Pu Yi was the last emperor of China. During his reign, he saw everything from controversial politics, Communist take-overs, war crimes, and eventually the fall of his own empire. Pu Yi went from riches to poverty and even spent time in jail. In his autobiography, From Emperor to Citizen, Pu Yi tells the tale of remolding all of his beliefs, relinquishing his airs of personal importance, and beginning to live his life as a normal citizen.
Living abroad can be a pretty big eye-opening experience for viewing your own “value” and behaviors associated with personal importance. Growing up as a spoiled American and transitioning into a second or third-world experience has been humbling, to say the least. Having gone through transformations in how I see myself, and how I see the world, I’d like to share some of these thoughts with you.
Growing up in America, I was taught to have certain values. I grew up in a predominantly successful environment where most people were outgoing, talkative, confident, intelligent, and in most cases quite important. Because of this upbringing, I learned that I needed to portray myself this way in order to succeed. Most conversations in the U.S. begin by “What do you do for work? / Where do you live? / Where do you spend your free time?”
All of these questions are then answered in a confident manor sounding quite intelligent, important, and so that invariably, people can judge you on two things: are you successful and do you know what you are doing with your life?
When I decided to live abroad, none of these things became important. No one cared if I went to grad school, had a business, or had been around the world. Everyone was down to a backpack, more or less, and the playing field was leveled. But, interestingly, the topics of stature or success rarely came up. In fact, if they did, it was more of a side topic after you had known someone for a long time.
The value had shifted from “Are you successful” to “Are you enjoying your life“.
Observing the Expats
Sometimes, a “conversation take-over” occurs. Someone has a relapse of their prior life and they need to suddenly feel important. These behaviors, which I had come to accept as the norm at home, are ridiculously irritating here, and I can now see the comedic plea for attention that they are begging for. Usually, the conversation intruder is begging for something, like one of these:
Arrogance – “I’m so Smart”, “Tell me I’m So Smart!”
Attention – “Look at ME”, “Look what I have done!”
Approval – “I’m SO right”, “My way of living is So Right!”
Sometimes the intruder is unsuccessful in getting what they want, so they become:
Loud! – “I can Talk Louder!”, “My Story is Better!”
Self-esteem vs. Self Importance
The funny thing that I’ve realized through observing this, and going through the transformation myself, is this: The more comfortable you are with yourself, the less you have to prove.
When Pu Yi was in jail, he had trouble adapting to ordinary life. One day, another prisoner (which later he described as one of his greatest teachers) told him this:
“The Second World War turned you from an emperor into a prisoner. At present there is a great battle going on in your mind, a battle to turn an emperor into an ordinary worker. You’ve already learnt something about what an emperor really is, but this battle is not yet over, and you still don’t think of yourself as the equal of others. You must get a better understanding of yourself.”
In my opinion, humbling myself and considering myself a bit less important is one of the best things I’ve ever done. If I look back, most of my strife I created in my world was because I thought I “deserved” something. I deserved more money, to be treated better, to be acknowledged as some important person, for whatever reason. I’ve since realized, I’m actually not important. I have no need to “be right, look successful, or seem important”. To me what has changed is I am happy, and I’m comfortable in my own skin, and if I want something more, I know I need to work for it. Another thing I learned was this:
I don’t need to act successful, or like I’ve got it all figured out.
From Emperor to Citizen
Sometimes when I chat with other people, I still want to resort to sounding like I have everything all figured out. But, when I catch myself, I try to remind myself (and them) that the truth is this: Nobody has it all figured out. I have ideas of how I want to live, and who I want to be, and I’m doing my best to follow my own heart. When I do this the reality is that I’m happy.
By being real, flawed, and unimportant, there is a lot less stress involved! I no longer have the anxiety that I have to “keep it all together” or put on airs to uphold a level of prestige or standing.
In fact, I’ve found that by making myself more vulnerable and sharing my pitfalls, disasters, and mistakes, I’ve significantly deepened my relationships with others. It’s also helped me to improve my relationship with myself. I’m now allowing myself to make more mistakes, get better slowly, and get more focused on what I really want. And I’m finding that without any pretense, I can be who I really am – just a regular citizen.