"Mom says there is no way she is ever doing this again," seven-year-old Lilly announced to her father after stepping off the Dragon Air flight from Hong Kong to Beijing.
"Hi, dear." That was all I could manage to mutter. My resentment and exhaustion combined to give me a kind of distorted look of despair. "We made it." Barely.
My daughter was confirming a theme I had mentioned too many times to my children during the marathon of flying we had just survived over the previous three days. ("Remember I said this," I ranted. "I'm never doing this alone again. I must have been crazy to agree to this!") My husband had headed out to Beijing two weeks ahead of his "dependents." I had chosen to remain behind in Canada, ensconced at a rented cottage, absorbing and savouring a few extra weeks of Canadian summer culture. It had been marvellous and therapeutic after a stressful year in Taipei. In Canada, we could be like the party people in the beer commercials, except without the beer: the last to leave the beach, the compulsive gas barbeque users, the credit card abusers.
Arriving at Beijing's then sleepy and less than upscale airport, especially after Hong Kong's old, crazily frenetic Kai Tak (the airport old-timers wax poetic over because you could literally reach out and touch the laundry hanging off an apartment building in Kowloon), I was not a pretty sight. I was a woman who had just flown halfway around the world, on non-stop flights of twelve hours or more, with two young children, too much luggage, and too little mental energy to absorb yet another change in housing…..
You Made It!
At last, after months of taking care of the endless details of an international move (which in the real world would qualify you for a job as a chief executive officer of a major corporation), you are now about to tackle the challenge of settling into a new city, a new culture, new living quarters, a new life.
The arrival period will make demands on your physical and emotional stamina that will rival your pre-departure hysteria and can sometimes push your endurance to the wall. You may not be smiling upon arrival, but there truly will be more smiles in the future. Honestly.
No matter how many times you move overseas, no matter how prepared you are to face those initial feelings of temporary limbo, regardless of developed or developing setting, the first few weeks in your new environment will be disorienting until you find you and your family's new life rhythm and routine. The good news is that like any other phase in your life, the transition has a beginning, middle, and an end.
To be aware of what faces you, once you step off that airplane, will go a long way towards helping you to cope not only with the many change in your life, but also to see them as part and parcel of the overseas adventure you will be bragging about to your friends back home in the annual Christmas letter. Today's trauma will be tomorrow's humorous dinner party anecdote.
Don't be so hard on yourself
There can be no perfect score in clearing all the emotional hurdles that will lie in your path when you move abroad, so go easy on yourself. Especially at the beginning, you and your family are dealing with a lot of anxiety and strain. Perfect behaviour, whether it is table manners or sensitivity, just cannot always be delivered. Likewise, do not get upset over your weight, your hair, or your clothes. Worrying about them can make your life miserable if they blow up on you.
Your environment may also not live up to your expectations if you set the bar too high. Your new home will not be like the home and country you left, so the sooner you start accepting the changes in the way you live, the better off you will be. Learn to substitute local products for the ones you preferred at home; find new areas of interest and new friends to replace the ones you left behind; stop yourself from making constant comparisons between old and new—schools, housing, everything, in fact—which could ruin your new life for you.
You have moved physically, and the sooner you move mentally too, the better you will feel. It is completely counterproductive, to say nothing of a waste of a good overseas posting, to spend all your time recreating your old environment. Remember this message I deliver to all of my audiences on all my speaking tours: It is a privilege to live abroad. But even living a privileged life does not mean you are not allowed to have challenges. How long you allow yourself to dwell on them is the real test of character.
You will get settled eventually
It will not happen overnight, but gradually street corners, shops, even traffic will become familiar to you and "back home" will become thoughts you take out and enjoy occasionally, like a family photo album. Your phone will start ringing again, your calendar will be filled, and you will find yourself out for an evening with good friends you suddenly realize you have known for less than two months.
You may not believe it, but it will happen. Your shipment will arrive, your home will assume a more cluttered air, your children will be out with friends, you may even get used to hot and spicy food, plain boiled food, or lots of fried food, depending on which part of the world you are in. The arrival period that seemed so endless, like all those flights it took you to get there, will be over so that finally you can get on with the adventure of life abroad.