Finding your value in a time of transition
I was a 30-something American with a left-behind career, two kids under the age of 5, trailing my spouse in Tokyo, Japan. My husband’s job afforded our first ex-pat experience in a country so vastly different from my own that repeated warnings of culture shock prepared me for the worst. Unfortunately, there were no repeated warnings regarding putting the brakes on my career. This was the shocker that was unexpectedly difficult, and it sent me into depression.
My hard-fought skills and my once-upon-a-time ambitions were no longer of value. Add to that the common foreigner challenges of a gaping language barrier, starting from ground zero with connections and community, and not having a place in our home as a domestic helper did everything for us. I was utterly lost and alone, quickly questioning my value and self-worth.
Many trailing spouses and anyone amid a significant transition, can likely agree this thinking is a bottomless hole from which to crawl out. Luckily, I found a way via close self-examination of my values, but it took months and persistent work.
Values “are the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity,” according to psychologist Barb Markway and Celia Ampel in The Self-Confidence Workbook. If unsure of your values, search online for lists, and select a handful to get started on the discovery process.
I recognized that service was an essential principle in my life, but I had been forfeiting this value due to early motherhood and a demanding career. Other values such as creativity, optimism, justice, or stability may resonate with you. Whatever your list, scrutinize them to see where you can invest a little more.
Finding how I could be of service in a foreign country proved to be trying not just because of the language barrier but additionally because of the quicksand of despair I had sunk. The opposite of depression is connection. Getting out and finding groups can be overwhelming when you feel vulnerable, but it truly is the cure. I tried a few different avenues from mommy-and-me groups to language classes before I found the community that linked to one of my life principles and, therefore, better fit me.
I found a Homeless Outreach program that made hundreds of onigiri (rice balls) for the homeless every morning. Participating with the other volunteers enabled me to refill my depleted self-worth. Often in depression, one feels alone and unseen. I saw the need within the work we were doing and I became seen my self.
Volunteering allowed me to see the community first-hand. I saw behind the scenes at the socio-economics of my host city and peeled back that superficial layer of typical tourism, thereby fueling my curiosity (another life value). It helped me understand and appreciate the culture more, thus enhancing my learning value. Seeing the impact that the rice program made helped me feel impactful (again, service value). I saw the value and purpose of my work. I didn’t have a role at the school or home or a non-existent workplace, but I held a position in the church basement for the greater good.
It took hours to make the onigiri. While slightly mindless and repetitive, a bonus was that I got to know the other volunteers. We knew what was happening in each other’s lives. We came from a variety of backgrounds and ages, likely not grouped in any other circumstance. But we shared pieces of our lives and patched a community together that was unique and caring. And wouldn’t you know it … community was yet another value for me.
You might not find the right fit immediately when searching for a way to live your value. The spirit of volunteerism was a crutch when we later moved to Shanghai. I tried caring for adoptive babies who were undergoing palette surgeries but felt too much heartache leaving them behind each day. And I lasted only a day as a hospitality host in the children’s wing of the local hospital, mainly serving head traumas. I left my shift in tears, knowing I could not change local helmet policies to prevent these injuries in the first place. Sometimes the group doesn’t fit, but eventually, you’ll find your spot. I finally found Stepping Stones, an organization that trains volunteers to teach English to immigrant children.
These opportunities eventually help to strengthen your identity. By our third assignment, I was able to find a baking group for the Amsterdam homeless (De Kloof) that I knew would help me feel like I was contributing to my new city and, in return fueling my principles.
In the end, being abroad did not destroy my career or life as I had equated the two. It helped to develop self-awareness and helped me grow in ways a job never could. By no means am I diminishing the importance of a career. Instead, I’m shining a light on the fact that a standard career is not the only path to fulfillment. This thinking can run counter to the standard American dream, a way of thinking that is difficult to understand while living in America. Nothing can replace the passionate experiential adventure of living abroad and the opportunities that open. Volunteering was the one opportunity that unfolded for me and became nourishment to live out my values. Something else might unfold for others and aid in living out an unexpected purpose. But what we all share in finding the one thing is that we all grow from it. Growth is vital, and I wish everyone the growth that fits their unique set of principles.
Lastly, growth is never-ending. The experiences you find abroad or during transitions are snapshots of time. Each of us continues to refine ourselves one adventure at a time. You have so much more to expand on with each move, each chapter of your life. As I continue my year of repatriation, I expect to stretch in new ways and perhaps invest in another value that I neglected while overseas.