the scant available research on the topic gathered by GNI. However, such a background can also result in uncertain cultural identity, unresolved grief from repeatedly leaving friends and homes during childhood, insecurity and difficulty with relationships and commitment.
Also, Ms. Sutherland noted, Americans who spent their formative years overseas sometimes don't feel attuned to this country, but since they are natives by name and by language, people around them don't understand why. "There's an invisible aspect to American global nomads in the United States," she said. "People say, `you sound American, so why aren't you getting the jokes?'"
Nonetheless, the benefits of being exposed to the diverse international scene from a young age outweigh any disadvantages that come with being a global nomad, MIT's nomads agreed. "I think overall it's been a very positive experience, meeting a lot of different people," Mr. Bochi said.
Global nomad organizations have formed in several American cities including Atlanta, Boston, New York and San Francisco, as well as Japan, Norway and Switzerland. There are also college and university groups at American University, Duke, George Washington University, the University of Michigan, Valparaiso and others, although there are none yet at Massachusetts universities. Anyone interested in forming a global nomad group at MIT should contact Gabriel Bochi at x3-0981,
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 23).