Two years ago, a colleague suggested I check out a Washington-based conference called Families In Global Transition. I was intrigued. I had grown up in Germany and Austria, in a family with three nationalities and four last names, before I moved to the United States to study. As an adult in America, I learned to blend into society quite well, but I hesitated and stumbled over my answer each time someone asked “Where are you from?”
I had an inkling that attendees at Families In Global Transition (FIGT) might know what it’s like to feel at home everywhere and nowhere at once. As I searched through their website my hunger to meet a whole conference full of globally minded people became strong. And since I was an executive coach wanting to bring his leadership development skills to the intercultural field, I quickly decided not only to attend FIGT, but to also present a session.
However, as intrigued as I was, some aspects about FIGT as made me wary. My perception of the many American ex-patriots I had met over the years was that they worked for multi-national corporations or the military, voted Republican and held traditional views on what a family should look like. Indeed, FIGT not only contained the world “families” in its title (in the U.S. often code for traditional, heterosexual family values), but it prided itself on drawing attendees from all professional sectors, including people with corporate, military and missionary backgrounds.
As someone who had been raised in a “patchwork” family of divorced musicians, had come out as gay in high school, and worked as a non-profit administrator and modern dancer, I was not sure how my presence would be received at this conference. How open-minded would these world travelers be?
To intensify my anxiety, I decided that I needed to tackle my hesitations head-on by proposing to lead a session titled “Gay & Global: How to Support LGBT Families In Global Transition.” If they didn’t accept my proposal, I reasoned, then I would know that it’s not the place for me. All I knew is that I had an acute inner sense that I must apply, with all that I bring to the table.
The aftermath of my decision has been both wonderful and surprising. My proposal not only got accepted, but I became the first speaker in the 11-year history of the conference to officially address an LGBT issue. I also found that, yes, the attendees included folks supporting corporate, military and missionary families, but that many of them had actively strategized about relocating gay singles, same-sex couples and LBGT families (often involving exasperating visa issues). They knew more about the topic than I did! Finally, most everyone at the conference had grown up and/or lived abroad for significant periods of their lives. This led to many lively and heartfelt conversations about how none of us like to be put in boxes, not missionaries, stay-at-home moms nor “Americans” for that matter. I was in good company.
About two months after I delivered my presentation, I was asked to join FIGT’s board of directors. Since then, I have come to admire and respect the organization’s effort to bring together global nomads of all stripes – professional expats and their “accompanying spouses,” coaches and therapists, educators and researchers, writers and artists, corporate executives and entrepreneurs, soldiers, diplomats and humanitarians. I now help to actively shape the programmatic content of the conference, in an effort to include ever new voices and create unlikely yet vital cross-sector partnerships.
This year, I attended my second FIGT conference. What I’ve found both times was that people look forward to asking and answering the question “Where are you from?” When they do, conversations go deep pretty quickly. I have a theory for why this is. For those of us who define “home” “in the heart” (rather than on the map), “Where are you from?” really means “Who are you?” It becomes a transcendent question, one that begs for reflection, creativity, and the willingness to shed new light every time you answer. And in exploring these answers, you come closer to knowing what stays constant when everything around you changes – and how you change just when you think you know who you really are.
Kilian Kröll, Certified Executive Coach, dancer, published writer and President of Third Culture Coach, earned a B.A. in English from Haverford College and an M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of East London. Kilian grew up in a bilingual family of classical musicians in Germany, Austria and the U.S. He teaches creative executives how to thrive where cultural and vocational worlds intersect.
Kilian (center) moderated a panel of cross-cultural experts (from left to right: Seema Lynch, Angela Mwape, Ardi Kuhn, Paulette Bethel) at the 2012 Families In Global Transition Conference. (Photo: Lois Bushong)