I started this list a while ago, in response to a post a saw on the TED.com conversations webpage.   I decided to finally publish it since it seems to have withstood the test of time (10 months in queue).  It is a great reminder of what I have taken away from our 7 years as an expatriate family, especially as we start our 8th year!   The list is in no particular order.

1.  The life you are living is better than no life at all.

2.  An open mind leads to many great experiences.

3.  Collecting experiences is more important than collecting things.

4.  Unconditional love is the greatest gift a child gives a parent.  It is also the most important gift a parent can give their child.

5.  Trying new things is one way to avoid boredom.

6.  Busy-ness is not the same as having a fulfilling life.

7.  Taking the road less traveled is often the more interesting path.

8.  We are more similar to each other than different.

9.  The “Golden Rule” withstands the test of time.

10. Life is too short to surround yourself with negativity.

Taking pets along

May 17, 2010

Having family pets makes moving to another country even more complicated. We have moved twice and have taken along family pets each time. Both times there have been various complications. However despite the hassles, it has always been worth it.  Having pets helps when talking to children about the challenges of moving, e.g. leaving friends or well-known areas, or adjusting to a new home. They also provide great comfort. Our house in Shanghai started feeling more like a home when someone gave us their fish tank and 4 tiny fish; and even more so when our cats arrived a few days later. The best part is that pets provide companionship for everyone in the family – even our cats are usually good for some cuddling during the day! They seem to know when someone is feeling a bit down and tend to go and sit with that person. Then again, our golden retriever trained the oldest cat so he has some very dog-like characteristics.

Some people will say that moving pets is not worth it. I think that depends on how attached you are to your pets and vice versa. Our dog was already 12 years old when we moved to Lima; we were concerned that he would not do well physically on the flight. However, our vet’s advice was that he would be worse off if we left him behind. Her advice was worth its weight in gold. He was a great companion during my first months in Lima and adjusted quite well. He was always there beside me like he had been in the US, and it provided some much-needed continuity for the entire family during the early months.

That being said, moving with pets is not easy. Whether or not you use a pet relocation service, glitches happen. When we moved to Lima, the airline canceled the dog’s reservation 48 hours before departure. Many hours, and who knows how many phone calls later, my husband managed to get space on another airline. However, it meant one of us left the country with the kids, and the other one left 24 hours later with the dog. Given my husband viewed the dog as “mine”, he chose to go with the kids. In hindsight, that extra 24 hours that I had in California was necessary but it was very hard watching my family leave without me.

When we moved to China from Peru it was an even more frustrating process. First, the paperwork requirements were never made clear to us because we were using a pet relocation service. Second, it was more complicated because we were moving from one foreign country to another; we couldn’t do it ourselves like we had when moving to Peru. Then H1N1 influenza complicated matters further when a cat in China contracted the virus. Suddenly whatever rules had existed, were suddenly changed! We were already en route via the US, and the cats were awaiting their flight from Lima. There was nothing we could do because we were literally half a world away. Luckily the cats finally arrived, though 2 weeks later than originally anticipated and after nearly one month in a kennel.  The cats still freak out when they see a suitcase appear or if I unpack a moving box!

Finding a vet in a new city can also be challenging, especially when you do not speak the local language. We have come across good ones and bad ones – but that can happen in any city. We almost lost our dog when he developed a bad skin infection. The original vet did not know how to treat it.  These situations are difficult when you are operating in your own country and language; I was at a loss even though we had been in Peru for over 2 years.  I knew something was very wrong, but did not know where else to take him.  Luckily a close friend knew the name of a great vet and he was able to cure our dog.  After that, he was the only vet I trusted even though it meant more time in traffic to get there.

There have been pets we have had to leave behind when moving.  When we moved into our house in Lima, we adopted a huge yellow box turtle which had been left by the previous tenants.  Its diet amused us – cooked chicken, lettuce and hotdogs.  Who knew turtles ate meat – not that they are fast enough to catch it!  I soon found out that they are scavengers and will eat pretty much whatever they come across.  Our turtle would come into the kitchen when he was hungry, usually during Sunday BBQ’s which was always amusing to children and adults!  Unfortunately he was not allowed to move to China with us .  I don’t think the US would have taken him either given the zookeeper’s reaction when I asked her what to feed him during a trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  She looked like she was ready to have me arrested until I explained that we were living in South America.  

Of course, sometimes it is hard to have pets in countries where there is still a lot of poverty. You realize that they truly are a luxury. Feeding and caring for them costs money and seems superfluous. However, I believe pets are important because they help teach children life’s lessons – caring for another creature, dealing with life and death. They have provided companionship and continuity from one place to another. Despite all the hassle and heartbreak, I can’t imagine not taking the pets along!

Cycle of uncertainty

April 25, 2010

Expatriate families deal with significant uncertainty over prolonged periods of time. I’ve decided it comes with the territory. No matter how well you try to manage it, it is always there beneath the surface. It starts when you are first asked to consider moving overseas, and comes in stronger waves when a contract renewal is imminent.

While in Lima – we continually lived with uncertainty. We found that we could generally plan 9 months ahead. While not ideal – I became used to it and generally knew that we would finish a semester at school, which is how we used to measure time – semester by semester. Other families know year to year while others have moved with less than one month’s notice.

As soon as you are asked to move overseas, the uncertainty begins. There are a million questions that come to mind. There are the obvious ones: Where? For how long? Then other ones creep in: What kind of housing is available? Are there decent schools? How will the kids adjust? Will I be able to learn the language? What about pets? Is it safe? How often will we get to see family and friends? What do we do with our current house/apartment/cars? Despite the endless list, I find the first two questions generate the most uncertainty.

Funny enough, the simplest question – how long will you be here is one of the most difficult for many people to answer. Contracts can be extended if things go well, they can be shortened as happened to many people during the global economic crisis. Others can be relocated on very short notice due to security and political issues or due to promotions. I have friends who were transferred to one city and then promoted which required another move within 3 months.

While it is polite when meeting people to ask how long they have been here, or how long are you staying, it really is just an ice breaker. Unless people are short timers – meaning they are 2-3 months from leaving – the answers are always  vague. Most people answer, “well the contract is for x years, but who knows!” I speak from experience – Lima was supposed to be a 12-18 month venture and turned into 4 ½ years! How long we would be there was always on a rolling 9 month basis. I never thought in March 2005 that we would be there through 2009, nor that we would be in China in 2010! I could never have predicted this.

Not knowing how long you will be somewhere can create a lot of stress if you let it. The stress connected with the uncertainty is bigger than many of us realize. It can last for a long time. You generally have a rough idea of how long you are supposed to be in a place. However, I have seen that when you are roughly 10 months away from your “target” end date – the uncertainty begins. This is true for corporate and diplomatic expats. For diplomats, they know their contract period is ending and they start a bid and match process for their next post. That can last several months. For corporate expats, I have met people who are repatriating to the US in 2 months time but still do not know their exact location – as in it could be Texas or Michigan! Others are “supposedly” extending beyond this June, but are still waiting for final contracts. Even people with contracts can be repatriated or transferred on short notice due to business conditions or promotions.

That being said, in spite of the uncertainty, you need to keep living your life. We received some excellent advice when we first moved to Lima in 2005. My husband’s college roommate had been an expatriate for many years at that point. His advice was “to live your life like you will be in Lima for a long time”. His reasoning was that if you viewed it as a short-term option, you would not take advantage of all there was available. We lived our life that way and it was the best thing we did.

We are not facing an imminent transition, however many friends are in the midst of these discussions and decisions. I am continually amazed at how well the majority of families deal with it. I am not saying it is easy, I sense frustration and anxiety in many of the conversations. However, most people prefer to take a positive attitude despite occasional tears and sleepless nights. Listening to them and reflecting on my experience have helped me realize that living with uncertainty is an undercurrent of expatriate living.  While I will not go so far as to say it is “chronic”, there is definitely an ongoing cycle of uncertainty.