The Church of Latter-day Global Nomads

“Global nomads” is apparently how marketing demographers refer to people who make a practice of living outside their native country. I imagine it’s supposed to make the expatriate experience sound adventurous, upscale, and fashion-forward, but mostly the phrase strikes me as a bit silly and pretentious. That being said, it’s remarkable how perfectly suited Mormonism is as a church for global nomads.

BYU professor James Toronto has an article in the most recent issue of BYU Studies about the rewards and challenges faced by LDS expatriate families. Apart from a few quibbles[1], the article does a good job of addressing issues that have been relevant for me or for people I’ve known. The families described in Toronto’s article are in general very positive about their international experience and the role of the Church in it. If you haven’t moved your family around the globe before, though, it might not be clear just how much practical and ideological work the Church does that supports the expatriate experience.

The missionary program is an obvious, and not-so-obvious, advantage for expatriate Mormons. Fluency in a foreign language and significant experience in a foreign culture can of course be important qualifications for employers looking to send personnel abroad, especially since sending employees overseas is an expensive proposition that often ends in failure. But the worldwide missionary program and the belief that the Church needs to fill every corner of the globe also lend support to what is, on close inspection, a fairly odd proposition, namely, that uprooting your family and moving to a foreign country is a good idea. One common experience of expatriate families returning to the United States is a sense of alienation from one’s own culture, and confusion at others’ lack of interest in or even hostility towards the years spent abroad. But for Mormons, this sense of alienation is part and parcel of the well-known returning missionary narrative. In addition, a sense of alienation from contemporaries in one’s own culture is legitimized, to a certain extent even encouraged, by church teachings about standards of dress, sexual morality, media consumption, and use of intoxicants. Modern church history itself is a story of exile, of leaving Kirtland for Missouri, leaving Missouri for Nauvoo, leaving Illinois for Utah, leaving the valley of the Great Salt Lake for settlements in Arizona or Canada, or for better jobs in California, or for grad school in New York and New Jersey. Leaving our homeland behind is in our blood.

Mormon emphasis on home and family can create unfortunate tension for women who pursue a career. But for single-career families, there are lower opportunity costs in accepting an international assignment, potentially giving them a higher degree of mobility. Toronto’s article discusses the frustrations of spouses who are often unable to obtain employment or continue a career outside the US. But for accompanying spouses, Mormon teaching and culture also provide ideological grounds for interpreting the change in a positive light.

The Church’s worldwide network of congregations has particular importance for expatriates. Sometimes members complain about undue emphasis on uniformity of doctrine and organization, but correlation minimizes the friction that geographically mobile Mormons face in new places. Learning to navigate a foreign culture is difficult and painful, but Mormon expatriates have instant access to local expertise through their ward or branch, and expatriate families have an instant context in which to provide and receive service. There’s much to criticize in an us-or-them mentality, but when you move to a foreign country, it’s incredibly helpful to have a local “us” to be part of. Bi-annual church conferences and other meetings mediated by satellite broadcast have helped us adjust to the idea that we are not just members of a local congregation, but part of a global communal body even without regular physical nearness.

Being part of a church with both international aspirations and stubbornly American roots can be frustrating, but the Church’s Americanness also helps temper resentments among members abroad. It’s hard to maintain serious anti-American biases when the Prophet, the Promised Land, and Paradise are all supposed to be in the Western Hemisphere. American Mormons are in possession of knowledge and experience that are valued commodities in congregations outside the US. Likewise, non-American Mormons have a greater incentive to put aside fears or suspicions about the United States and accept assignments there.

In other words, several aspects of the Church that are sometimes seen as annoyances by Mormons, American and non-American alike, can be quite helpful to those who find themselves somewhere in between.

[1] James A. Toronto, “‘Strangers in a Strange Land’: Assessing the Experience of Latter-day Saint Expatriate Families,” BYU Studies 45.4 (2006): 25-45. The article focuses primarily on long-term transplants in developing nations, rather than on the more prevalent temporary relocation to economically prosperous countries, so not all of its points, by its own admission, are relevant for all Mormon expatriates. For lack of relevant studies, the analysis of Mormon expatriate families is based entirely on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, and recounting the anecdotes sometimes gets out of balance with analyzing the evidence. The introduction and conclusion are irritatingly preachy.

38 comments for “The Church of Latter-day Global Nomads

  1. Peter LLC
    May 3, 2007 at 7:59 am

    “the Church’s Americanness also helps temper resentments among members abroad. It’s hard to maintain serious anti-American biases when the Prophet, the Promised Land, and Paradise are all supposed to be in the Western Hemisphere.”

    What’s next? A rush of non-American members to see what they can do to honor the office of the US vice president ’cause that’s what the prophet does?

    The “careful what you say about the States, it is the promised land, after all” approach doesn’t even work with members, to say nothing of those who reject the Church out of hand precisely because it’s viewed as yet another wacky American import.

  2. May 3, 2007 at 8:11 am

    The BYU Studies article you cite concluded that expat experience was so valuable, especially for church members, that “everybody ought to give it a try,” or words generally to that effect. Has your experience been so positive, Jonathan, that you would recommend that other members seriously consider it even if their employment doesn’t naturally tend in that direction? Or is your feeling more that the church is an invaluable asset assisting you to make the best of a difficult situation — members shouldn’t be afraid to try it, but it isn’t necessarily something to seek out deliberately?

  3. May 3, 2007 at 8:33 am

    An important point which at least a couple of the families who supplied Toronto with anecdotes seemed to strongly emphasize, but which I think he did not do enough with, was the difficulty expatriats face in finding work opportunities and social networks for their youth. Being a “global nomad” usually means being wholly dependent, both legally and economically, upon a single sponoring organization–a corporation, a university, etc.–in one’s host country, and thus the family often lacks the sort of freedom (which is usually taken for granted when one is a regular citizen of a place) that allows children grow up, get summer jobs, acquaint themselves with a broader community, learn responsibility, and so forth. Not that the children of expatriats are typically screwed up; the article makes it clear that the majority of them embrace the hard-working, meritocratic, educationally ambitious and globally conscious outlook of their parents. But it did seem that more than a few such families recognize that their children sometimes become overly very dependent upon a very limited range of associates and opportunities, with many of the recommendations which the church makes for families with children of that age–having a garden, working outside the home to earn college money, etc.–being completely off the table. If that limited range of associates is fellow church youth, that’s one thing, but it appears often to be fellow well-off, legally unemployable, territorially restricted, cash-rich teen-agers, and that’s another thing entirely.

    My highly oversimplified, instinctive opinion? The global nomad thing–like the national nomad thing, like the military nomad thing–is wonderful or at least on the balance very doable when the family, and the children, are small. But past a certain point and age, being a nomad is probably counterproductive (if not an impossible barrier) to achieving family goals for many. There’s a reason why the prophets recommend rootedness.

  4. Jonathan Green
    May 3, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Ardis, a friend who’s doing something similar right now described the experience to me recently as “much better and much harder than I expected.” There are incredible opportunities but some really difficult moments, too, so I don’t have my mind made up yet (i.e. the most on “should I stay or should I go” is still in he works). Your last few sentences pretty closely match my feelings. For some people, though, international experience is not something that they have sought out, but rather a job transfer that they can’t avoid if they want to.

    Russell, one issue with Toronto’s article is that it’s so focused on experiences in the developing world. Expatriates in England, for example, don’t face all those same issues with teenagers. My impression in any case is that the after-school and summer job experience is not the universal experience it once was. In some way he’s idealizing an American upbringing that doesn’t exist everywhere in the US anymore.

  5. May 3, 2007 at 10:42 am

    Excellent post, Jonathan. I couldn’t agree more.

    While I think that more LDS families should give living overseas a try, it’s certainly not for everyone. But I really believe that more families could do it and be an asset in their new LDS communities, whether it’s a branch or ward or a handful of members. Living overseas can be a wonderful opportunity and I really would recommend it to most people.

    I used to agree with Russell that living overseas as a family worked a lot better when the children were small (that’s all my family has experienced). But then I started meeting people who had lived overseas with their families as teenagers. One friend in particular is adamant that the experience is almost useless for small children and invaluable for teenagers because they are old enough to appreciate it (or hate it, but in my experience I haven’t seen more anger from American teenagers living overseas than American teens living in the US). Both my husband and now my own children have lived overseas as children and well, they really haven’t gotten a lot from it. Yes, it was a good experience for all of them, but I very much hope we can live overseas again, especially when my children are teenagers.

    And many of those experiences that Russell thinks are limited don’t have to be in creative expat families, even in the developing world. And there are significant experiences that an expat teenager can have that American teenagers wouldn’t even dream of. Of course there are trade-offs. But it is limiting to say that living overseas is best for small children.

    Expats families who rely completely on their sponsoring institution or on people of their own nationality for everything are some of the ones that have problems. The embassy families who only socialize with other Americans, the missionary families whose kids attend missionary schools and only see missionary kids, business kids who only play with kids whose parents are in the same line of work. Those families miss out on so many opportunities. But that’s surprisingly common, especially for spouses who feel like they were dragged overseas.

  6. Wilfried
    May 3, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Thank you, Jonathan, to bring this topic to our attention. I enjoyed James Toronto’s article very much, as I have seen many American families settle for some time in Europe (Belgium and the Netherlands), and also a few in Congo years ago. The analysis and commentaries in the article were fascinating. And of course I like any T&S post which broadens the perspective to the international Church, even if it has to pass through Americans living abroad…

    There is another group of Mormon expatriates, probably much larger than the Mormon American expatriates who go and live abroad. These are the hundreds, if not thousands of non-American Mormons who continue to immigrate to Utah and surrounding states every year (in spite of the admonition to “remain in your homeland)”. They face similar challenges of cultural integration and alineation. Most will stay, others will return to their home country. I am not aware of (recent) sociological studies that have gathered and analyzed data related to them. A hint for references or for more studies…

  7. Mark B.
    May 3, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Having just spent an extraordinarily enjoyable two weeks in Japan (where I was a missionary a third of a century ago) and finding that I could still understand and make myself understood in Japanese, I said to my wife that I could enjoy living there for a while.

    One stony look from her, and a brusque “No” put an end to that daydream.

  8. Mark B.
    May 3, 2007 at 10:57 am

    To expand slightly on Wilfried’s expansion . . .

    The same issues that Toronto raises and that Wilfried mentions are involved in moving from the Mountain West to New York City. Maybe our 25+ years in Brooklyn has given my wife enough of the expat experience to last her a lifetime.

  9. May 3, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Church globalization not only serves to help curb anti-Americanism, but it also works in reverse. It’s hard to get all fired up over “those good for nothing Mexicans” when the guy you’ve just fellowshipped is an immigrant, or the branch president’s family back home in Mexico is LDS.

  10. lamonte
    May 3, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Thank you Jonathan for this interesting post. My wife’s youngest sister – who is significantly younger than us – has lived abroad while they have started their young family. Her husband does contract work with the State Department and we have had a chance to visit them in places that we might never have considered visiting (Russia and Vietnam). It has been wonderful for us as well.

    Regarding their experience with the church – they have found wonderful experiences in the church in both places and have seen the church make great strides in increased membership and good relations with the governments of those countires. I know the church has been the foundation of their comfort zone as they have settled in those countries and they have been able to find their way a little better because of their instant “family” in the church when they arrived.

    They are making plans to return to the US this summer, for good, as their children are reaching school age and their emplyment does not provide them enough income to enroll the kids in international schools. I know they have mixed feelings because they have grown to love the culture and especially the people whereever they have been.

  11. Lupita
    May 3, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Haven’t read the article but does it include military families’ experiences living abroad?
    I agree with Amira. There are expats who live in their own little U.S. enclave, attending English-speaking wards, stocking up on peanut butter at import stores…it’s easy to argue that they aren’t doing much to experience much of their new country.

  12. May 3, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Wilfried, you have a way of slapping me with the obvious to which I am often oblivious.

    I live in a ward with a great number of expats, of varying circumstances and length of time, those non-Americans whom you point out are living here in an alien land. Some I know well and others I know at least well enough to talk to about this. I sense a post coming on, after a few weeks of research …

  13. May 3, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Just having returned from 7 years in French-speaking Africa, I would only caution soon to be expatriate Mormons to take care of church administrative matters before they leave. My church records were in limbo for a long time, I paid my tithing directly to SLC, and my temple recommend signed in Accra, Ghana was refused at the Oakland Temple!

  14. MAC
    May 3, 2007 at 11:58 am

    I have attended Church in quite a few places. Inevitably you meet the expats with that special attitude.

    The forced world-wearyness. The constant half-lidded, droll comments like “I just hate Gatwick, I ALWAYS connect through Heathrow.” or “I found the best nigiri restaurant in Tokyo, you must try it.” (to be fair it is almost the same in the east coast Boston/NYC/DC wards)

    In some places it is so severe that the posturing about who is more “exposed” conflicts with the purposes of even being there.

    I suppose this does create a “Nomad” supporting community in that it brings like people together.

    Go to a truly local unit and you can expect to provide much more support to the Church than you might receive. (Although you will probably be more spiritually uplifted than if you had to listen John and Michelle Smith Young Pratt IX ramble on about their graduate work in art history at the Hermitage.”

  15. May 3, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    MAC, Amira, Jonathan–you all in different ways touch on what is probably an important qualifer to my concern about expats, and that is the situation a family puts themselves in while there. Do they remain within a tightly bound, transient, Americanized (and often actually American), super-educated, ersatz community, one that has perhaps been given some deeper structure by the church but otherwise that’s it? Or do they put down roots, as much as possible, where they are? For instance, Jonathan, surely you must recognize that you’re a rarity amongst Mormon American expats in Germany: you’ve put your kids in the local school system. Where that is possible (and surely it’s easily possible in English-speaking countries like Britain), then almost all my concerns about limited and limiting developmental opportunities for youth evaporate. And when expats can prepare for their experience, and make connections while there that get their kids at least to some degree away from the embassy and the branch building and out into the actual working world, that’s good too. (Writing this reminds me that I knew an American family that lived in Korea for fifteen years or more, where the father worked for a bank. Their children didn’t attend Korean public schools, but they did learn the language relatively well, attended all sorts of special youth activites, made local friends, and one of them actually got a job teaching at a hagwhan.)

    So I don’t take back my judgment entirely, but I’ll admit there are a lot of qualifications there. For me, with kids ages 1 to 10, I’d still move overseas to many places (assuming a good job avaialble there) in a heartbeat. But make me the same offer in four years, with the same opportunities to go to the same places and with the same amount of money, and I’d say no. The opportunity to put down roots there in a way that would serve my children well would by then, I think, have mostly passed by.

  16. May 3, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    One interesting tidbit that came up on Sustan’d several months back was the involvement of nominally mormon Tongan youth in the leadership of the recent riots in that country. The leaders of the riots seem (from the scattered Tongan and New Zealand news reports I was able to get) largely consisted of nominally LDS youth who had been in trouble in Salt Lake or California and were sent back to the islands to ‘straighten them out’. This perhaps is the dark side of the ‘global nomad’ experience.

  17. queuno
    May 3, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    So does the Church’s influence make it easier for illegal immigrants to assimilate? Empirical evidence would suggest yes.

  18. lamonte
    May 3, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Russell said “Do they remain within a tightly bound…community, one that has perhaps been given some deeper structure by the church but otherwise that’s it? Or do they put down roots, as much as possible, where they are?”

    One of the wonderful qualities of my sister-in-law, who I mentioned above, and to a lesser degree her husband, is that she has embraced the culture and learned the language of wherever she is. This has allowed her the opportunity to become close to the local residents as well as the expats who live in their community or who attend church with them. When we have visited it has made the experience all the more rich for us as well as we have someone so steeped in the local culture. They also have international friends as neighbors. In their current residence in Ho Chi Minh City, their next door neighbors and closest friends are a couple from Germany and New Zealand and their children are closest of friends. It was a similar situation in Moscow. It makes the goodbyes all the more difficult but they and their children have a new appreciation for people and cultures elsewhere in the world. That’s always a good thing.

  19. Mark B.
    May 3, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    I don’t think that the Church “knows” what the status of immigrants is–and it makes a point not to “know”.

  20. Adam
    May 3, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    I would agree with the comments above stating that you really have to be “of age” to get anything out of the experience. If, for whatever reason, a family will only go overseas while their children are young, then by all means, do it. At least the parent’s world will be expanded (even if they are both former missionaries to foreign lands).

    However, to move back to the US when they are teenagers so that the kids can have a “normal” or “traditional” childhood almost completely negates the experience of going overseas. My little sisters do not remember much of the Dominican Republic or Chile – the little they do is of our home. Your truly formative years, outside of the home, don’t happen until you are a teenager. My childhood in Peru was no different from my little sisters’ in Virginia. But, my experiences as a teenager in Chile and the Dominican Republic were wildly different from those of my sisters’.

    I can’t say enough of experiences available to those who live overseas, like preparing the sacrament each week with my Dominican brothers in the Teachers’ quorum.

  21. Jonathan Green
    May 3, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    For US military personnel, I’m inclined to cut them a lot of slack. If they want to live off base and dive into the local culture, great. A lot of military families have done that and had great experiences. But when Dad–or Mom–coming back from Iraq if a question of if and not when, you’re probably entitled to as much PX peanut butter as it takes to get by.

    Which illustrates one problem with lumping soldiers, diplomats, business executives, exchange students, au pairs, and missionaries under one label, ’cause, you know, diplomats and students don’t actually go to the same parties. The one exception that I’ve see is ward socials, which regularly do bring together Americans who in their own country might never notice each other’s existence.

    Russell, I think I understand your concerns better now. It’s not the expatriate experience per se, but a combination of restless mobility, affluence, and extreme wealth differential. Or in a nutshell, just about everything you don’t like. That variety of expatriate experience is foreign to me, and not the kind I’m enthusiastic about. (Who has spent a good amount of time in American/international enclaves in developing countries? Are our suspicions misplaced?) I know only too well that moving just gets harder as kids get older, and it would be nice if we could take a long break from it one of these times.

    One problem with ‘global nomad’ is that it suggests a permanent state of rootlessness, which I think is the exception. Some expatriates (such as Norbert) have permanent or semi-permanent arrangements, but my guess is that for most, the international experience is a 2-5 year time out from normal life. While putting down deep local roots is important, for some people it can become too much of a good thing. There’s something to be said for spending a couple years away from a home that’s become too comfortable, too familiar.

  22. Norbert
    May 3, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    An interesting topic. I just got a copy of the article in snailmail yesterday and just read through it.

    One aspect I would add is the pressure to be socially involved with the community that brought you there. I felt tremendous pressure to be at every party thrown by the school I work at, and there was some resentment because I pulled away from it. I did so partially because of the booziness of those interactions, but also because of my church connections.

    As far as interaction with the church goes, I would just add a bit of discomfort I feel by benefitting from the Americanness of the church when others resent it, rightfully so. And language at church is an issue, no matter how lovely everyone is about translating. I realized at some point that I could not get spiritually filled at church through the translated meetings and English Sunday School, which I usually improvise myself. But it’s been great for me to push myself harder in seeking spiritual experiences at home and in my family. Still, when the stake asked me what I would think of an English language branch, I said no. It’s better to be integrated.

    I have lots more to say, but it’s late here. (A terrible thing about being outside the USA — all the best conversations happen when I’m sleeping!)

  23. MAC
    May 3, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    It’s not the expatriate experience per se, but a combination of restless mobility, affluence, and extreme wealth differential.

    Ok, I have heard (even if i don’t agree with) the whole social justice crap about wealth differential. I get the argument

    What is wrong with restless mobility or affluence?

  24. Jonathan Green
    May 3, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    About the hazards of affluence, check Alma. Restless mobility makes it really hard to find a good babysitter when you need one.

  25. Adam
    May 3, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Re: 23 – My experience is the opposite with spiritual experiences and languages. I grew up all over South America (returned to the US in late high school) and then I was back in S. America for my mission. Now living in the US (married and working), I find it harder to express myself in spiritual terms in English even though Spanish is definitely a second language for me. So for me it isn’t the “mastery” of language that lends itself to being spiritually filled, but which language I associate it with and have more experiences associated with that language (and surroundings).

  26. May 3, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    “The global nomad thing–like the national nomad thing, like the military nomad thing–is wonderful or at least on the balance very doable when the family, and the children, are small. But past a certain point and age, being a nomad is probably counterproductive (if not an impossible barrier) to achieving family goals for many.”

    I would strongly disagree with this statement. My family moved overseas when the oldest was 16 and youngest 10. Two of my sisters graduate from HS over there. My family is bi- (and a few of us tri-) lingual because of this. We got amazingly better education than we would have in american public schools (this would have been true even we had gone to public schools where we lived, as the quality of education where we lived is worlds above the quality in the states). We had much more enriching experiences in our wards where our knowledge of the church was needed and us kids were forced to learn to interact with and become friends with people of drastically different background and culture. We were able to travel and see the world in a way only the truly rich can in the states, just because we were geographically closer and could take road trips. And because we had to tackle some challenges like being the only LDS kids at our school, not knowing the language, etc. me and my siblings were brought together to face those things and remain much closer than the average, I think. Not having summer jobs is so a non-factor.

    I think most of the things you think are essential to growing up here, you realize when you don’t live here aren’t. When you live in a different country, other things fill those voids. Just because its different doesn’t make it inferior (or superior) its different. And the ‘different’ experience i had growing up helped me get into college, get jobs, interact with others, and learn to adapt to new situations. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

  27. May 3, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    The BYU Studies article Jonathan references quotes several expats as saying that “home” often ceases to mean a place and begins to mean “family.” I suspect that becomes more and more true with every move, and that the number and frequency of moves plays a huge role in how successful an expat experience is.

    I can’t claim to have been a genuine expat because we never lived outside of the United States, but my childhood and teen years were spent following my father’s work from state to state. The Midwest isn’t the Middle East by any means, and language and citizenship and prime time TV doesn’t change from sea to shining sea, but I submit that the culture of Las Vegas is as different from the culture of a northern California logging camp is as different from the culture of Kansas City — and on and on — as some expat locations are different from the U.S.

    For a child with my temperament, nomadic life was hell. Unlike Veritas, I wasn’t “forced to learn to interact with and become friends with people of drastically different background”; instead, I eventually stopped bothering to interact with people at all. If I made a friend it didn’t matter — I’d be leaving that friend later in the year, never to hear from him or her again. If I made an enemy it didn’t matter — I’d be escaping the enemy later in the year without having learned to work out the problems.

    My parents, especially my dad, spoke often of all the advantages of moving — we could visit all the church history sites in the region while we lived there! Whee! We could see the museum exhibit touring from China while we lived in this city! Whee! We could enjoy the beauty of the mountains/sea/desert while we lived there! Whee! I wanted so much to please my parents that I pretended they were right, when all in the world I wanted was to stay put two years in a row so I could try out for the school band. (“Please, oh, please, God, let President Nixon/Ford/Carter renew the contract so I can play flute in the band and not all alone in my bedroom — please, oh, please, oh, please …” If the standard Mormon explanation for unanswered prayers is true, Richard Nixon is going to continue development of that missile system for bombing North Vietnam sometime in eternity, ’cause those prayers were never answered in this life.)

    No matter how enthusiastic adults are for the excitement or rewards of the nomadic life, you ought to consider carefully the effect of that life on your children. Some may thrive. Some may not.

    My adult life has been spent trying to force roots where they don’t have a natural reason to grow. I’ve succeeded pretty well, but it’s too late for the school band.

  28. May 3, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I guess I would add to my post, Ardis, that we stayed on average 2 years in every place we live. Just enough time to be in the band :) But, we did move every two years from the time I was 10 until I left for college. Unlike you, I feel totally unable to put in roots. I am very restless and bored when I have to stay in one place for too long!

  29. May 3, 2007 at 11:45 pm

    And as an opposite point of view to Ardis’ experience, I was one of those kids who lived in the same town all her growing up years but wished I lived overseas (if only my dad had taken that job in Thailand). Now that I’m married with children, I’ve been quite happy living in a variety of places from Idaho to New Jersey to Kyrgyzstan. I wonder if I’ll ever find a place where I could happily stay for years.

    I think most parents do the best they can and it’s pretty difficult to assign guilt for a child’s problems solely on the decisions of the parents. It’s impossible to say that an unhappy expat kid would have been fine if she’d lived in the same city in the US all her life. But I see this argument a lot- that you shouldn’t live overseas, or homeschool, or live on a farm, or whatever because it’s not normal and good for kids.

  30. May 4, 2007 at 12:33 am

    Amira, we certainly can’t know what someone’s life would have been had it followed a hypothetical alternate path, but it’s possible to look back and identify some of the effects of choices that were in fact made. Some options are beyond the control of parents, and parents can’t be expected to foresee all consequences, and some children flounder under exactly the same conditions that allow some other children to thrive.

    James Toronto ended his BYU Studies article with this statement: “I am convinced that individual members, the family as a unit, and the Church as a whole would be greatly blessed if every family could experience firsthand the blessings and challenges of being ‘strangers in a strange land.'”

    That unqualified enthusiasm, that prescription for universal consumption, seems very wrong to me. It doesn’t allow for the possibility of differences between individuals. To me, blanket statements like that are “not normal.” If it works for you, if your children are strong enough to tolerate it, I’m in your cheering section. I simply don’t think it’s right to state a one-sided proposition without consideration of the possible serious consequences for some personalities.

  31. May 4, 2007 at 2:04 am


    Because you were moving around within North America, the schools probably didn’t really monitor the progress of transcient students or have any programs for helping with transitions. (Not making it possible for a move-in to be in the band seems ridiculous, IMO.) Good international schools deal with these issues up front because they have to — we have a turnover of about 30% of our students and teachers every year. But like you said, some kids thrive and others do not. We do a survey of students every year, and one of the questions we ask is whether they would choose to live the nomadic /expat / diplomatic life their parents do, and it’s about 50/50.

  32. MAC
    May 4, 2007 at 11:01 am

    My mother didn’t live in the same house for more than 18 months until she was over 30 years old. Her parents, her parents parents, etc. were nomadic.

    We moved as kids. Of the seven kids in my family, only two attended high school together in the same school.

    My adult life has been more of the same. Both before and after getting married. My wife grew up in a similar situation. It was for many different “reason,” employment, education, military, just because. But the truth is that decisions were probably based on the need to “move on.” Our current career choices mean that it will continue indefinitely (on purpose).

    It is only recently that we transitioned from “doing it on the cheap” to what might be considered a small amount of affluence (car rentals, money for souvenirs, squeezing in an extra side trip by plane, or sleeping in a hotel instead of “urban camping” in the airport or the car).

    Our housing decisions are made based on the next move. Our furniture doesn’t last nearly as long as it should. Our dogs have been in 5 airports so far this year. Some of our mail shows up with 3 + 4 address change labels affixed. Our daughter’s first solids were in Europe, her first time in the ocean was in Africa, she is world weary about planes but for some reason riding the bus is the biggest thrill. We have alarm clocks with three different types of plugs (an new alarm clock is cheaper than a new plug adapter). My wife’s cell phone area code is from two moves ago.

    We still have friends from when we were in elementary school. I was best man for a friends wedding from high school, I went with with Them to the courthouse to get their marriage license (in that state a witness is required), I had to state how long I had known them, I had been friends with the husband for 14 years, the wife 7. My wife has a similar collection of long term friends.

    The whole idea of “putting down roots” sounds nice, but in practice it doesn’t work. After about two years the feet start to itch, boredom sets in, we’ve tried all the restaurants and been to all the attractions. We get restless and stir crazy. We have seen the extremes, small mountain west towns

  33. MAC
    May 4, 2007 at 11:17 am


    big and small cities overseas and in the US.

    Are we successful? But most measures. People tell us our kids are well adjusted, we both have served missions and have multiple degrees, we can drive a manual transmission from either side of the car. We purchased a home, but when we did we bought one we could afford to keep, even if we don’t live in it.

    Have we benefited from the Church absolutely. We attend where ever we are. Seems like I get drastically different callings each time, my wife gets pretty much the same one each time. We enjoy looking for the regional differences in Mormon culture. Other than my wife’s undergraduate at BYU, neither of us have ever lived in Utah, the biggest culture shock is when we attend Church in the Mormon cultural area. My first time to Utah was the MTC, it was really, really weird. We can almost always do the three-degrees-of-separation thing anywhere in the Church.

    When we consider the disadvantages, there is a financial cost that is inherent in moving, currency exchange and a few other things, but in our opinion it is worth it.

    We don’t really consider an alternative. We have tried a few times and it doesn’t work. After so long in a place it is time to go, it just is.

  34. May 4, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Well, I think I need to make some more qualifications. My gut instinct remains that the longing for roots which Ardis poignantly expresses is truer to a fully human existence–and the sort of life of service and belonging which the church seems to me to enourage–than the feeling of restlessness. But the fact is, folks like MAC and Amira are all over the place, and there’s no reason to suspect that their kids are doing any worse than mine, and in the meantime, as Jonathan originally observed, the structure of the church makes such transitions and temporary contributions a real possibility.

    If the problem here is against one-size-fits-everyone lifestyles and recommendations, such as the one Ardis reacted to at the end of Toronto’s article, then I have to agree. But I resist the thoroughly modern assumption that “nothing’s normal,” that there isn’t any kind of generally preferred way of living, even if there are plenty of exceptions out there. Obviously, given my political and economic commitments, I tend to believe that living and raising a family in stable, local, close-knit, egalitarian environments is best. That’s I contestable belief, I’ll admit. And I guess I also have to admit that there are many ways of living overseas, in foreign countries and culture, which nonetheless allow for those sorts environments to emerge. And maybe I’m wrong to assume that there’s some sort of age limit, past which there just won’t be the time for such environments to envelope growing children. (Norbert makes a good point that a lot of international institutions are attuned to this need, and have set things up so that the children of nomads need not invariably end up living in a fairly narrow, wholly expatriated, disconnected social world.) So yeah, there are more qualifications to be made to my original judgment.

    Still, all things considered, being a true nomad–someone who’ll take a new job and head out to some distant place for the adventure of it–strikes me as missing something. Just consider me at least part hobbit, I guess.

  35. May 4, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    True nomads in the original sense of the word don’t actually move from place to place willy-nilly whenever the mood strikes them. Most nomads/herders follow seasonal routes and return to the same areas year after year and they usually take their tent/yurts with them. Even though they are moving often, there is a lot of continuity in what they are doing. I think that continuity is the most important thing. A family who moves often has to be more creative in providing that continuity, but for Mormons, the Church nicely provides continuity in religious matters, as Jonathan points out, and international schools and/or homeschooling can provide educational continuity. These are just two examples of ways that LDS expats can help their children.

    I don’t advocate moving a family around often just because the parents can’t settle in or because there’s always a new job that looks more interesting. There’s probably not a lot of continuity in that. But I don’t think Jim Toronto is advocating that- I think he just wants more families to be open to living overseas. I think it is beneficial is for families to spend some time overseas at some point- maybe a few months, maybe a year, and in a few cases, maybe more than that. Even just a summer building houses in South America or Asia with your teenage kids is likely to be a very good experience for the entire family, and well, if it isn’t, it was just 3 months.

    I also think it’s interesting that this conversation has focused on the experiences of children instead of the trailing spouses who often have as little choice in the move as the children. In fact, I’ve seen more unhappy spouses, especially wives, than children.

  36. MAC
    May 4, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    Yeah, I get what you are saying. Nomad would not be the word of choice, gypsy is more accurate.

    Amira, I was lucky to find a wife who had a similar experience. We generally “get the feeling” at about the same time. We chose a company that moves it’s professionals regularly, so employment is structured into the equation (hence the affluence). We generally know well in advance that we will be somewhere for a defined period of time. We have never just packed up and left in the dead of night (though this would describe a lot of my mother’s youth). Work also provides a community supplemental to the Church, we know people on nearly every continent who would loan us their home or the like.

    I don’t discount the benefits of deep roots or “I tend to believe that living and raising a family in stable, local, close-knit, egalitarian environment.” (well except for the socialist undertone to the egalitarian term).

    Our current ward is very much that way, we joke that you can’t move your records in until one of your kids has married into the core extended family.

    It isn’t that we don’t see multi-generational families who a geographically close and say “oh, that really looks nice” But neither of our sets of parents live in places where we grew up, none of siblings live in the same state or country. We are well into adulthood, parenthood and our marriage and “settling in” is as foreign to us as I supposed “selling the homestead and joining the carnival” would be to a 5th generation whatever. The moving habit is much more compelling for us the the need to nest.

    Of course, we miss something, but there is also an amazing abundance that is missed from the homesteader who ventures out once and then goes back with the “been there done that, glad to be back home” attitude.

    I guess what I am saying is that the need for geographic/community roots is not as universal as those who feel the need to have them assume.

    Russell, what am I missing?

  37. Jacqueline
    May 14, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    I am one of those non-Americans who has moved to the US. I am English, married to an American and have lived in America for almost ten years in California, Hawaii and now Arizona.
    Although having the Church does provide some sense of belonging as I live away from my native country, it doesn\’t provide as much as I would like.
    Like those US expats who return to the States, I have experienced the same lack of interest by others in all my US wards about my foreign experiences (which include a year living in Israel). I thought that at least the people in AZ might be interested in our experience of living in Hawaii since it is such a popular vacation destination but there has been zero inteest. In addition, the US culture I live in is foreign to me so I have a double dose of alienation.
    What interest has been shown in my life outside the US has come mostly from non-members. Therefore, as time goes on I seek more of my social outlet outside the Church. What friends I have made at Church have been mostly outside my local area and are members who are more outward-looking and who have lived abroad themselves or have travelled extensively.
    What I liked about James Toronto\’s article was that some of the commnets of the US expats could have come from my own mouth and that this alienation wasn\’t unique to me. Knowing this has made me cope with it so much better.

  38. Liz
    September 22, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    This thread has been very interesting to me. The longest time I have ever lived in one place is 5 years and I have done that twice. I was born in Switzerland where my family were expat Americans. They came back when I was 2, but there is no question that it had a big influence on me. My parents faught in Swiss-German. They integrated into the community when they were in Switzerland. There were often foreigners in our home and I had a deep love of travel. My concept of what constitutes normal was formed and to me living in another country is no big deal.

    This was just normal on both sides of my family. My mother\’s sister was an au-pair in Moscow. She married a man who works importing and exporting hides, speaks several languages and has traveled all over the world for work. The moved a number of times and lived in Holland for a year with their 3 kids. Two of my father\’s three siblings lived outside the US. My grandmother relocated to Florence, Italy in her 50\’s and lived the rest of her life there.

    After I left home I lived in Switzerland for a bit over a year and worked as an au-pair, then in college I interned in a chemical lab in Switzerland. My husband was a missionary in Korea and it was a huge shock since his family is not even remotely nomadic. I think it was to prepare him to marry me. Since we have been married he followed me to my internship and later we moved with our 3 kids to Mexico. We consider lreaning a foreign language essential to our educations and we try to help out members here who are from other countries as we were helped out. It can really help to explain cultural differences so people understand what is going on. Much of what we assume is obvious is not.

    I have come to deeply value people who put down roots. There is a reason we are all different. Movement brings in new ideas and ways of doing things. People who stay put provide stability to their communities. For me moving around has been like a calling and doing what Heavenly Father wants me to do is the goal, not trying to live by someone\’s abstract ideal. We integrate into communities and learn the local language. If others do not they will simply be part of another community, both are valuable. Here we have a Spanish ward in our stake, plus we have many Hispanics who attend our English speaking wards. Both are valuable.

    Moving can be extremely stressful and draining. We need to understand that each of us has different capacities and some people just integrate less than others.

    There is no question at all that the times I moved after joining the church were far easier than before. English speaking or not the support system has been extremely valuable.

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