Global Nomads and Learning Chinese

Notes from my kids.

Have you heard of the term, “global nomads”? I haven’t.

I was in a session with a roomful of newbie parents and heard this: “Your children are global nomads now.”

I felt a tug in my stomach. 

“A global nomad is anyone of any nationality who has lived outside their parents’ country of origin (or their “passport country”) before adulthood because of a parent’s occupation.” (Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from

Chinese book my child is reading

Indeed, that’s my children. Honestly, I don’t like the term, not at all. There is an implied sense of instability that makes a mom like me feel guilty. 

But apparently, there is quite a tribe out there. It took only 0.14 seconds to find 173,000 entries for “global nomad” in Google. 

These wandering kids face many challenges, primarily, loss of many things familiar: friends, food, surroundings, weather, language, culture and more. The session was all about making us parents aware that adapting to these changes takes time, that our own behavior has a direct impact on the kids, that they may bottle up anxiety more than we realize. Most of us will make it, but in our weaker moments, we should reach out, there is always professional help in the community… It is heart-warming to receive reassurance, to see people who had been nomads themselves, and those who are parenting nomads, like I am. 

What 3,000 Chinese words will do to you - from the back cover of the dictionary

Behind closed doors, how do the challenges feel like? I can give you a glimpse into the struggle of learning the language.

Chinese is tough. Three thousand most frequently used words, master them, or you won’t feel you are literate enough. There is no way around it.

3000 words, one at a time.

Our children are taking Chinese lessons at school. Their class goal for this school year is to be able to master 200-300 words. That means, 10 years from now, they’ll be able to comprehend street signs, electricity bills, local newspapers, 99% of the time. Such an outlook will deter any investment bankers. But nomad kids got to try. That’s exactly what my kids are doing these days.

We bought an English-Chinese dictionary that lists the 3,000 basic words, their pronunciation, their sequence of strokes, and their meanings.

We sit together, chanting Bopomofo, the pronunciation system used in Taiwan. In mainland China, pin yin is used, and there is nothing alike between these two in writing.

Looking up a word in the English-Chinese dictionary.

We trace our figure through the dictionary, looking for that one word we need for our homework essay. There are a whole bunch of words that sound exactly the same, but they mean totally different things. Yes, Chinese is a crazy language.

We recite the texts together, sentences from top to bottom, from right to left.

We labor through words, eraser in hand, stroke by stroke, in their right sequence. In Taiwan, people still write Chinese in their traditional forms. In mainland China, people now use simplified form which has several to a dozen fewer strokes for the same word. 

Homework essay with teacher's corrections

We sigh, we bang the books, we grunt in frustration. One day, just as we were about to give up, we decided to search in Google for the Chinese word that has the most strokes. It was great, because we felt lucky that none of the words we wrote had that many strokes.

Someday, my kids will be able to read books without pictures.

“The global nomads will grow up stronger. They will be open and resilient; they will appreciate diversity, and cultural difference. ..” It is those words of the trainer that keep me strong inside. My kids do not think in these terms nor do they care. Their focus is on the next day when they have to stand in front of the class, reading out loud, from right to left.

They are the bravest nomads, to me.

The word with 53 strokes – it is the name of the noodle shown in picture*

* Retrieved from Google Image by searching “Chinese character for biang”.


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