The Three Percent

I read a few weeks ago in the New York Times that I am one of the 3.3 percent that the United Nations estimates to be living in a country other than the one they were born in. I also happen to be part of a group that makes up the largest diaspora — there are some 16 million of us Indians scattered across the globe. Continuing along the path of being “part of the statistic,” the two top destinations for migrants (the United States and Germany) are the countries I chose to live and work in for several years.

I recall my daughter asking me some time ago, “Are you the same in Berlin as you are in Mumbai, New York, or Beijing?” It took me a few minutes to realize that what on the surface seemed to be a simple question actually got me thinking about the my identity in the context of changes in location, learning, working, indeed living.

The act of moving is highly transformative. In more ways than one. Yet there are very few formal systems that equip people for transformations requiring them to quickly and successfully adapt to different places and cultures. The pressure to adapt, conform, transform — whatever you want to call it — is immense. Whether the context is personal or professional. So when you think about it, how do you really know how or what to be when you’re transported to a different place? Where do you turn to get your social cues? Do you ask? Do you just feel? Remain on the outside looking in? Or blend in by doing a Zelig (do watch the mock documentary by Woody Allen if you can). To answer the question with “just be you” would be much too glib. Not to mention a complete conversation stopper.

A little self-reflection, analysis, and understanding point to the many experiences that you gather while you move, which then help you be what you need to be in Berlin, Mumbai, and New York. Not surprisingly, similar situations bring out different aspects of one’s identity depending on the surrounding context, and there is an incredible amount of simultaneous subconscious learning happening while people are going about their daily chores.

Certainly there is no dearth of information to help acquaint you with the ways of the various countries and how one might interact with their different people. In fact, in our line of business we prepare and also very quickly turn to “guidelines” to help answer identity-related questions with regard to how brands behave or ought to. So many rules and regulations governing simple transactions all in the name of reducing complexity. Allowing the experience to provide answers would make the realization and therefore the interactions so much richer. But time and money dictate otherwise. Practicality rules.

As I prepare for a global assignment that will take me to the Bay Area in a few months I find myself asking what more I need to know compared to many years ago when I lived in New York. To what extent can the company help me in navigating a changed world so that I fulfill their expectations? How much am I obliged to instinctively know on account of my own interest and prior experience vis-à-vis what the company should be equipping me with? It still shocks me somewhat to think how little I knew about living and working in China in the time before I left Berlin to go live and work in Beijing. And yet, somehow it all worked out. In fact, when I think about it now, the unevenness of the experience was what made the time there all the more thrilling.

I’ve often been asked which country I identify myself with most. Where is home? Some days I wish people wouldn’t ask me this. Mostly because the only answer I have for this question is that I am at home wherever I choose to go. Few people believe me when I say this. It seems to me that they are looking for a more complex answer. Actually, things can be very simple when you have the luxury of choice.

Commonsense, street smarts, and plain life experience are mostly all you need to be able to live anywhere in the world these days. Throw in a healthy dose of curiosity and an open mind and very quickly you’re in a good space. Of course it helps to speak the language of the country you’re in. So many avenues open up with that. With this also comes a great sense of dynamism. Perhaps the making of perpetual motion.

And so I wonder if this is what binds us 3.3 percenters: the dynamic of motion. Fortunately many of us are not looking to get away from something, but to get to something. Maybe underpinning that sense of wanderlust. Just like DJ Scruff whose song “Get a Move On” espouses, “You better keep moving, you better keep moving, you better keep moving, or you’ll be left behind.”

I’d be curious to know how many fellow 3.3 percenters are reading this and how your experiences have shaped your identity.

Rupali Steinmeyer is currently based in Berlin and serves as head of international operations for MetaDesign.