As I sit in my house looking at piles of papers and the few remaining unpacked boxes from our move, I think maybe I should jump on the bandwagon and watch a few episodes of Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up. I don’t make New Year resolutions but I am a sucker for the idea of starting over, or pushing “reset” on life as I like to imagine it. I love to open a new notebook and make a new list, to imaging being my best self going forward. The New Year is a perfect time to indulge in the fantasy that every year I can make myself and my life just a little better.
This is also a time of year that many expats (and those considering an overseas move) are contemplating what the next year will bring. Some of you might be waiting to hear about your next assignment. Others might be wondering if this is the right year to “take the plunge” and make an international move. And still others might be contemplating the question “should I stay here or move on?” How can we use the momentum of the New Year to make decisions that are right for us?
In his book When (reviewed in my most recent Expat Issues Book Group), Daniel Pink offers some helpful tips on beginnings that I believe can assist us on our journey. He believes the key to successful beginnings are to “start right”, if needed, “start again” and whenever possible, “start together”.
A quick internet search brings up a variety of articles about how to make a successful international move. But making such a big move is more than figuring out where to live and how to ship our belongings. What are some other ways to make sure we start well?
One of the very important issues to examine when contemplating an international move is your goal or reason for moving. While it might seem obvious to you, each expat has a slightly different motivation for making this big change. Are you joining a partner? Do you want to learn another language/culture? Do you want to advance your career and this is the best way to do it? Do you feel like the move is a choice or a necessity?
The answer to why is important because it can impact where you go and how you approach it. It also provides an important reference point when, in the throws of culture shock or homesickness, you ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”.
Another important way to start right is to examine the fantasies you have about moving. Before my first move to Switzerland, I brought books of poetry to read as I looked out on the Swiss Alps. There was a small part of me that really thought that everything would be perfect as long as I had a beautiful landscape upon which to gaze. Imagine my disappointment when I realized I still yelled at my kids to get ready for school and still bickered with my husband over directions.
It’s important to take an honest look at how we might idealize a new start. As I frequently remind people, living overseas is wonderful and exciting but it is very challenging as well. In his book, Pink recommends we do a “pre-mortem” or take a look at possible obstacles to our goals. While this may seem pessimistic, it is could be an important step in not over-glamourising life in another country.
Some of the hallmark emotions of people who have made frequent international moves are feelings of rootlessness and restlessness. When things are difficult or you feel like you are in a rut, it is easy to imagine that a new location will make everything better. But be cautious about the temptation to move as way to avoid unpleasant feelings, situations or boredom.
If you (or your company) decide that this is the right time to move, remember that each move and posting is different. Use what you have learned in your past transitions, but be careful about minimizing the impact of relocation, no matter how many times you have done it.
Before my family and I moved overseas for the first time, the last thing I felt was connected to a group. Instead it seemed like I was making a crazy leap of faith that left some of my friends and family wondering “why?” I felt like I was leaving groups, not getting connected to new ones.
But it turns out I was wrong. One of the best parts about living overseas is being connected with other people who share my love for new cultures and travel. I have loved building on the idea that internationals are part of a “Third Culture” to which I now belong.
That being said, an international move can be a very lonely and isolating experience. However, there are now many groups where you can connect with other expats, both online and in person. Reach out to these networks and ask people about their experiences. Listen to what they love about their new country and lifestyle and what is difficult as well.
Lastly, try to realistically assess your support groups from home. You might be surprised who thinks your idea to move overseas is fantastic and who warns you against it. When the going gets tough, you will know who might provide support and an empathetic ear and who might (unhelpfully) suggest “Why don’t you just move home?”
To some, it might never feel like the right time to move. To others it might always seem like moving is the answer. Like most things, the answer lies somewhere in between. Read the articles that discuss the practicalities of an international move, reflect on the bigger questions, do your homework but follow your gut. The question of “when?” is ultimately a very personal one but there have been many who have walked this path before you.