As Memorial Day and the beginning of summer arrive in the US, it is a bittersweet time in “ExpatWorld”.   The upcoming end of the school year is always a time of transition in the expat world.   The kids (and parents) are excited about another school year ending, however it is also the time when many families repatriate or move on to their new posts.   Needless to say, this is a very emotional time.

It is amazing how quickly close friendships form when in a foreign country.  And no matter how many times we go through it – the emotions and pain are just as strong each and every time.   It also seems to affect us as a family – I am not sure why in expat life, but we seem to bond with other families more than with individuals.  Perhaps because in the expat network – your friends become your surrogate family – pseudo aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces & nephews.  You look after like your own and vice versa.  An open door policy seems to be the norm.   In Peru, it was “mi casa es su casa”!

My kids are now at an age where they recognize what is about to happen.  My daughter’s best friend is moving back to the US — needless to say there have been lots of tears in our house for several weeks.   And not just hers!   Whenever I think about the two of them being halfway across the globe from each other, it breaks my heart.  Never mind that we used to live a stone’s throw from each other and have had countless BBQs that lasted well into the night with lots of wine and laughter.

My son is also losing two close friends — one we’ve known about for months, one we just found out about 2 weeks ago.  That is also expat life – sometimes you have a long-time to prepare for someone’s departure, other times it is quite quick.   Not really sure which is better or worse — kind of like pulling off a band-aid — the pain in the same — just whether you prefer it quick or drawn out.

Fortunately we have today’s internet and social media tools.  My kids are whizzes at Skype, Facetime and email.   (What about Facebook? — well we live in China.  Enough said.)    As for me – I remind the kids that my husband and I are often friend’s with their friends’ parents, which means we like to visit them in either their exotic locales or when back in the US.  Via these vacations/visits, the kids have realized the benefit of having a global network — it is always better to have the inside scoop when visiting a new place!

As for me — I am also losing one of my dearest friends in Shanghai – she took me and my family under her wing when we arrived.  She has always been there when I needed a shoulder to cry on, or a stiff drink at the end of a long day or week.   She helped get me back on track with my fitness regimen when I had strayed.   She has loved my kids as if they were her own.  You can’t ask for much more than that.  I know we will cross paths again and again and again.

To close, I want to share an Irish Blessing with those who are on the move in the coming weeks as well as with all my expat friends who are flung across the globe:

An Irish Blessing
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.
Author unknown
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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!