11 Things all Expats Should Know about Moving

Moving is hard. Moving abroad sounds even harder. But with the right point of view it doesn’t have to be quite as hard as you think. If we can’t change reality, we can change our thoughts about it. Here, then, are some of these thoughts when it comes to moving your family to distant shores:

1. It takes time.  You’re really not at home in a new place until you’ve hung your pictures. And found an orthodontist. And made your first friends. And accidentally wrecked the trailer of the one friend you’ve barely just met. All of which might very well take the better part of a year, so give it some time.

2. It gets worse before it gets better. Change is hard and unsettling. When I look back on our previous moves, they had some low points that I don’t want to relive. Not necessarily right as we were setting out or even right as we got there, but more like three or four weeks into our new lives, when the full force of how everything has changed hits you and leaves you depressed. But more often than not there are great things waiting for you on the other side, if you can only drag yourself there. Usually that requires keeping an open mind. In all our moves (seven of them, I just counted) we always felt very fortunate to get to live in the places we moved to, once we had actually lived there. The price we had to pay for it was having to leave it all behind. I still say it was worth it every time. 

3. Keep your notes. As I said, I’ve done this seven times. I’ve written seven lists, and I’ve thrown out all seven. Because there is nothing more gratifying when you finally get settled in a new place than throwing out that vile to-do list you’ve come to hate so much, but which of course has all the valuable reminders on it that might come in handy next time. Which is why I’ve now published the mother of all moving checklists on my blog, so that I will forever have my notes with me.

4. The mechanics of moving abroad gets easier with practice, but not the heartbreak. Don’t expect it to get any easier just because you’ve done it before. No move is really the same as the last one, and even if you arm yourself with a handy-dandy list and become a ticking-off-boxes dynamo, you cannot really arm yourself against the heartbreak of leaving a home and friends behind. All you can do is remember that these friends you are now leaving were once the friends you still didn’t know while grieving for the previous group, and that surely a future group of friends is waiting for you already if you are willing to turn your eyes forward.

5. Focus on the good parts.  There is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Each country has some great things going for it, and some pretty bad things too. And it is totally within your power to decide which of these you’re going to focus on. Let me tell you, training your mind to focus on the good ones will make you a happier person. Marvel at those, and enjoy them. Should you be moving to South Africa, you probably shouldn’t focus on crime or bureaucracy, but stick to the great weather, travel, domestic help, sunrises, full-service gas stations, fresh mangoes and Cape berries, and the smiling people. 

cape gooseberries
Just one of the great things South Africa has going for it.

6. Even the bad parts can have their charm. I reflected on this phenomenon when writing a previous post, How to Be a Successful Expat. So you’ve been a good expat and focused on the good parts, and you’ve resisted all attempts to dwell on any inefficiencies in your host country. But now you’re moving away. All of a sudden, the idea that someone will actually call you back when they tell you to; that all the traffic lights are working at any given time; that your trash always disappears according to a well-oiled pickup schedule; and that you never once have to fret over having to cook your dinner without power and/or water – all these scenarios now become so immensely desirable in your mind that when you finally get to a place where they play out just like you imagined, you are inevitably disappointed. “That’s all there is to this?” you might ask. It’s one of the great lessons of expat life. There is only a very thin line between bad and charming.

7. The kids are resilient.
Most of us expats spend inordinate amounts of time worrying over the well-being of our children, wondering if we’ve made the right school choice and how traumatic a move might be at this particular point in their lives. And then we’re surprised that it is our children who can teach us a thing or two about embracing change. Maybe this is true precisely because children have an innate ability to take life as it is and focus on the good parts. They are better than us at seeing the potential, the excitement of the new, making friends, and not mourning the past. Although they don’t talk about their emotions as much, so it’s sometimes hard to tell. I’m sure they do go through a grieving process like everyone else, often without us knowing. But as they usually aren’t the ones making the decisions, they spend a hell of a lot less time second-guessing themselves.In the end, having learned and lived abroad is a huge bonus in any child’s life. Just don’t expect them to thank you for it right as you announce the next move to them.

8. Write about it.
I can trace my obsession with writing back to our first expat assignment in Singapore. There were so many things baffling me day to day that I felt compelled to literally write home about it. Not only will a written record of your adventures abroad make you happy one day in the distant future, the process of writing also goes a long way towards healing. If moving is hard, then writing about it makes it better. No wonder there are so many expat blogs out there. A blog to an expat is like the jelly on a peanut butter sandwich. And there is another benefit to starting a blog: it will force you, or at least nudge you, to go out and explore your new world, so that you can report about it to your readers. Even if your readers are two sets of grandparents and a handful of aunts and uncles. Which gets me to the next point:

9. Do lots of stuff and go exploring.
When you’ve just moved, you have a strong urge to get your house in order and discard all those annoying boxes. Your instinct is to burrow down and peck away at it like a maniac and only emerge to the light of day when it is finally done. At least that’s usually me. Unfortunately, my kids do not share even a shred of my sense of order. They happily wade through a sea of clothes and toys on their way to bed every night, and even if I pile folded laundry knee-high in their doorway in hopes that they might in fact take note and put it away in their closets, they will find a way to carefully step over it for weeks. And they will come to resent your constant pleas for order and will bluntly tell you that “if you hadn’t made us move, we wouldn’t have to clean it all up now.” You can’t deny a certain logic in this argument. Rather than make everybody angry, it’s much better to go out and explore and let the kids see what’s on offer and feel like life in your new place is exciting. Even if it may sometimes be the last thing you want to do. Some of your best memories will come from those first few outings. 

elephant in madikwe game reserve
Go exploring with your kids.

10. Invite people over for dinner. Instead of waiting for others to welcome you to the neighborhood or taking their friendly utterances of “We should have dinner sometime” as an excuse to wait for an invitation, you should be the one doing the inviting. There is no quicker way to get to know people than inviting them into your home. And there is no quicker way to making friends than being able to “select” them from the pool of people you’ve gotten to know, even if that sounds callous. And there is no quicker way to be happy in a new place than to finding friends. The only problem with this strategy is that you do indeed have to somewhat clean up your act and make your home presentable, lest your potential new friends turn away in disgust. You’ll somehow have to balance number 9 with number 10. It helps when you move to a country with abundant domestic help. If not, you’ll have to do like I did and pull a couple of midnight shifts sorting your stuff and tell yourself that you can always sleep another time. Or, even better, don’t have so much stuff in the first place. Which gets me to gratuitous point number 11:

11. Reduce your baggage.
As I said previously in Seven Times and Counting, maybe the most important skill in life is to learn how to get rid of all the baggage you accumulate over the years so that you can get back to that spring in your step from your youth. Sometimes it seems to me that I spent the first half of my life accumulating stuff and that I’m busy spending the second part getting rid of it all again. The older I get, the more it seems like the days when I had nothing were the happiest of all. 

What are your words of expat wisdom?

Share this: