I am Arlene Amitirigala. Writer, speaker, change navigator, wife, mother, Jamaican woman embracing lessons in leadership, life, and love.
Welcome. I created this space to share my experiences of life on the move, living through change and the inevitable lessons along the journey. What it’s like to move when you are a teen, a young adult, a parent? I’ll share what makes it different as we peer through these various lenses, how to prepare for an international move, and how to adjust when you’ve landed. But first, here’s my story in a nutshell and one of my greatest beliefs.
So who am I? The first thing that I will tell you is that I am a proud Jamaican.
I was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica. I was orphaned at a very young age so my brother and I grew up with our paternal Grandparents. They provided a loving home and everything that we needed but… here is the thing…my Grandfather was born in 1899 so he was OLD School. He was also pretty advanced in age by the time we were growing up with him so there was a lot of discipline. Children were seen and not heard. A woman’s place is in the home. Education came first.
Grandpa also had very firm ideas about what boys were allowed to do versus girls. I was envious on Saturdays when my Grandfather would take my brother off into the countryside with him. But little girls stayed home …so I stayed home with my grandmother busying myself reading, helping with housework, or playing with my bestfriend next door.
We lived on a cul-de-sac and I remember during summer holidays when all our friends were playing on the avenue, racing up and down the street, my brother Arizona and I were inside the house writing compositions and doing arithmetic until noon when we would have lunch. Only after that were we free to play.
I went to the Immaculate Conception High School – the top all-girls’ high school in Jamaica. It was a Catholic school and those nuns ruled with an iron fist. Girls didn’t run, we didn’t raise our voices, we crossed our legs at the ankles, we sat up straight. And we were guilty. Always guilty of some wrongdoing.
My next stage of growing up was pretty dramatic.
My Grandmother died, my Grandfather fell ill and my brother and I had to leave Jamaica to live with my aunt who had adopted us. The only thing is that she lived in Santiago, Chile! She worked with the United Nations and was stationed there. The first morning we got on the school bus to head up to Nido, the American International School, I sat in between a South African and an Israeli and answered questions from both left and right. It took some time getting over the culture shock.
I was struck by the beauty of Chile – lush in the South, deserts in the North and the majesty of the Andes mountains. I also realized swiftly that there weren’t many people of my hue. Sometimes I would be walking on the street and cars would slow down as people stared. Or if close enough, they would take pictures of me or touch my skin and my hair.
The best part of Chile and that International School was the friends that I made. But just when I had settled in and was having a great time, I was wrenched away from those friends. My aunt had been reassigned to Geneva, Switzerland. I was an angry teenager. “Who goes to live in Switzerland?” I raged in my mind. “Can’t you get assigned to New York?”
I grew up a lot in those two years in Switzerland. Teen years are tough years. You want to be like others. You want to fit in. You aren’t sure of yourself. You aren’t even sure of what you believe.
And good things have happened to me in abundance throughout my life so I never dwell on misfortune. I went back to Jamaica after I finished high school in Switzerland and I did my undergraduate degree at the University of the West Indies in Journalism & Spanish. I worked as a marketing executive promoting investment in Jamaica and then I decided to go back to Europe to get my Masters degree at a prestigious US university with an overseas programme.
I went to Belgium on my own dime. My money ran out very quickly and I dropped out of the expensive Masters programme in Communication. I was despondent, I felt defeated. I was ready to move back to Jamaica. Instead I switched gears and enrolled in a Belgian University which was more affordable. Meanwhile, the Jamaican Ambassador to Belgium offered me a job as an Assistant to the First Secretary in the Embassy. That’s how I paid my rent and my tuition fees while gaining an understanding of the field of diplomacy.
I lived and worked and studied in Belgium for three years. And I travelled to various cities during my holidays. When I graduated a friend tried to convince me to stay…she said, “if you stay for two more years you can apply for citizenship.” I didn’t think twice, I started planning to go back home. She said, “the economy is bad, there are no jobs there”. I said, “I have a country to help build, I am going back to Jamaica.”
When I landed my aunt came to pick me up from the airport. We drove into that familiar driveway, it was a hot and sunny day and I was happy to be home. We walked through the door and the telephone rang. The call was for me and it was for a job interview. I had three interviews within the first week of being home and I started working two weeks later.
I kept on affirming that good things are meant to happen to me.
And they continued to happen. A year after returning home I started dating a wonderful man who became my husband. He gave me a long Sri Lankan last name, a beautiful daughter and persuaded me to move to the United States of America while I was pregnant with our son…in the middle of a recession. I was distraught. Then I shook myself off, found myself a part-time job producing a TV show and later a part-time retail job so I could contribute to taking care of our family (there is no shame in honest labour).
A friend introduced me to the Regional HR Director for Diageo Latin America & Caribbean in Miami. Six months later I had a foot in the door. Eleven amazing years and a fantastic career at a global company including a three and a half year assignment in London was more than I could have asked for. Then along came Covid with fresh challenges and lots of personal upheaval.
In July 2020 I moved to Toronto, Canada, making it the seventh country I have lived in, not counting multiple moves within each place. Some days I feel like a nomad clutching to any artefact from my childhood that has made the move with me, other days I feel like a perennial tourist, perpetually immersed in new cultures and unearthing new treasures in each city. It is exciting in one moment and both terrifying and exhausting in the next.
But no matter what challenges may lie ahead, I will keep on believing that good things are meant to happen to me and I know that they will.