Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Crisis

More than a decade ago, my family became ex-pats.  Although all four of us (my wife and two daughters) are currently living back in the United States, each of us still relate to our ex-pat identities to some degree. My ex-pat identity was hard to separate from my work identity since my job was the reason we lived overseas.
Of course, I have had other “identities” over the years: son, brother, student, friend, American and later - uncle, runner, employee, husband, dad, gaijin, etc. Not an all-inclusive list but you get the point. Like most people, on any given day of my life I would move in and out of my various roles without thinking about it.

I only thought deeply about any specific identity at transition points in my life – when I got married, when my daughters were born, the first few months we were living in Japan, etc, etc. For several weeks after we arrived in Kobe, each day was an adventure but after a few months it was simply where we lived. The same thing happened when we moved to China – a few weeks of drama and then we adjusted to our new environment.  
For me it took longer to adjust to living back in the US than it did to moving to Japan or China. The problem was not living in America; it was working for the company in America. While I was overseas, I had almost total autonomy to make decisions. As long as the business did well, I was left alone to manage things as I saw fit. Just before I moved back, the company got a new CEO who brought a new mindset. My team in Asia continued to look to me for decisions but the new CEO and the team he brought with him from his former company had created a “matrix” structure which effectively meant no one person was in charge in many situations.

Although I worked for a fairly large company, they did not have an overabundance of rules when I left for Japan. I never felt “compliance” with rules a burden before I left. When I came back to the US; however I was shocked at the changes. For the most part, I had been able to set the rules in Japan and China; back in the US I found that the company had begun to micromanage small details of office life. It seemed that “big brother” had arrived. I asked some of my co-workers about all the rules and while they acknowledged things were different – they were “used to it”. It made sense, gradual change over 11 years is hard to notice or get upset about but I was being hit by many things at once. From the company nurse who insisted on standing inside the restroom door while I produced my urine sample for a random drug test and the HR person who insisted on doing an ergomatic check of my work environment to advise me on changes that should be made --- to the random, voluntary “safety audit” form I found on my desk signed by one of our accountants down the hall. She felt my key board should be placed in a pull out tray below desktop level and that my wastebasket was in an awkward spot – amazing stuff. Unbelievable to me - an office neighbor felt compelled to check my surroundings without asking me and was encouraged to do so in the name of safety.

My big new office was beginning to feel like a white collar prison and my new identity seemed to be “inmate”. Fortunately the company decided to parole me a few weeks ago and my new and temporary identity is “early – retired”.

Things have a way of working out for the best………