Recently as I sat on a bus headed out of Shanghai and into the Chinese countryside, I found myself contemplating the effect that our surroundings have on our state of mind. Slowly large buildings gave way to smaller buildings and then finally to fields, houses and the occasional factory. I can't say it's as idyllic as it may sound - anyone who's been just outside a Chinese city can attest that it's not all green grass and flowers. There's a lot of trash, traffic and construction mixed in. But it does feel different from being in the city center. Maybe it’s all the open sky or maybe it’s simply the lack of very much else.The air is a tiny bit fresher, there's plenty of trees and there's just more space to clear ones head.
I can remember when I used to live on 14th street by Union Square in Manhattan I felt crowded down to my very brain cells. It’s one of the densest areas of the city and while there were so many things I loved about it, I often found it was difficult to totally unwind after work. The urban area where I live now isn't quite so densely populated but I do still sometimes find I need a break from the crowds and noise. Changing one’s scenery for a short while is one flavor of the “relocation cure” - another is to just completely pack up and go.
This second type is nothing new for expats. In fact, among people living abroad the relocation cure has all too often been sought as a solution to problems. "If things aren't working out here, I can move somewhere else and maybe it will all be better there." More than one expat living in China no doubt came here out of a desire to get away from somewhere else. This kind of thinking usually sets off alarm bells for counselors - we may view it as escapist or an oversimplification of how one's problems can be solved. After all, wherever you go, there you are. As counselors we might have the tendency to encourage people to work on their thinking and change things that way. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing - naturally there’s a huge amount to be gained from working on oneself in that way.
For example, when I read "Eat Pray Love" several years ago, I have to admit that I felt skeptical about how traveling for a year would really create lasting change for the author. Wouldn’t all of her difficulties around her divorce still be there when she returned? She seemed to share this concern as she had a significant amount of anxiety about embarking on the trip. However as the story went on, I could see her point. Getting a change of scene, meeting very different people, having a slew of new experiences did in the end help her move beyond what she'd been through before in a way that staying in one place couldn't seem to reach.
In my own moves overseas, I’ve come to realize personally that while there is truth to the concept that whatever emotional "stuff" we have going on will eventually catch up with us in a new place, that doesn't mean there isn't also value in a change of scene. For some people a change in location can mean leaving behind a stressful work environment, social groups that may have a negative influence or relatives who don't respect boundaries very well. Or for others, they aren't necessarily seeking to leave behind something negative but rather have the desire to move towards something positive - a move can bring a lot of creative and motivational stimuli.
I'm aware of my personal bias in this area, having found opportunities to thrive in China, in my work and in my relationships. I really don't believe that I would have seen the level of personal growth that I've experienced here if I had stayed in New York. This is partly because my curiosity and love of learning are so constantly stimulated here and partly because I’ve found ways to work with and around whatever challenges may come up.
This isn't to say that I would advocate people picking up their lives and moving whenever they feel a bit stuck. We can also experience a change in perspective from going to a new place for a few weeks or even just a few days. It seems that we really do learn something from being in new environments.
And of course sometimes we also have very real responsibilities that keep us from changing scene or we may realize that we've bumped up against an important challenge emotionally - one that we really need to sit with and see it through rather than just trying to leave it behind. In that case, we genuinely do need to look for new ways to approach things right where we are now. I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the relocation cure, as with so many other things in life, one size does not fit all. For ourselves personally as well as when working with our clients, its a solution that we have to weigh up very carefully each time.
Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here: www.balancedheartcounseling.com