Spotlighting Digital Nomading & Third Cultures from a Buffer Teammate
At Buffer, we regularly share cultural spotlights to connect our global team and help us understand one another at a deeper level. Sophie, our Growth Marketing Manager, presents a deep dive into life as a digital nomad.
Photo credit: Sophie Gil
At Buffer, we regularly share cultural spotlights from colleagues to connect our global team, and help us understand one another at a deeper level.
Here’s a slightly edited version of a cultural spotlight we recently highlighted from Sophie, a Growth Marketing Manager at Buffer.
When I was asked to contribute to the Cultural Awareness spotlight, my initial thought was, which country should I talk about?
Growing up I had a real hard time answering the question, where are you from? Most often, the answer would be shaped by the perception people had of me versus who I actually was.
After some thought, I've decided to share with you all the reality of being a Third-Culture Kid (more on that later) and why I believe that led me to becoming a full-time nomad.
Creating my own culture
My mother is Puerto Rican/Spanish, my father is Mexican, but I was born in Milan, Italy, a country not of my own parents’ language, culture, and traditions, with an American passport.
I wasn’t truly American because I had never lived in the U.S. (I first moved there when I was 16), nor was I truly Italian because of the colour of my skin, my parent’s unforgettable American/Spanish accent, and my way of doing things that didn’t quite fit the Italian standards. Unfortunately, I couldn’t truly be Latin American either because the only real Latin thing about me was my blood, plus I spoke Spanish with an Italian accent, so that would usually give it away pretty quickly.
So, who am I?
I’m – what many have coined – a third-culture kid or global nomad. A person that grew up feeling like I was from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. When I was here, I was not one of them and when I was there, I wasn’t like those people either.
The definition for Third-Culture Kid/Global Nomad is the following:
“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture and outside their own passport country, usually marked by a residential status that has an expiration date.“
“[He/she] builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into [his/her] life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background."
In the end, I really don’t want to throw in additional labels, however, understanding that I belonged to something, while some made me feel like I didn’t belong anywhere, helped me feel safe, rooted, and understood.
The whole idea of a Third-Culture Kid is that since I don’t belong to neither the culture of my parents, nor to the culture of the country I spent the majority of my developmental years in, nor to the country my passport belonged to, I created my own identity, aka a third culture.
That third culture would encompass a mix of foods, traditions, norms, rituals, and celebrations from various cultures around the world. Here are some personal examples:
Celebrating Christmas as a Third-Culture Kid
As a family, we’d travel to Puerto Rico almost every Christmas and celebrate it with my mom’s side of the family. On Christmas Eve, we’d have arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), lechón asado (roasted pork), tostones (fried, smashed green plantains), and pasteles (tamale-like patties of green banana and meat). Accompanied by salsa music and probably some Cuba Libres.
The majority of my Italian friends (and in general most Italians) would head to their cottage in the mountains, gather at lunch on Christmas Day to eat Panettone, smoked salmon tartine, and ravioli in brodo, and then spend the rest of their time skiing. I always envied them growing up.
Moving to a new country as a Third-Culture Kid
When I was 16, I moved from Milan, Italy (the biggest northern Italian city) to Solvang, California (a small, sleepy town with Danish-style architecture and many wineries) with my family. The move was quite traumatizing and I experienced a real culture shock. I was enrolled into the high school to finish my last two years (junior and senior year). But I had a really difficult time assimilating with other students my age.
I felt that the sense of humour was different, that we didn’t share the same interests. The days of sitting at a cafe with friends sipping a cappuccino, eating a cornetto, and talking about life for hours were long gone. I felt misplaced, boring, and misunderstood, and it took me a few years to finally start to understand and adapt.
Languages typically spoken as a Third-Culture Kid
I mainly spoke a very simple English at home with my parents, but went to Italian kindergarten, primary school, middle school, and high school, so I would speak Italian whenever my friends were around. Italy is known for their dialects, i.e. Milanese, Romano, Toscano, Napoletano. But I just spoke Italian with a Milanese/Northern Italian accent and didn’t even understand when Italians spoke in their dialect. The dialects are slowly disappearing, but still today they would be taught and passed on to the newer generations by their Italian grandparents.
Family gatherings as a Third-Culture Kid
Apart from my immediate family, I rarely saw my grandparents, cousins, and uncles/aunts. We’d travel during the summer to California to visit my dad’s side of the family (my grandparents had moved to California from Mexico in the 70’s as a part of the Bracero program to work on the railroads) and during the winter to Puerto Rico to visit my mom’s side of the family. All my grandparent’s spoke Spanish, so I would have a hard time communicating with them since I hadn’t really learned Spanish until later in my life.
Music, Movies, and Pop Culture as a Third-Culture Kid
While all my friends grew up listening to all the Italian classic music artists, like Mina, Vasco Rossi, Lucio Dalla, and Jovanotti, I grew up on American Classic Rock and Salsa.
I obviously feel very lucky to have grown up with that music, but when I was a kid I felt pretty left out at parties or in small gatherings because all my friends knew the lyrics to all the Italian songs, while I didn’t (and they’d often be surprised that I didn’t). Same went with the Italian movies and TV series. I just didn’t really know all the cultural references, sayings, and jokes because I didn’t grow up with them. And in a country like Italy, TV, music, and movies make an enormous part of the way that people communicate, interact, and joke.
How creating my own culture led me to become a nomad
I really can’t say I have a place I’d call home since I moved quite a few times in my life. The first time it hit me was about a year after I had moved to California from Italy. At the time, I would tell people that Milan, Italy was my home, but in going back to visit after I had moved to the U.S., I slowly became less Italian to the point that friends would tell me “wow you’ve changed so much.” That was a harsh reality and the first time I realized I didn’t really have a home or a place I could comfortably be myself.
When I think about my upbringing and my possession of multiple cultural identities, it makes sense that I decided to pursue becoming a full-time nomad. Because, over time, I started to feel at ease changing things up all the time and living in different places.
I first decided to become a nomad in February of 2020. I was living in San Francisco at the time and the company I was working for went bankrupt, closed down, and fired everyone. I was then confronted with the question of what to do next. I was actually very unhappy in San Francisco. I felt stuck and my life felt monotonous. Not having a job allowed me to think about where and when I had been happiest in the past.
The answer: I was happiest while traveling and I actually enjoyed continuously changing environments and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. So I decided to become a nomad.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the term, but for the sake of it, I’ll share it below:
“A Global Nomad is a person who is living a mobile and international lifestyle. Global nomads aim to live location-independently, seeking detachment from particular geographical locations and the idea of territorial belonging.”
But my desire was to become a digital nomad, so to live a mobile and international lifestyle while earning a living working online. This led me to apply solely to remote-friendly (and most importantly, fully distributed) companies.
In came Buffer to make my dreams come true. Buffer was at the top of my list and I honestly keep having to pinch myself to make me realize how lucky I am to work for a company that fully supports this sort of lifestyle. It was unusual at the time, and I will forever be grateful to the leaders of Buffer who not only thought that this sort of work style could be possible, but that did everything they could to ensure that it could be easy to do.
How to start a nomadic lifestyle
There is a lot of thought that went into how I started this nomadic journey, but I’ll try to keep it concise and only talk about the things that could be helpful to others considering embarking on one. Here’s how I approached starting my nomadic lifestyle:
- I left my apartment in San Francisco so I wouldn’t be tied to any monthly rent or utility bills and moved back home with my parents. I sold or donated all my furniture, kitchen appliances, and unnecessary clothes/shoes/and other items and only kept the essentials
- While living at home, I started looking for a fully-remote job that would allow me to work from any time zone and country
- I also started making a list of all the countries I wanted to visit and all the things I wanted to learn along the way; my list was very longIn the meantime I started to do some research on gadgets and other items that would make my life easier as a nomad, like a bank friendly to international travelers (Revolut, N26), international health insurance, traveling tech gadgets, and much more.
- Then I had to choose my first spot. The list of countries had narrowed down due to covid-19, so I decided to stick to the EU.
- I then set two objectives for myself: to learn to surf and to learn a new language.
The other things I took into consideration were the fact that I wanted to visit a new country and I wanted my first country to be one that would be accommodating to nomads (reliable internet + easy to meet new people). And so I decided on Portugal.
The next step was to book my plane ticket, arrange my first spot, and then let myself trust the process. The scariest moments are the weeks before taking your first flight, everything in your body is giving you signs that you shouldn’t go, and fear starts to settle in.
But did you know that there's no difference, physiologically, between the sensations and symptoms of fear and excitement? For me it’s helpful to keep this in mind and to start to smile when I feel scared of not knowing where my journey will end up. Once you step on that first plane, it all gets easier.
My main tips for starting a nomadic lifestyle
Here are my main tips for starting:
- Travel light and efficiently. I regret it when I bring too much stuff, especially because I really enjoy buying locally-made things, so leaving a bit of extra space is always nice.
- Set personal goals before traveling and use those to guide where you’d like to go. I set two goals for myself: to learn/improve a language and to learn to surf. Hence the reason I picked Portugal as the first country to travel to and Central and South America afterwards. In addition, I also set a goal of reading one book for every country I visited; and that one book had to be about the culture and history of the country I was visiting.
- Don’t try to plan it all out. I’ve noticed that my best experiences came from the lack of an itinerary. There is only so much you can research and the best advice comes from locals. I recommend booking your first plane ticket (one way) and your sleeping arrangement. Then meet new people and ask around. There will always be someone that has already done what you have done and has all the best recommendations. Or you’ll meet a local that can advise you on the best, most authentic experiences, whether that be the restaurant they usually dine in or the bar they head to over the weekend with their friends.
- As a digital nomad, reliable internet is crucial, so there are likely a lot of places you can’t travel to. Before booking your next sleeping arrangements, make sure to ask about their internet speed, and if they don’t have good internet, make sure that you are close to a co-working or cafe spot that has good internet. For example, while traveling in Central and South America, I always felt good if I knew there was a Selina in the neighbourhood or at least in the city. Selina is a hostel specifically made for digital nomads that also has a co-working space.
- Facebook Groups are the most useful online communities I’ve found, type into Facebook “digital nomad” or “expat” and the place you’re visiting and you’ll be sure to find a Facebook Group just for you. They talk literally about everything, from rental car companies and restaurant recommendations to requests to meet up with other local digital nomads and recs for classes to learn pretty much anything.
- How long should you stay in a single place? I wouldn’t recommend staying less than 2 weeks, it’s only after that second week that you start to get a good feel for the spot and understand whether you actually like it or not.
- Go, experience, work, live, travel, but also dedicate some time to volunteer and help the local community in some way.
Here are some photos I took while traveling:
I also hope that this write-up has given you a glimpse into what life as a nomad looks like. I love living this way and I’m a big promoter of this lifestyle. Thank you for taking the time to read.
Follow Sophie on Twitter and learn more about Buffer's culture on our Open blog.