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!


Before having kids, I was never a big fan of “routines”. I was more a fan of spontaneity. Becoming a parent changed all that. I immediately saw how important routines are for my family, as well as for myself. While I still remain flexible, we definitely have daily, weekly and even annual family routines. This has become even more important while living abroad.

When moving to new places, it has been critical to establish routines in order for the family to feel settled. However it is very overwhelming at first because everything is new and different – for all of us. Everyone’s routines are getting reshuffled, at the same time, across all aspects of our lives. Where do we shop for groceries? How do we get to school or work? What after-school activities are available for each child? Where can we workout or play sports? How much homework does each child get and when is it due? Where is the dry cleaner? Where do we get our hair cut? Where do we find health care providers? Throw on top of it operating in a new language and daily life is suddenly quite chaotic and challenging!!!

The good news is that after 3 months, we are establishing new daily and weekly routines. The kids know what to expect at school and are even buddies to newer arrivals! Amazingly while still “new”, they are no longer the “newest” kids in their classes. They have selected new after-school activities along with some old favorites. I am settling into a routine as well, though it has taken longer than I would like. We can get through regular household routines easier and daily life is not as overwhelming. We know which store has the best fruit, and which one carries the kids’ favorite cereal. We know where everyone can get a haircut. That being said, the routines are not completely settled yet, but we are getting there. This phase took much longer when we moved to Lima; perhaps there is a learning curve after moving multiple times!!

No matter how hard we have tried, the routines are never the same from one place to another. In a positive mood, I would say moving is a chance to try new things; in a negative mood, I would say it is a forcing mechanism. For instance, I could not replace my Masters swimming group from California when living in Lima; nor was I willing to ride my bicycle in Lima’s infamous traffic where stop signs are merely recommendations! Therefore I traded one sport for another: triathlons for golf. I am extremely glad I did. While completing triathlons was rewarding, often it was a solitary pursuit. Golf is a more social sport and through it we met many of our close friends in Peru. If we had stuck to our old California routines, we would have missed out on many great memories.

I have also realized that while some aspects of our routines are similar from one place to another, they need to be different. If they are the same, it is too easy to compare “here” with “there”. Continuing on the golf theme, I am the most homesick after playing golf with the local expat league. While I have a great time while playing and everyone is very friendly, it is not the group we grew close to over the last four years. That being said, I will get back out there, because I love the game and it is a great way to meet new people. However, we have realized we cannot replace what we had in Lima and we have found other ways to build a new community of friends here in Shanghai. Luckily there is a strong and very friendly expatriate network so it is not too difficult.

I am relieved that we have established routines in our new environment. While I am still not a fan of rigidity, I can see how everyone seems calmer now that we have a rhythm back in our days. I know that routines keep our family grounded. They are something that we can control when everything else is completely new and different.

How did I choose my username for this blog? Since moving overseas, I have always referred to myself as “the trailing spouse”. However, that username was already taken as it is commonly used in the expat world. In looking for a new “nickname”, I started researching synonyms and quickly realized they were all quite negative, including terms like “drag along”, “tow”, or “haul”. I realized that these words did not appropriately describe who I am!

Was I being dragged to another country against my will? Of course not! I have encouraged my spouse to take these new opportunities, and gladly viewed them as adventures for our family. Though I have had to take a break from my career to do so, more often than not it has been a positive experience. I have done everything in my power to make it a successful and enjoyable experience for my spouse, our children and myself.

I recently heard someone use the phrase “supporting spouse” which I like better but still defines this group relative to their spouse and not as individuals. Yes, we manage the “back office” work that makes the working spouse successful – e.g. the move, getting the children settled, finding the house, the school, the grocery store! In addition, we are the ones who usually learn the language because in many cases because it is a necessity for everyday household management and survival. In most business situations, the working spouse can get by using English and not the local language. However, we also do much more than that.

In talking to other expat spouses, I find many feel this way. Most are not being “hauled” to their new environment and are not just “supporting their spouse”. Many trailing spouses are the ones who volunteer at school, and start-up or support various local charities. Often expat spouses talk about “renewal”, reinventing themselves in their new environments. Personally, I have learned new sports, studied new languages, taken the photography course I have dreamt about for 20 years, and started this blog! I know others who have started new businesses or earned degrees while overseas.

Yes at times I have been homesick, but that comes with the territory. However, I seek friendship and support from those who have been successful and who have learned to adapt and adjust. It is then that the expat network is at its best. Everyone knows what you are going through because they have been through it themselves and are willing to listen, but also to let you know that you will get through it.

Therefore, I have chosen “chameleon” as my username because that is what best describes me at this point. According to one on-line dictionary, a chameleon is “someone who is able to quickly adjust to new circumstances” (1). In my opinion, this describes the type of people who choose to live in a foreign country and make it a positive experience. We are very good at adapting to our surroundings.


(1)    Source for definition: http://www.ninjawords.com