In 2008, I moved for a few years from the land of the West to the East – a land where the language, the culture, the beliefs, the social norms are distinctly different from what I had experienced in my til-then 48 years.
I had had to go; at the time leaving felt like a divine gift; to make a significant break with what was my then-messed-up-of-my-own-choices-world. My decision to try something completely different, had not been because of a spiritual awakening, but more of an ego crisis. It’s what I now know I have done most of my life; create a mess and feel unhappy = go do something completely different. I have spent my life, so far, unconsciously seeking internal peace through changing my outside environment.
This Go-East possibility came by way of a colleague/friend (sick of listening to me whine about my discontent) suggestion as a great teaching opportunity with the added benefit of creating ‘adjusting space’ (better known as run away from my problems space) between myself and the harsh changes going on in my personal life.
My Grand Eastern Adventure, was constantly punctuated with unnerving uncertainty. I experienced a version of the Wizard of Oz; smoke and mirrors; and lack of personal accountability (all around me and me too) as the gold bricks of the Ex-Pat road. The heat of the still air was subduing, intoxicating, sweet; clinging to my skin and my clothes, seeping into my behaviours. It was not long before I became viscerally concerned that though I could adjust to the climate, I feared I would become”like’ in my beliefs. And, it was not long before I wondered if all the challenging people in the world and their behaviours had followed me East. I thought I had escaped ‘them’. Little did I know the truth life was about to offer me.
Inequities of wealth and poverty, social rank, violence, were the norm. I was gripped and muzzled with Culture shock – for the first time I knew in my cells the experience of Culture shock. I squirmed and slept, finally cajoling myself into joining a gym, found a reliable driver, went to work, warily socialized with Ex-Pats…and frequently Skyped lies-of-joy…and shocked people in my Western World with what I was told were ‘glib, off-hand remarks’ like… ‘What? Oh that’s just people shooting at each other…don’t worry, its the norm.” Or, “No, you can’t make a dent, violence is a way of life, beating servants, burning wives…its just how it is here.”
One day, I found myself at an International Arms Conference…sitting in an army Jeep, ‘trying out’ a machine gun…then curiously meandering through the conference full of ‘buy this here’ war-fare and spy equipment, just as if I was wandering through a local spice market. Another day, I was walking on a beach and looking across the ocean I could hear the noise of aircraft and bombs being dropped while parts of a grenade brushed the side of my bare left foot. It was real, and yet my reaction was as if it were unreal, or not of ‘this world’. Time went on, the lull of money and invisibility, the lack of real life accountability – it became a way of life; like being in a suspended insular space. I was of the world, but oddly, not in the world. I was in an ‘in-between’ place.
Eventually I became dissatisfied with my work, it was boring to be paid for doing nothing. So, I went to work in another middle east country, to work with a USA consulting company full of ex-pat military men. It turned into my soul take-down.
As I went about my world, in a constant unsettling state – trying to fit in, to be a part of, yet I was a woman of a ‘certain age’ and alone, working primarily with Western Ex-Pat men, in a land where the national language is unknown to me, with eastern and western men treating me secondarily…I was constantly ‘armed’…and I slowly slipped into deep aloneness…asking myself…What was I contributing? What’s my part? What is this life I have…its not a life…its an existence? How did this happen? When had I stopped noticing how much it bothered me that my feet were walking on embedded gold bricks in a shopping mall? When did staying in a seven star hotel become a preferred norm? When did I visually block out seeing jam-packed dilapidated buses of workers in blue overalls with blank looks on their faces? When did I stop hearing gun shots? When did I stop noticing the security screening in every place I went to? When did I stop verbally acknowledging those who serve? When did I start participating in ‘negatively-othering’ conversations? When did I stop standing for creating awareness or differences with stopping person-violence…environment violence? When did I accept it was not worth even talking about the Camels dying in the desert from guts full of plastic trash bags because the dumps are insecure? When did I become a commentator and stop being a ‘doer’? When did I disconnect from my own deep values of honouring people no matter their circumstances, stand up for what I believe, treat people with respect…earn your wage with work that matters…have integrity with your word…? When did I become more like than unlike? When did I say Yes to this and No to my beliefs and values? When did lying about the quality of my life become my norm?”
Early into my Grand Eastern Adventure, after a holiday break in the West; another Ex-Pat remarked that all ex-pats have a place over the ocean, during the flight – where we drop our West Life and pick up our East Life. Even in 42degree weather, I was suddenly, terrifyingly cold. Wondering to myself: ‘Did I do that? Do I have a life, a set of beliefs here in the East, relationships here…that when I go West I drop them and they me, and I pick up my ‘other life’ – and vice-versa…was I living a double-life…does the Ex-Pat life allow for people to run away from hard things at ‘home’ and create a life that is fresh and new – does this Ex-Pat life actually create the illusion of ‘starting over’ or is it that – this land of the East is so truly foreign to my cells that its like I am becoming two different people?” Even my body seemed to be experiencing foreignness.
Do people arrive in distinctly different worlds and choose a vagabond life, saying it’s what they want – adventures – but in reality it’s simply just a way of avoiding accountability and integrity with what one has created and been a part of ‘before’?
Then one day our new project was revealed (highly secret) – ‘food security’. Essentially working to buy up multiple farms in less wealthy countries and design secure shipping lines to ensure the wealthy country’s citizens would always have access to food. I was also asked to work on a training plan for fourteen new nuclear plants, in which the employees were all ex-pats from poor countries, paid minimally, and would live in ‘camps’. I used the intentions of these projects, as my way to let myself off the hook, and go home.
I went to the East to distance myself from pain, pain of my choices and decisions that negatively impacted myself and my family. I have now been home 4.5 years. I have since sold my house in the community I lived in with the family I made, I couldn’t settle back into the ‘old’. I have moved three times, and just now, in the past month or so, I can finally say I feel settled. I have a small home, a Hobbit House I call it, in a new community to me.
I have slowly, painfully, let go of all my Eastern relationships. It has taken me the better part of this past 4.5 years to recognize the impact on me, of being an ex-pat, of my time in the East, of the origins of the choice I made to ‘leave’ the West. It has taken me 4+ years to forgive myself for running away and abandoning my self. People often hear I have lived and worked in the middle east and it’s treated with a reverence that it is not due. I am spoken of as having courage and being an adventurer, a risk taker. I’m not and it was not the adventure I anticipated at all.
What I have learned about myself is huge, and it seems never ending. My decision to quit a great job, leave my family and community, and go to the middle east, has had huge impact on my life and in turn, others lives. I sometimes think I was ‘not of my right mind’ for this past 7 or 8 years. (I think others think that way too.) One of my big takeaways is this: When people ask me questions that make me want to bang the phone down, or never ever ever talk to them again, or it brings instant tears or a yukky flip in my gut, I need to STOP and get more curious with myself.
A very wise counselor I engaged with shortly after arriving in the East, said to me (when I was bemoaning the fact that my troubles seemed to have followed me to the East), “you cannot outrun yourself and maybe, this choice you made to move to the middle east, will give you the opportunity to step into the fire of your own growth.” She also, regularly encouraged me to walk through my tears.
Burn I did. Grow I have. Not in nearly the ways in which I had any foresight about. Walking and tears have been my companions.
When I was wrestling with the decision to go or not to go; on that Grand Eastern Adventure, a friend I trust and love, asked me “Are you running towards something or away from something?” I was instantly enraged at the question: In retrospect, I suppose I felt my grey roots were exposed for all to see. There are no do-overs in life: That said, I do wish I had had the wisdom of a loving companion to soothe my fears and help me see that in that time of my life, I was in deep pain and loss, and I was embarrassed and estranged from my self. I needed others to shine the light for me, to keep me warm and safe, and help me make decisions and changes based in love, not fear. And, my pain at that time, precluded me from asking or accepting love from others. My middle east adventure, and my long way home; did give me the opportunity to understand that I have predominately lived my life from the ground of fear.
Maya Angelou said that when we know better we do better. What she didn’t go on to say, is that the knowing road can be brutally painful.
Awhile back I learned that beliefs lead to behaviours that lead to results. So if we want different results, we have to unearth the beliefs that are driving the behaviours. When I think about that ‘model’ in the context of my decision to go on the aforementioned Grand Eastern Adventure; I knew then and I know now that I was caught in the belief that if I shared the truth of my behaviours with the powers that be in my life at that time, I would be abandoned/left/discounted/fired. So, I chose to not share and lie about my behaviours, and in so doing I abandoned my self. I will never know if I had shared the truth of my behaviour in my world back then, how my current world would be different. I do know though that, the gift in the Grand Easterm Experience, has been the opportunity to meet my fear of abandonment head on.
Exposing our beliefs is a scary, critical growth edge. At least for me this one has been. I’m grateful, for the exposure to a radically different culture, the eastern world, the military world, the ex-pat world; it has brought me to my knees and I’m forever different. A wiser, human I hope.
I am sad for the losses in my life. Regret has been my steady companion for years. Though I own that I didn’t know this belief source of my behaviours of the past, I do own the damage and the loss, to myself and others who matter to me.
I want to move forward, this past 4.5 years has been a time of tilling and turning the soil of my soul. A time of quiet acceptance, forgiveness, is resident within me now, and I’m believing that it is from there that I will move on.
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One of life’s most relevant issues beautifully expressed Michelle. ‘BOOM.’ Zen word for profound impact.