As adults, so much of how we see ourselves is tied to our professional lives. “What do you do?” is one of the questions we ask when first getting to know someone. When we get that question we typically take it to mean: “what’s your job?” not “what are your interests?” Your profession gives you an instant identity; it lets people know who you are without too much explanation, and it provides a framework for a good part of our everyday lives. For one, we spend a lot of time at work, it’s also a place where we have a defined role and we know in what capacity we are needed. And last but not least, work provides social connections and context.
If so much of our identity has to do with our professional life and the context it provides us, it’s no wonder we can feel lost when leaving our known surroundings to start fresh somewhere else. All of a sudden we are tasked with creating a new context to define who we are and what our everyday life looks like. In my experience this can be scary and liberating all at once.
And indeed, for most of us, there are some ups and downs during the first year of living abroad – you may have heard of the “expat adjustment cycle” and its four stages. Most expats get through the first year with some dips and some highs and most struggle at some point with “learning how to be” in their new environment – be it by trying to figure out their new work environment, or as an accompanying partner adjusting to being without a work-identity.
I had to leave my job when we first moved overseas for my husband’s expat assignment and it was a tough decision to make. This was my first real post-college job and I liked it. I had made friends and I felt good about my role there. But, it seemed to me that the adventure that was surely in store for us would be worth the leap. I didn’t give much thought to what it would actually be like to arrive in a new country and not have a job, or any social or professional connections. I had thought even less about the fact that my husband would be very busy getting settled in his new work environment.
So while my husband was busy with work and getting to know his new colleagues, I felt increasingly isolated and like I was losing my identity. He was working hard on fitting in at his new job, and I was trying to figure out what I was all about without a job. We were definitely at different ends of the “getting-settled” spectrum. In addition, I was now completely dependent on my husband financially, which was an unusual feeling since I had been pretty self-sufficient with money since I landed my first summer job at age 14.
It’s interesting to me now (20 years later) that I hadn’t really considered the implications before leaving. I was simply not aware, I didn’t know about culture shock as a concept and I hadn’t considered what happens when you alter your family and work dynamic. We also didn’t have a support system in the new location and because this was pretty much pre-internet, we didn’t have the online resources that are available today.
Once I started working after a year and a half of taking classes at my local junior college, I felt like I had a lot to prove – I wanted to have a professional identity and to be part of a larger context. It took a while to get to a point of feeling at ease with my new job and there were moments of misunderstandings and confusion that were directly related to cultural differences. It wasn’t always easy – it definitely took some “work to figure out work”. I learned to rely on a few key persons for guidance and I probably asked one too many questions on occasion, but it was the next phase of my expat life and for that I was happy!
By: Felicia Shermis