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A Portable Identity: A Woman's Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas

A Portable Identity: A Woman's Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas

by Debra R. Bryson

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A Portable Identity: A Woman's Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas, Revised Edition, is written by two former expatriate spouses who are also counselors. The book educates and empowers expatriate spouses to take charge of the changes in identity that occur during an international relocation. The most profound change a woman will experience


A Portable Identity: A Woman's Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas, Revised Edition, is written by two former expatriate spouses who are also counselors. The book educates and empowers expatriate spouses to take charge of the changes in identity that occur during an international relocation. The most profound change a woman will experience when she moves overseas in support of her husband's career comes from within herself, to her own sense of identity. With two, three, or more years of an overseas assignment, a woman faces the formidable task of creating a life for herself in an unfamiliar country. Unlike any other book about overseas living, this book explains with clarity, candor and compassion, how each stage of the move affects a woman's identity.

A Portable Identity is an interactive book with practical exercises and inspiring stories. It is designed to be a companion and guide for the woman who wants to know how her identity is affected at each stage of the move, from pre-departure to arrival, and while living overseas. The book also explains why the thoughts and feelings she may experience as an expatriate spouse are normal within the context of so much change, and how she can use the steps of The Wheel to shape her identity in a way that honors her sense of self while living in a foreign country and culture, as well as during repatriation.

A Portable Identity is essential reading for military, corporate, non-governmental organization, missionary, and foreign service spouses. By learning how to take charge of change, a spouse can make choices for a happier and more meaningful life overseas. The result is a more successful transition to life abroad and a more "portable" identity that can thrive away from home.

A Portable Identity is also a valuable resource for professionals, including human resource managers, international relocation specialists, employee assistance professionals and therapists. The book provides them with critical information that they can utilize to better assist the accompanying spouse during an international move...

Product Details

Transition Press International
Publication date:
Edition description:
Revised Edition
Product dimensions:
8.25(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Starting Place: Your Identity Before the Decision to Move Overseas

How You View Moving Overseas

Your perception of moving overseas to support your husband's career probably falls somewhere between enthusiasm and resistance. You may view the move as a positive opportunity: a chance to explore exotic lands, have extra support to maintain the household, take time off from a career, or enjoy not working. You may view the decision to move overseas more negatively: as a necessary nuisance for your husband to advance in his career, as an interruption to your own career path, or as an obstacle taking you away from important roles, places, and people in your life. In this case, when you agree to the move, you do so reluctantly. We both found ourselves at opposite ends of the continuum when we first discovered we'd be moving overseas.


I remember the day I learned that my husband, Brad, and I would move to Bangkok, Thailand. Brad came home from work like any other day. We made and ate dinner, then went for a walk, something we often do, especially when we have something important to talk about. As we walked, Brad told me that his assignment with the State Department had come through and we'd be moving to Thailand within the year.

"Finally," I thought. "I'm ready to go."

My mind immediately started to spin off into a fantasy about what my life would be like there. I saw myself confidently walking down unfamiliar streets, meeting local people along the way, and, of course, being readily accepted and liked by them. I saw myself eating exotic foods and learning to speak the language fluently. I saw us exploring and travelingthecountry together on the weekends. I thought it would be fascinating to be a part of the embassy community. I looked forward to the opportunity to meet and socialize with foreign dignitaries. I wanted to pinch myself. I couldn't believe moving overseas was finally going to happen.


When my husband, Charles, told me he had a job offer in Bangkok, I could sense his excitement. The opportunity to live in Asia and develop research projects in tropical medicine thrilled him. Moving overseas would be a boon to his career as a doctor.

As he expressed his desire to go, I thought, "Where am I in this plan? Does he realize what he's asking me to give up? Does he know that I dread such a move?" I felt hurt and helpless. We had just moved two years earlier to Atlanta, which was a mutual decision. I was just beginning a new career as a social worker and was still in graduate school. I was afraid that by moving overseas, I'd lose everything that I'd already accomplished. When I expressed these concerns to Charles, he promised to help me find a way to work overseas. He knew another American doctor in Bangkok whose wife was working as a counselor. He said he'd make inquiries for me. While he thought he was helping to ease my anxiety, he didn't know the extent of my fear.

The idea of Asia terrified me. It was "too foreign." I had lived in Central America as a child, and in Europe during college, but Asia seemed like another planet to me. I felt that I didn't have the skills to master living there. I viewed the move as a detour, undermining my confidence in my abilities and derailing me from my goals.

Exercise: Reflections

In this exercise, we'd like you to identify what you thought about the move overseas to support your husband's career.

How did you view the move?
Did you see it as a positive opportunity or as something negative?
Or, did your feelings fall somewhere between the two?

What were some of your thoughts and feelings about making the move overseas?

Reality of Moving Overseas

Although every woman has diverse views and images of the move overseas as well as different experiences after arriving abroad, women who move to support their husbands' careers have something in common: loss and change.


During the first few months in Bangkok, as the ever-present newness began to wear off, it began to sink in that I was in Thailand. This would be home. I began to miss the familiar life I had in Washington, D.C. It seemed odd to me that just a short time before I was ever so willing to "give it all up" for this adventure. I began to question myself and the decision I had made. I felt sad and lonely; yet I was also glad we made the move. I had been so excited about it.

This wide range of feelings made no sense to me. At times I found myself feeling irritable, or crying over a minor frustration, or for no apparent reason. I told myself that I just needed time to adjust. I missed my family and friends in the U.S. Everyone seemed so far away, so untouchable. The phone calls to my parents were a vivid reminder. The voice delay and echo on the line as we talked made it difficult to maintain a natural flow of conversation. I found it difficult to be honest with them about my feelings. I shared the details of my adventures and my positive feelings, but awkwardly omitted anything painful. I didn't want to worry them, besides, they were never too thrilled about me moving overseas in the first place. They liked their children close by; with the overseas move, I was now farther away from them than ever.


I recall the moment I came to understand that Bangkok was my home. We were already there, well into a three-month stay. We had chosen our house after a month in a hotel, and our household belongings had arrived. We had a semblance of order and our daily routines of rising, gathering at the breakfast table, going our different directions to work and school, and coming back to a clean house filled with the enticing smell of dinner in the making.

During this early settling-in period we took a four-day holiday to the beach a few hours' drive south of Bangkok. We stayed at a resort-style hotel where costumed, smiling Thai staff catered to our needs. This offered a reprieve from the scorching sun and the whims of our three-and-a-half-year-old.

After four days, we loaded our car for the drive home, and soon entered the press of Bangkok traffic. We emerged from the main streets into the smaller lanes of our neighborhood and arrived in our driveway. While this was no surprise, it seemed I was in the wrong place. I was anticipating returning home from the beach but it looked like just another shelter from the sun. I wanted my other home in the States, not the prospect of settling in for a long stay. A very long vacation. A very long time away.

Exercise: Reflections

This exercise will help you identify the thoughts and feelings that you've experienced since moving overseas.

What thoughts and feelings have you experienced since arriving at your new destination?

Have you been confused or surprised by any of your thoughts or by any of the emotions you've felt? If yes, which ones and why?

What reasons have you attributed to thinking or feeling the way you have?

Do the thoughts and feelings you've experienced since arriving at your new destination match the thoughts and feelings you had anticipated before the move? Please explain your answer.

You may have moved into a more comfortable situation by moving overseas. However, your answers to the above questions may reveal that your thoughts and feelings don't match what you expect of a person who is "more comfortable." Your thoughts and feelings may seem strange to you. You may feel a sense of urgency to find some way to overcome the difference between what you're experiencing internally and the situation you're in with all its perks. You may have been looking forward to the move, and now you may feel that something is wrong with you for feeling the way you do. Or you may not have wanted to make the move, and now you may want to blame yourself, your husband, or your situation for feeling the way you do. You may fear that what you're experiencing right now may stay with you throughout your overseas stay.

Regardless of how you initially viewed the move overseas (whether you viewed the move more positively or more negatively, or somewhere in between), don't deny the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you've been experiencing. It is important to understand your experience in the context of the multitude of changes and losses you now face. Your thoughts and feelings very likely reflect the degree to which your identity has changed.

In the following section, we'll help you better understand the range of thoughts and feelings you've been experiencing since moving overseas. We'll do this by exploring in-depth the concept of identity, and by helping you construct a picture of your identity before the move.

What is Identity?

People define identity in both complex and simple ways. In its simplest form, identity is who you are, everything about you, all the qualities and traits that make you a unique, one-of-a-kind individual. Identity includes your personality. It separates you as an individual and explains why you seek out others. You often seek people similar to you and sometimes people very different from you.

Identity is a complex concept because of the many traits and characteristics that make you unique. Your identity begins to form in the womb before birth and evolves as you develop, learn, grow, and experience new things throughout your life. If someone asked you to define your identity, how would you do this? How would you describe every unique quality that in total makes you who you are? It would be an impossible task.

Our Definition of Identity

We define identity as a composite of four main facets:

  • your internal view, or the way you view yourself;
  • the effect of external factors on your identity, such as the ways others view you and how your identity is affected by those things around you;
  • the roles you occupy;
  • significant relationships you have with others.

Let's begin by looking more closely at each of these four facets. We're not saying that you as a woman are defined as four separate and equal parts. Instead, we use these four main facets as reference points to help you look deeper within yourself. Understanding them will help you look more in depth at the multitude of components that make you unique.

Viewing identity in this way gives you greater self-awareness. The significance of each facet largely depends on how you define yourself. For example, you may define yourself primarily by how you think and feel about yourself, or you may define yourself primarily through your relationships with other people. Another possibility is that you may define yourself primarily through the way others see you, or through the roles you occupy. We think that having this more detailed and deeper understanding of your identity is critical to comprehending the effect of the overseas move on you.

As you read the section below, think about yourself and your own identity. Within each area, we have provided questions to help stimulate your thinking as you reflect on yourself and your life. As you proceed, you may also come up with questions of your own that better apply to you. After reading through the section below, you will complete an exercise that will help you apply this information to your own identity.

The Four Facets of Identity

Internal View of Self

The first facet that in part makes up your identity is your internal view of yourself which includes:

Your perceptions of yourself: How do you view yourself? Do you like yourself? Do you think you're a nice person? Do you think you're not quite good enough? Do you think you're okay? What characteristics or adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Your beliefs: Do you believe in a Higher Power (e.g., God, Buddha, Allah)? Do you believe in equal rights for women? Do you believe in democracy? Do you believe in a national identity (e.g., Americans = baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet; British = afternoon tea)? What are some of your beliefs?

Your values: Do you value a family, a career, or some combination of the two? Do you value time with your family? Do you value your private time? Do you value money? Do you value helping others? What are some of your values?

Your attitudes: Do you generally have a positive attitude about your life, or do you feel more hopeless and out of control? What are some of your attitudes?

Your likes and your dislikes: Do you like to wake up early and have your first morning cup of coffee or tea reading the paper before anyone else gets up? Do you like the excitement of the city, or do you like the quiet solitude of the country? Do you dislike the cap being left off the toothpaste? Do you like or dislike change? Do you like new opportunities? What are some of your likes and dislikes?

Your gender: What is your perception/view of being a woman? What does it mean to be female? Do you feel comfortable in your skin? Does being a woman mean you're a nurturer? Does it mean you can be assertive and even aggressive? How do you feel about being a woman?

Your body image: How do you view your body? Are you happy with your body image or are you never happy with your body image (e.g., "If I could only lose that last five pounds!")? How would you describe your body image?

External Factors Affecting Identity

The second facet that in part makes up your identity is how external factors affect you.

The way others see you: What do your friends, family, and colleagues think of you? Do they view you as competent, lazy, nice, funny, or someone who can be counted on? Do they view you as responsible or irresponsible? Are the opinions of others about you, important to you?

Societal influences: What messages do you get about yourself from society? What kind of messages do you get about being a woman? A homemaker? A career woman? Are you homogeneous with your society or do you isolate yourself? Are you set apart in some way? What societal influences affect you?

The community you live in and are involved with: Are you accepted in your immediate community? Do you fit in, or do you experience some form of prejudice or discrimination? Is your community safe, or is it filled with violence? What is your community like? How involved are you in your community?

The impact of the culture in which you live: Your culture is like a pair of glasses through which you see the world. Your culture is interwoven into every aspect of your existence. One definition of culture we like comes from The Survival Kit for Overseas Living: For Americans Planning to Live and Work Abroad by L. Robert Kohls. This definition of culture encompasses a broad range of factors that when combined, describe a person's culture.

In Kohls' book, culture is defined as: "An integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society. Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does, and makes-its systems of attitudes and feelings. Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation."2

How would you describe the impact of your culture on you? As you think about this, ask yourself some of the following questions:

What are some of your home country's cultural values that affect your identity? Does your culture value working hard? Does your culture value family? Does your culture value leisure time? What are some of the attitudes and beliefs in your culture that help define you? Does your culture believe in and advocate equality for all people? Or does it have rules about certain types of people? What message does your cultural background give you about being a woman?


The third facet that in part makes up your identity is comprised of the roles you occupy.

Roles help define who and what you are and what you do: You occupy roles that you were born into, such as gender roles. You also have roles within the family such as parent, wife, daughter, and sibling. Some we choose for ourselves, and some come to us through other means, for example, occupational roles, community roles, student roles, and leadership roles. What are some of the roles you occupy?

Roles have culturally defined expectations and rules for interpreting and judging appropriate behavior: How does your culture define and interpret your role as a woman? As a wife? As a career woman? As a working mom? Are you within the norm for your culture, or are you seen as non-traditional? What are some of the expectations and/or rules for the roles you occupy?

Your self-esteem is affected by the roles you occupy: How do you view and feel about yourself and the roles you occupy? Do you like or dislike the roles you occupy? Does what you do make you feel good? How do your roles affect your self-esteem?

Significant Relationships with Others

The fourth facet that in part makes up your identity is comprised of the significant relationships you have with others.

The role of relationships in a woman's identity: The current thinking in the field of psychology and in women's psychology is that as women, our identities are strongly connected to our relationships with other people, our husbands, partners, families, friends, and/or colleagues. This doesn't mean that we depend on others for our existence in an unhealthy or negative way. Women do develop separate, autonomous identities, but in context of the important relationships in our lives.3

Significant relationships in your life: How important is your husband, partner, or family to your identity? How significant of a role do your friends play in your life? Do you have close relationships with colleagues or your neighbors? Who are the most significant people in your life? How important are these relationships to you? How do your relationships help define you?

Exercise: "Who Was I?"

This exercise allows you to apply our concept of identity, which we have just described, to your situation. You may already have a pretty good sense of yourself, and know how you would respond if someone asked you to define your identity. Or you may have more of a vague or general description of yourself. The purpose of this exercise is for you to put more self-awareness into your own definition. Because you're trying to gain a better understanding of how your identity is affected when you move overseas, it is essential that you have a clear understanding about how you defined yourself before the move.

We encourage you to do this exercise when you have sufficient time to explore it thoroughly, since many of the succeeding exercises will build off of this one. You may want to do it over several sittings until you feel confident about it. If you need to do it over a period of time, that's fine.

To begin, if this is your first move overseas, take yourself back to the time before you moved overseas. If you've moved overseas more than once, reflect on your most recent experience. (Note: You can also apply this exercise when you move from one foreign country to another, or when you return to your homeland after living in a foreign country. If you are in the pre-departure stage of your move, this exercise will reflect your identity as it is now, and the questions below will refer to your current situation.)

Whether you've been overseas a few months or a year or more, think about yourself and your life before you made the move. Think about where you lived, your surroundings, the community you lived in, and your daily activities. Reflect on the way you thought about yourself and your likes and dislikes. What kind of attitude did you have and what were some of the things you believed in? What were some of your roles in your family and in your community? Were these roles ones you chose for yourself, or were they given to you by circumstance or by others? Who were the most significant people in your life at that time? What impact did these people have on your life and on you as a woman?

Under each of the four facets of your identity (internal view, external factors affecting identity, roles, and significant relationships with others), write several descriptions that help define you at that point in time. You may want to refer back to the questions we provided under each of these areas in the previous section. This exercise is to be a reflection of your identity before moving overseas. Remember, the way you respond to each area is very personal and unique. There is no right or wrong answer.

"Who Was I?"

Under each category, write several descriptions that defined you before the move.

Before I moved overseas to _____________, my identity, my sense of self, my view of me, my uniqueness =

Internal View of Self

My perceptions of myself:

My beliefs:

My values:

My attitudes:

My likes and dislikes:

My gender:

External Factors Affecting Identity

The way others saw

Societal influences:

The community I lived in and was involved with:

The impact of the culture I lived in:


Roles I occupied:

Culturally defined expectations and rules for interpreting and judging appropriate behavior for the roles I occupied:

In what way(s) was my self-esteem affected by the roles I occupied?

Significant Relationships with Others

Who were the most significant people in my life?

How important were these relationships to me?

How did my relationships help define me?

Reflections on "Who Was I?"


I can vividly recall the time I completed the "Who Was I?" exercise. Charise and I were in the process of developing our material for a workshop and had constructed the exercise as a tool to use with women who would attend. (The first exercise was in a somewhat different format from the one you just completed, but the content and focus were the same.)

I was sitting at my dining room table in Bangkok and decided to complete the exercise. Charise and I had talked a lot about the individual areas and our responses to each area, but I thought I'd complete the exercise in written format to see if it would capture what we anticipated it would.

The impact on me was incredible. As I went through each section, thinking about my responses to the questions and writing down my answers, I was overcome by the realization of how dramatically my life had changed since I boarded the plane and made the move to Bangkok. All the little things that had been a part of my daily life had vanished.

I recalled how I used to enjoy checking the mail after work, taking a walk with my husband after dinner, or going on a solitary run to think. I now missed those things terribly. By contrast, I now had to rely on my husband to receive mail.

What People are Saying About This

Thomas A. Rodgers
"Bryson and Hoge have given us an excellent plan of action to deal with our own personal and cultural adjustments."
M.D., Former Regional Psychiatrist, U.S. Department of State
Valerie Scane
"A Portable Identity goes to the heart of the dilemma women face once abroad."
Editor of Families in Global Transition�s Website, Writer and Speaker of Expatriate Issues
Robin Pascoe
"...I wish I had this book when I made my first move!"
The Expat Expert, Author of Four Best-Selling Books on Expatriate Life
Jan Fischer Bachman
"A Portable Identity belongs in the personal library of every expat: it is a definite "must-buy"!"
Managing Editor, Foreign Service Lifelines, Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Donna Ayerst
"Unique workbook..to get back that person (yourself) you feel you may have lost in the move."
FLO Publications Coordinator, U.S. Department of State
David R. Shlim
"...this carefully crafted book...gently guides the reader toward a knowledge of herself...to be comfortable in any environment."
M.D., Medical Director, Jackson Hole Travel and Tropical Medicine, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Carol Usher
"The book achieves its objective of providing the means to ...cope, grow and handle moves with grace and joy."
Book Reviewer for Tales from a Small Planet, a Website for Expatriates

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