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Rootlessness Revisited

lundi, 14 septembre 2015   (10 Comments)
Posted by: Robin Dormer (LGB '69)
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Robin Dormer in 2014Thirty-six years ago—ten years after graduating from Ecolint in 1969—I wrote an article for the Alumni Newsletter. It was called We Are The Rootless Ones (Click to download the PDF). Our charming (and highly persuasive) new Alumni Officer has asked me to revisit the theme: what do I think about it now, so many years later?

The point of my article was that many who attend Ecolint (and, by extension, many who live “abroad” in their formative years), and then return to their “home” country, find that on return they do not feel that they belong in their “home” country, which does not feel like “home” after all, and falls short of their expectations; this, in turn, is disconcerting and alienating (albeit, of course, in different degrees for different people). I suggested that Ecolint be aware of this phenomenon and try to prepare students for it, so that it is less of a shock when it happens.

The article generated quite a lot of reaction when it appeared—I was quite surprised (and rather gratified). Although, of course, some people had not experienced what I described, many recognised it. The article seems to have touched a nerve. Over the years this article seems to have got under the Ecolint skin. Bob Rae (LGB '66) referred to it in his address to the 1994 Ecolint Alumni World Reunion. I am constantly reminded of it by Ecolint alumni when I meet them.

When I wrote the article I had never read anything on the subject-matter. In fact I doubt that there was very much then, though (as I know now) there was a little. But I have read a lot since. It turns out that over the intervening years we have become a well-known phenomenon. We have a label: we are called “Third Culture Kids” or TCKs. There is an article about us on Wikipedia. There are serious books about us.1  There are academic articles (some of them cite my very non-academic one).2

Rootless Ones

We must be careful to distinguish between a number of closely related phenomena, which have many features in common. The one I was specifically addressing has been described above. It is not quite the same as simply living “abroad”, where one may also experience dislocation or culture shock (the dislocation or culture shock which I described is that experienced when returning “home” from abroad). It is also not quite the same as exile, about which many have written eloquently—notably, in my view, Edward Said and particularly André Aciman, to whom I shall return. Nor is it quite the same as the experience of moving around a great deal, even within one’s “own” country. But all of these can have profound effects, similar to those experienced by us Rootless Ones, and these experiences can inform our own.

Alvaro de Soto (LGB '60) took the notion of “coming home” as the theme of his own address to the 2009 Ecolint Alumni World Reunion. I was particularly struck by his remarks.3  He asked where was “home” for us, and concluded that “home” was not a particular place, but rather a state of understanding which we all share—our “home” is our shared experience and our knowledge of others with that shared experience. Quoting from his notes—

“this group of people was, in an indefinable, elusive way, home: not built of bricks or straw or wood or zinc plates or wicker—an immaterial web composed of the network of people with whom I had grown up.”

He has, in my view, put his finger on it. We are “at home” when we are with such others, or in the realisation that there are such others; but our home is, essentially, one that exists only in the mind. But it is none the less real for that.

I find solace in André Aciman’s writing; and he has put a similar notion rather well, I think, in a slightly different context: that of exile and nostalgia. What I am talking about is not exile, or nostalgia (though perhaps there is a whiff of that); but he speaks of—

“Ulysses, who realizes in fact that nostalgia is not some sort of restless energy that propels him homeward, but that nostalgia is his home, the way that, in exile, only paradox makes sense. He finds his home in the purely intellectual realization that he has no home. The site of nostalgia is nostalgia itself.” 4

"You all say the same things"


I was also struck when being interviewed for the purpose of an academic article on this subject (the one mentioned at footnote 2): the interviewer had a list of standard questions, which she was putting to a number of people who had lived abroad and had then returned “home” to what I now know is described as one’s “passport country”. After a few questions and answers she started to smile. I did not think I had said anything particularly amusing, so I asked her why she was smiling. “You all say the same things” was her answer.

In my article I referred to the late Robert J. Leach, former history teacher at Ecolint, who said (paraphrasing) that an international school student should feel “at home” everywhere.5  I said that in my view the international school student does not actually feel quite “at home” anywhere. I was reminded of this by André Aciman—

“... I myself had gone to English schools throughout my childhood and hence knew English better than French—so that, if my mother tongue was French, I still spoke it with a strange accent. (This was part of my problem all around; I spoke several languages with a French accent, except French.)” 6

Well then, where does all this leave me after such a long time? Would I write the same article now?

One thing I should certainly not do now is phrase the article in such non-gender-neutral language. In 1979 this was common; now it makes me cringe.

Robin Dormer in 1969As to the substance, I do not think I should change a thing, at least so far as it describes my own experience. Perhaps I should not use quite the same examples today as I used then (I suspect few worry these days about how public telephones work), but other examples could easily be found. I still think and feel now what I described then; if anything, this has been reinforced by what I have heard from other Ecolint alumni. In 1979 I wondered if I was the only one. Now I know that I am one of many: it has been a sort of coming-out experience. What I described never did affect everybody; and those it affects are not all affected adversely. But those whom it does affect are all conscious of it. It is something that requires adaptation, but I think I have reached an accommodation with it. Knowing that I am one of many is strangely comforting. But it is still hard to answer questions such as “where are you from?”.

Today's students?

What I do not know, however, is whether students leaving Ecolint and returning “home” now feel at all the same way as I (and many others) did then. Could my 1979 article be written today? Is Ecolint more attuned to all this now, so that it can better prepare its students? Have globalisation and the internet resulted in “home” and “belonging” and “passport country” having less meaning now than 36 years ago? I do not know. It would be interesting to find out.

Speaking for myself, decades after 1979, I have now lived longer in London than anywhere else, and longer at my current address than at any other; and yet London, and England, are still not “home”. By contrast I still feel, on landing at Cointrin or arriving at Cornavin or seeing the distinctive silhouette of the Salève, that at a very fundamental level je suis chez moi. But, of course, I do not belong there. As I said in 1979, an Ecolint student knows how to be a foreigner: being a foreigner is a role which comes naturally to us all. We are foreigners everywhere, including our passport country; and “at home” in some other space which exists only in the mind, and among those who have shared our special experience—which, despite the resulting rootlessness, has been infinitely enriching. I would still not exchange that experience for anything in the world.


Robin Dormer
LGB '69

>> PDF of the original article: We Are The Rootless Ones (1979)



1. An example is The Third Culture Kid Experience, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (1999). [newer edition available]

2. See, for example, Fail, Thompson and Walker, ‘Belonging, Identity and Third Culture Kids’, Journal of Research in International Education 2004, Vol. 3(3), p. 319. Disclosure: in that article I am “Richard”.

3. I gratefully acknowledge Alvaro’s help: he found, and sent me, the notes for his speech, and he has seen a draft of this article (though he bears no responsibility for it).

4. André Aciman, ‘Pensione Eolo’, in False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory (2000).

5. “... it would seem reasonable to stress those elements [of an education] which affirm the solidarity of mankind as an entity in such a way that the one-time international school students will find themselves ‘at home’ in all cultures and human situations.” Leach, International Schools and their Role in the Field of International Education (1969), pp. 78-9.

6. André Aciman, ‘Square Lamartine’, in False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory (2000). Alvaro de Soto mentioned Vladimir Nabokov, who referred to his own “perfectly normal trilingual childhood”.



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Jennifer L. McDermott says...
Posted vendredi, 28 octobre 2016
When I found Pollack and Van Reken's 'Third Culture Kids', in my twenties, it was the first time I'd seen myself reflected in the narrative of a group experience, and it changed my life – I wasn't alone, and I wasn't crazy; feeling permanently out of balance and foreign was not a problem exclusive to me. Dormer's original article comes closer than anything I've ever read, including Pollack and Van Reken, to capturing the personal specifics of my (and many of my schoolmates') experience, both in life and at Ecolint; I could not agree more with his original and continuing argument, which I've made on this site as well, that Ecolint bears a special responsibility, which it is not fulfilling, to raise awareness and prepare its students for the unique challenges they will face once they leave. Most parents are unable to do this, as they do not share (or often comprehend) the experience. The school, as the true community of origin, not only can but must step in to offer support... somehow.
Axel Hörhager says...
Posted lundi, 7 décembre 2015
Yes, yes, yes, you hit it again, as you hit it back then in 1979. Although I never knew you personally, I was one of those to whom your original article hit home like a huge echo of something I had always heard and lived with. And it goes way beyond the mere act of uprooting that has been borne witness to in countless forms. I chose to try to spare my children that sense of rootlessness, but they too did not “go back” to something (in this case Germany) – they in fact went forward to something that had been construed as back to the roots, but that turned out to be something new after all. So the theme plays out in all kinds of variations. And the oddest thing that the quest for roots within rootlessness can take so many forms – for instance, the form of believing that rootlessness itself is a rooted state of being; or the active seeking of old or imagined roots; the avid adoption of a new home, and so on.
Susanna M. Smit (Smit) says...
Posted lundi, 5 octobre 2015
I still have the original nr 13 AL newspaper with the article in, kept because I value it so much - it spoke to me completely when I read it as my 'home' coming experience was horrible, I was treated like an alien etc. I've worked though it and its helped with my evoIution into a better person, I believe. I agree with this psychoiogical awareness of 'home' that Alvaro de Soto speaks of. I went so far as making a 13m x 3m mind map about the 'where do I belong' thing for my 4th year art studies, calling it 'Peeling the Onion, or questions to Postmodern Nihilism'. 'Peeling the onion' comes from Pollock and Van Rekens' TCK book. i have concluded that Ecolint time falls into the 'cosmic drama of the evolution of human consciousness' (Johnston). I think that modern technology bridges many of the psychological spaces that were unbridged at the time of the 1979 article. The IB is a step in the right direction. Congatulations and thanks again for your article Robin.
Stephen Labovsky says...
Posted dimanche, 4 octobre 2015
The arc of my own exile from the America, began in the fall of 1963, in Geneva, and ended in London, in 1976— from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to the end of the war in Vietnam, and the election of Jimmy Carter. Not long after arriving back in New York, I discovered that far from experiencing any sense of alienation resulting from by my years in the diaspora, it would actual prove beneficial. Rudyard Kipling wrote: “Winds of the World, give answer. They are whimpering to and fro— And what should they know of England who only England know?” So for Kipling, being a foreigner in a foreign land offers us insights we might otherwise never know. Finally, Bob Leach’s exact quote was: “Graduates of Ecolint are at home anywhere in the world.” For me, it beautifully expresses the important ways the International School has shaped our world-view, and one of the most important lessons the school teaches us: Ultimately, everyone’s true home is our planet, earth.
Beedy Greenman (Greenman) says...
Posted samedi, 3 octobre 2015
I (then Beedy Greenman) had felt rootless for some time before I got to Ecolint in 1954, (though living in Argentina as a child, I had identified with the States til about age 8,, at which point I realized I didn't know when I was going back ). Started to feel really estranged in Belgium, '52-'54, identifying with European teenager views of American "occupiers". (plus my mother was British and I was born in Denmark) I managed to maintain a US passport but returning to the US intermittently, I couldn't accept the big consumption culture and thought I would try not to live there. Sometimes I would say, when asked, I came from "somewhere off the Grand Banks". Ended up going back to the US to try to oppose the Vietnam War, and have been here ever since, working as an environmental activist, to moderate the deadly consumption track we have not veered from. I feel very much a citizen of the world, and responsible for the behavior of my country of national citizenship.
Frank W. van Pernis says...
Posted samedi, 3 octobre 2015
A foreigner wherever you go? yes. Rootlessness? no. Apart from the very special experience and background that ecolint has given us, I feel I have roots in many countries of which I don't have the passport, but of which I either speak the language or even better, know the culture. Born a Dutchman in Holland, I grew up in Geneva and now live in the German speaking part of Switzerland. In the course of my life, I kept extending my roots, even in countries I never visited. I gathered working knowledge of Italian and Spanish thanks to the Latin that Mr. Ruffino taught us. Through my daughter-in-law, I had to dig into the Slovak language, which opened up the whole area of Slavic languages to me. Having learnt some ancient Greek (once again thanks to Mr, Ruffino), I have taken to modern Greek,a language that I very much appreciate. I feel that even the few words of Malay (Bahasa Indonsia) I know enrich my life.
Peter D. Zohrab says...
Posted jeudi, 1 octobre 2015
I was extremely impressed by Robin Dormer's original article when it first came out, as I am by the above article by him. I even placed a link to it on my family history webpage, and used it to describe myself. A few points: 1) It matters how small and how isolated your "passport country" is. If you are an American, you are semi-at home all over the world, because important aspects of your culture are everywhere, and so are your fellow Americans. Not so if your passport country is New Zealand. 2) It matters when you first lived in your passport country. I did not live in New Zealand until I was 6.5 years old. 3) Telecommunications and transport technology matter. I am about the same age as Robin Dormer, and New Zealand was then isolated by the (compared to now) primitive transportation and telecommunications situation, which meant that you couldn't talk to anyone there about things that interested you, because they would think that you were showing off.
Gretchen Muehl says...
Posted jeudi, 1 octobre 2015
I have taught foreign students for years, and I have observed that in some ways they have a very different experience these days. The Internet and social media have enabled students to live abroad but not BE abroad, and sadly, some do just that. Students may view their time abroad more as an extended vacation from their home culture than an opportunity to immerse themselves in a different one. It requires wisdom and quite a bit of determination for this hyper-connected generation to have the same experience we had, perforce, so many years ago.
Theodore A. Gill Jr says...
Posted jeudi, 1 octobre 2015
I have been pondering Robin's insights, off and on, ever since reading that first article in 1979. I congratulate him on this helpful development of the theme! Perhaps there may be some way that alumni could interact more intentionally with teachers and students in a creative exploration of the issues raised by this piece...?
Tim Miller says...
Posted lundi, 14 septembre 2015
This is absolutely true - especially the last sentence

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