What do you think of when you think of home? Your childhood bedroom? The local park? Weird neighbours and birthday parties and the ditch where you lost your two front teeth?
Most Brits and Americans have got those kitchen-sink memories of youth. But what if you don’t? What if you never stayed anywhere long enough to call it home? There are, in fact, millions of people who grew up on the move. And being a citizen of the world, it seems, produces a certain kind of character. Joe Strummer, Annie Leibovitz, Michael Stipe, Wiz Khalifa and Peter Doherty, for example, all grew up as military brats (kids who move around with military parents). So what does it feel like to have no concrete roots? And if success and creativity is a common characteristic, should we all be heading for the open road?
My journey begins on a park bench in Berlin last summer. I’m interviewing Element Skateboards founder Johnny Schilleref and he says something familiar: “I moved around a lot as a kid, my dad was in the military.” Intrigued – I’ve heard this a lot in interviews – I follow up. Was it this kind of upbringing that influenced your path in life? “Oh absolutely,” he says, quickly. “I moved around a ton and I had to get acclimated to a different high school and a different environment constantly. You have two choices in a situation like that. You can become extremely displaced and maybe screwed up or you can adjust and become more outgoing and make sure you’re not always the new kid. So I took that other path where I just enjoyed meeting new people and looked forward to where we were going next and became pretty worldly.”
In fact, Johnny started Element, in part, to encourage kids to focus on skateboarding, as a constant, in transient lives like his own. But its enduring success, he thinks, could have a lot to do with the things he learnt from being on the move. “No matter what I do, no matter how complacent I become, I have this nomadic way of wanting to be. I always want to change. Change my room, change my house, change my business. But it’s not complete change, it’s evolution. I need constant movement and progress. I can’t sit still. Everything’s always got to go, go, go and be better. And maybe that’s because as a kid I was always striving to find a better place to be.”
A nomadic youth inspired Oliver Percovich – founder of non-profit org Skateistan, which teaches skateboarding to kids in places like Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa – that there was common ground between cultures. “I skateboarded in different countries – Papua New Guniea, Germany, the US and the UK – up to the age of fifteen,” he says. “And wherever I went skateboarders would be very gracious in terms of letting me be a part of their local scene. That really opened my eyes because I didn’t see that in other subcultures. In skateboarding, these connections across culture were made really fast.”
For filmmaker Lance Bangs it was music and film that provided refuge from the ever-changing scenery. ‟I grew up in a military family so we moved every nine to twelve months,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2013. ‟I was making personal films on Super 8 as I was travelling around, leaving home and documenting the things I was going through. ‘This is the twenty-four-hour laundromat I’m staying in. This is what the lights look like and here I am talking into this tape recorder.’ I was just preserving myself. It felt like I was going to disappear and not be around anymore so it was more like writing a journal than traditional filmmaking.”
These are stories of independence. And that is typical military brat behaviour, filmmaker and something of a brat expert Donna Musil tells me. “Many of these kids dont have a voice when they’re growing up,” she says. “It’s always what the military needs, what the foreign service needs, what the missionaries need. So I guess that makes a lot of artists, because you want to express yourself.”
Donna went to a different school every single year of her life. “Well apart from third, fourth and fifth grade,” she tells me on the phone from Denver, where she’s currently resting her well-travelled feet. Inspired by her experiences, and searching for people with similar stories, Donna made a documentary Brats: Our Journey Home and formed a non-profit Brats Without Borders, to shine a light on this ‘invisible tribe’. “I think there is a direct correlation [between creativity and nomadism] because when you move so much – and it’s more about the mobility, I think, than the military – it sparks curiosity. From a very young age you get to witness people and places and cultures and ways of life that are different from yours. So you grow up not being afraid of what’s different, you kind of like it. We loved going to our friends’ houses that were Filipino and eating their food and learning about their language and culture. We also know what it’s like to be outsiders. You see, we don’t really belong anywhere.”
Donna, and others like her, have a unique insight into other cultures – as both insider and outsider. This can lead to some interesting mash-ups. Thanks to his military youth at bases in Turkey, Cairo, Mexico City and Germany, The Clash’s Joe Strummer, for example, was able to open up the first wave of British punk to other influences and pave the way for new sounds to emerge – famously playing in front of a wall of world flags in the ‘I Fought The Law’ video. Musician Ahmed Gallab – aka Sinkane – who moved many times with his diplomat/academic parents has an interesting take. “People who grew up in an expat community or as military brats all feel the same feeling of loneliness,” he says. “When you feel lonely, you use what you have around you in a very creative way. Growing up in the expat community and people not understanding who I was meant that once I had the resources to express who I was it was very easy and I was allowed to create something great.”
Loneliness, Donna agrees, is definitely a big part of nomadic life. “We lose more people – teachers, coaches, dreams – in five years than most people do in a lifetime,” she says. “And actually I think that is attached to the creativeness because a lot of children in these situations cling to art. They read a lot of books. They go to a lot of museums. They paint. They find things to do to entertain themselves. We don’t learn that there is consistency to things. The good part of that is if you try something and it doesn’t work, you can always start over. The bad part is you don’t have a consistent sense of identity. Who are you? What do you think? What do you feel? I think those are the things that are difficult for nomadic types of people.”
As the world becomes more globalised and people are moving more, for careers and pleasure and in hope of a better life, the phenomenon of ‘third culture kids’ – people who grew up in cultures outside their parents’ cultures – is only going to grow. Fashion photographer Emma Woolrych, who grew up with her Naval father around Australia, America and the UK, explains: “I think in this day and age you never really know where you’re going to go back to,” she says. “Not everything’s about where you’re from, or where you’ve been. It’s kind of about setting yourself up in the present. Learning from the past and focusing on the next day. I think I’m happy to do that because of my upbringing.”
Emma’s work is inspired, in part, by her desire to see new things all the time. But doesn’t the internet make that possible without upping sticks? “You can never understand another culture through the internet,” she says. “There’s no tangibility. You can see things but not touch them. The internet is relatively controlled. There’s so much that we don’t get. I don’t think there’s any way of understanding or knowing a people unless you’re living in their shoes.”
For Donna, there are good things – she tells me racism on military bases just doesn’t exist, for example – and bad things to be learnt from the experience of third culture kids. Ultimately, she feels, there needs to be a balance between a rooted and uprooted existence for the best work, and lives, to flourish. “I’d hate people to lose all of their different cultural roots because that’s what makes the world interesting,” she says. “And I’ve noticed that when I go travelling things are starting to look the same. I don’t want us to lose the great part of what it is to be different types of human beings. I always say that if every child in the world was required to go to a different country for even just two weeks of their lives I think the world would be a different place. Just to know that the world does not revolve around you, your city, your country, that there are other things out there – is really, really good.”
This article originally appeared in Huck 48, The Origins Issue, available now.
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