Change, transition, and why it’s hard

The past six months have been an insane season of transition for me. Comically enough, as I’ve been taking up speaking engagements in various countries the number one topic I’ve been engaged to speak on has been – you guessed it – transition. And now, of course, the northern hemisphere is in the throes of transition season – many people are moving on to new locations, and many more are watching them leave.

Transition is everywhere – all around us. But what is transition?

I find it helpful to contrast change and transition. They are related, but different.

Change is an event.

Transition is a process.

Change is an event. It is the moment in time when I go from this to that, here to there. It is when I leave, when my friend leaves me, when I start at a new school or new job, move into a new home. Transition is the process of anticipating and integrating that change.

As I wrote in Misunderstood:

Change is physical – a new location, a person who is physically absent. Transition is the process of handling the emotional fallout of physical changes

Change

Change is concrete. We can see it happen. We know what it is. But we still often underestimate the full impact of a change. One change is usually made up of a series of smaller changes. Perhaps hundreds of changes! And a big change, like moving locations, has multiple changes involved, each of which is made up of smaller changes.

For example, if I move to a new country, I experience a series of changes:

  • A new house
  • A new school/workplace
  • A new culture, and possibly a new language
  • A new environment
  • A new set of friends/acquaintances
  • A new way of living life

But each of these big changes is made up of a lot of smaller changes. For example, I often ask students to list the changes that are part of starting at a new school. They include:

  • How to get there – walk? ride a bike? bus? parent drop off?
  • What to wear – is there a uniform? what type?
  • What to eat – is lunch provided? do I bring my own?
  • Friends – the people you spend your whole day with
  • Environment – where do I play/hang out?
  • School layout – no longer familiar
  • Teaching style
  • Behaviour expectations
  • Language may be different, even it’s a different dialect of the same language (UK English vs American English, Argentine Spanish vs Colombian Spanish, etc.)

When I start at a new school, I am not experiencing one change – I am processing many different pieces of the new situation which are different. The same goes for a new house, a new neighbourhood, a new job, a new relationship – a new anything, really!

Transition

Transition is the process of adapting to change. A period of transition begins as soon as I know a change is coming. As soon as I learn that I’ll be changing schools, or as soon as my friend tells me she’s moving away – at that point my transition has begun. This means some transitions begin a long time before the change occurs. Sometimes a transition can actually begin AFTER a change, because I may not learn the change has happened until after the fact.

A period of transition continues until I am accustomed to and comfortable with my post-change life – when I have integrated those changes and my situation changes from “new” to “normal”.

As you might imagine, sometimes this can take a long, long time.

One of the problems many of us have with transition is we don’t accept how long the process can take. Adjusting to a new normal takes a lot of time, and in that period of transition life is a bit more difficult. Berating myself for not keeping up, pushing myself to “get over it”, or thinking there’s something wrong with me, only makes things harder.

Losing our automatics

One important unseen change that goes with any big change is that all the automatics are erased. In a new situation I don’t automatically know where to go, what to do, who to talk to, how to get things done. Everything I do requires deliberate thought and conscious effort.

Want to get dinner? Okay. How?

Want to cook? Okay. Where do you buy groceries in your new location? Are the same groceries available, or do you need to adapt? Do you have the language and currency required to buy groceries? Is the system of collecting and paying for groceries different to what you’re used to? Do you have the same cooking equipment avaialable, or do you need to learn to use a different kitchen? After sorting all this out, do you still have the energy to cook??

Want to order in? Okay. Who delivers in your new location? Is it food you’re familiar with, or will you need some guidance to order effectively? Do they use a language (and dialect) you’re familiar with? Do they require the use of apps or online payment – and do you have access to these? If they require cash on delivery – do you have enough local currency?

Want to go out to eat? Okay. Do you know any places to eat? Are they walking distance? Will you be comfortable walking (weather/safety/health)? If not, do you have transport? Then when you’re there you have all the same questions – familiarity, language, payment. ..

This is why a period of transition can be so very tiring.

Not everything will be this complicated – but they can be. If you move to a place where things are done very differently to the way you’re used to, almost everything can be this hard. Life in these big transitional phases is exhausting!

It takes much more time and mental energy to get simple things done, because they aren’t simple any more – and it will take time to learn the new ways to do things, and for basic tasks to become familiar and, eventually, simple once more.

Something I often struggle with during a period of transition is learning my new calming strategies – what will help me find peace, relax, enjoy life. The things I can do in Sydney, for example, are very different to the things I can do in Beijing. Many of the old options simply aren’t available to me any more – I have to find new ones. More than that, I have to create new ones. This is can be difficult and tiring and, more importantly, time consuming. I might try something, realise it doesn’t work, and have to start again trying something new.

So what do we do?

Next week I’ll share my Six Tips for a Good Transition. The sneak peek, however, is simply to be kind to yourself. Work to adapt to change, but be patient with the process.
Acknowledge that transition is hard, and takes time, and be okay with not being at your best for a while – and probably for longer than you’d like!

My visit to the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam

I spent last week working with students, parents and staff at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I really enjoyed my time there. I was warmly welcomed and had interesting conversations with a lot of people.

I appreciated the school’s efforts to farewell each student who leaves, and welcome new students. The primary school has boards with photos of each student arriving and leaving, along with a little information. I loved seeing children’s handwritten notes describing what they would miss. I had conversations with teachers who described different cross cultural issues that arise and ways they are trying to understand and address the individual students involved. I spent time with librarians working hard to make diverse and helpful resources available for children of all ages. I talked with parents who see some of the difficulties that come with the international life their children experience, and are trying hard to understand and support their kids the best they can.

I particularly enjoyed spending an hour with the Tanzanian teachers aides at the primary school. We talked about culture, cross cultural issues, and how this works in a classroom setting. They offered great insights into the cultural differences they notice in the international school setting, and shared stories of ways they have seen young children wrestle with this. I was able to encourage in them the benefit their different cross cultural insights bring to a cross cultural classroom.

This is one of the things I love best about what I do. I love coming alongside – providing encouragement and resources to parents and teachers who are doing their best and trying to do better. I hope to offer comfort abc reassurance to parents who feel weighed down by guilt that they aren’t getting it right, or that they have burdened their children with the negative aspects of international life. Yes, there are difficulties, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad! As children grow and learn to integrate their experiences, to appreciate the good without ignoring the bad, the vast majority sure thankful for what they gained through a less ordinary upbringing.

I also love spending time with young CCKs – hearing their stories and giving them tools for the journey they’re on. I always feel the weight of their stories – what a privilege it is when a young person shares with me something that matters to them.

I spent time with all the grade 4-10 students at IST, each group doing one of three workshops I offer on storytelling, transition, and grief. In each group, through different questions, I was privileged to hear dozens of stories of these young people’s experiences with change, loss, and identity. Different groups reacted strongly to different prompts. One 8th grade group had a long discussion (almost a debate, back and forth) or whether it’s harder to say goodbye or say hello. Lots of groups really engaged with the question: “have you ever been unable to say goodbye to someone?” Stories poured out of them – about friends leaving without warning, of relatives or close family friends passing away in a different country, of thinking they had more time. One 5th grader spoke about a friend who left in kindergarten and how he never found out what happened.

These stories mark our kids. The regular loss of friends is part of the pattern of life they learn through childhood.

Rainbows and rivers by 7th grade students

Rainbows and rivers by 7th grade students

Hearing pieces of their stories through drawings and poems was another highlight. They brought different countries and languages and loves together into colourful rainbows, unique rivers, and evocative poetry. I’m always surprised at the depth of insight that can come from seemingly simple exercises. It was a delight to see these windows into their experiences. To hear a single poem with different verses written in different languages – the appropriate language for each place that is part of “home”. To watch children read with delight a poem in a mother tongue they rarely get to share with their classmates – and then watch them receive a warm round of applause. No one understood the words, but they all recognised their significance.

Rainbows and hearts by 4th grade students

Rainbows and hearts by 4th grade students

As I said, I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’m still travelling and visiting schools, so stay tuned for more thoughts after I’m back in Beijing!