Dealing with Change: An Expat’s Way of Life
As expats, we are very familiar with how profound change can be in our lives: sometimes it comes as a welcomed guest, but at other times, it comes unexpectedly and unwontedly, creating challenges in its wake.
I consider myself a serial expat, both of the domestic and international kind. I was born in Cuba and immigrated to the US under a refugee status. This was during the Cold War and both my country of origin, Cuba, and the receiving country, the US, were deeply committed at standing their opposing grounds. A year after following the guidelines of US refugee immigration policies, I was awarded an immigrant status to the US. In a short time, I had gone from living in a tropical island in the middle of the Caribbean to the windy city of Chicago during a very snowy November.
Fortunately for me, I was a curious child, and the cold and the snow were exhilarating. My mother, however, did not find this a curious experience and for her adapting to her new surroundings took many years. In some ways, I believe she is still adapting. One of my earliest memories of attending school in this new country was learning of the pronoun “it”. I was thrilled! It seemed such an opening and opportunity to break away from the structured limitations of the feminine and masculine genders of all things. The promise of neutrality and genderlessness from this tiny little word was so intriguing and liberating. I thought, “so some things are neither male or female or maybe they are both.” I felt a whole new world had opened up for me.
If I look back at every time I’ve been through a transitory phase, the challenges I faced and the intense feelings of being out of my “comfort zone,” I have found that, surprisingly, somehow, I’ve made it. I might venture to say, that, after all was said and done, I was a better version of myself. Being in the midst of it, it’s hard to recognize the benefits of change. It takes time to realize how I've adjusted, and in what ways these uncomfortable pushes into the unknown have made me grow.
After living in Chicago for nearly two years, my family and I moved to Florida. It was there that I became a citizen of the US. The freedom to travel without visas and lengthy hand-written documentations turned into a life-long yearning to move and experience the new places.
When I look back now at those late teenage years and the entirety of my 20s, I’m amazed by the constant movement, the letting go, and the learning of new skills that comprised the story of those years. I completed my bachelor’s degree in three different states and my two master’s degrees in two. Throughout that time, I moved every one to three years, living in eight different locations across the US (including San Francisco and North Carolina, where I lived for 7 years). Moreover, I traveled frequently, visiting Europe, Scandinavia, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
It wasn’t all fun and games as you may imagine, although looking back I can see that even the challenges and difficulties were meaningful. The desire to connect and experience different ways of living, and which led to the frequent movement in my life, came with moments of deep loneliness, alienation, and challenges to my sense of identity.
A New Identity
Expats are familiar with the process of change. Feeling unsettled, and ungrounded, usually precedes the sense of knowing your way around and the tiniest sense of belonging. It is during these times of uncertainty that many unresolved issues surface. And, despite our amazing ability to thrive, who doesn’t have some “unresolved” issues of identity, belonging, and self-worth?
Most of us quickly adapt to change, evolve, and find ourselves anew. In doing so, we forget the steps we took to root and build, and we might not realize how, in the end, things somehow seem to have fallen into place. It happens over and over, the out-of-the-comfort-zone experience eventually turns your new environment into a zone of comfort. We tend to forget the challenges we faced, we begin to embrace the present and overlook the changing nature of our lives.
Despite the unsettling nature of the challenges in our new life, nothing is more satisfying and empowering than overcoming them. Each small victory adds to our confidence and ability to face future challenges successfully. Slowly but surely, we become better at thriving in our new identity.
Facing Challenges in a New Way
I find myself once again in the process of movement. For the last 15 months I have been living in Barcelona, where my Swedish husband accepted a work position. It had been seven years since the previous move and this would have been the first permanent move abroad. I was excited! We sold our home, I closed my psychotherapy practice, and along with our two dogs, used to the vastness of a five-acre-farm, came to live in the city of Barcelona.
This time around, adjustment was more difficult than I remembered. I had grown used to and identified deeply with my career role of psychotherapist. The thriving practice with a client waiting list had disappeared overnight. Who was I now? At this time, it was helpful to remember, how many times this has happened in my life, how many times I had met this changing, questioning, and uncertain nature of life and came out stronger in the end.
Since those early challenging days, I have joined networks that have helped me advance my career goals. I have realized that I can’t recreate the past in a new setting, but I can find new ways of doing the same thing. Each new place has its own unique blueprint and, and many of your long-held skills will be modified and amplified in different ways. I’ve found that staying open to change, to new ways of doing things, has been key to my new-found identity. And even though I am back in the land of gender specific pronouns, the world is no longer defined by these limited structures.
As I look back, some useful things stand out. When confronted with the uncertainty of change, that awkward time of waiting for the new life and identity to come forth, remembering how I surfaced and came out stronger than before, has been helpful indeed. In fact, it may be just what I need to help me meet the changes in my life.