Tag Archives: cultural competence

The Backpack Theory

Apologies for the lengthy absence. It’s been busy in Leysin.

“How much does your life weigh?

Wow, what a question. I just watched the shipper pull away in a truck headed to Asia. All of the stuff we thought we worked for over six years, down to four cubic meters.

“The slower we move, the faster we die.”

The ‘backpack theory’ speech is one of the most thought provoking commentaries you’ll hear about mobile lifestyle choices. I take issue with it because my family and I moved slowly in a foreign culture for six years and considered it living, not dying. This portable, disposable view towards the global or mobile lifestyle is toxic for the culture of international schools.

Let’s unpack the backpack.

The theory asks us to put everything dear to us in a backpack from pictures to people, setting us up for the rhetorical conclusion that since relationships are the heaviest items, they must be the first to unload if you want to travel light. Clooney’s job in the movie is to fire people on behalf of large companies unwilling or unable to do so. He is a hatchet man with no fear, no attachments, and little regret in his line of his work. His job is, literally, to discard of the heaviest item in the backpack. Obviously, the tension in the film is to test the theory.

“Make no mistake, moving is living.”

I cannot argue with this comment. It’s true. This is what drives a lot of us in this strange business of international education. Strange because we thrive on the adventure of new horizons but value the relationships that we built at the place we are leaving. Whether we admit it or not, we are in the relationship business. How many articles have we read, after all, in which the greatest indicator of student learning is the relationship between teacher and student? The criticalness of relationships in the education business is where we diverge from being ‘up in the air.’ Although some of us believe that unloading these relationships is the best way to travel light, in reality we will inevitably cross paths with that person with whom we worked in Peru, Egypt or Dubai. Moving is living, but not at the expense of everything else.

“Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically; star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans.
We are not swans. We are sharks.”

I have been doing some research on the differences between the notion of expat and the global professional. The expat (as we know) moves from his or her country of origin to work in an unfamiliar country. He or she gravitates toward groups of similar nationality and language, setting up patterns of behavior, food, and housing that mirror his or her country of origin. He or she may learn to appreciate some local customs, language, etc. but generally scratches only the surface, sticking to the familiar until he can move onto the next post where it starts all over again. Arguably, this is the shark. The global professional, on the other hand, has a more complicated story. He or she is more likely to be a TCK (third culture kid or adult), may speak a couple of languages, become connected in an authentic way to his or her colleagues, local culture, and most importantly, students. He or she may choose to live outside the comforts of the expat lifestyle and rather be connected in a way that does not remove his or her ability to “keep moving” but allows him or her to immerse themselves in the culture of the present, to move slowly without dying.

The international educator must resist the loyalty-free, relationship-free, move or die attitude of the shark. International schools are at their core in the relationship business. Although some of our friends at International Schools Review may argue that international schools are multi-national conglomerates that don’t care about people, they are not (for the most part). They are in the critical business of educating tomorrow’s global professionals. To do that, you have to move a bit more slowly.

It’s a tough choice we’ve made to be global professionals.
I know the backpack is heavy.
Carry it with pride.