When I learned I was moving abroad to the Philippines with two young kids (ages 5 years and 7 months when we moved), my first concern was for their transition and comfort. We had moved often in the States, so we did not have lifelong friends that they were leaving, but we were leaving two sets of grandparents and family. Also, we were moving into a furnished apartment, so we were leaving familiar surroundings. How was I going to make this transition the easiest on them?
Each child gave me different concerns. For the 5-year-old, I was worried about how he was going to make friends, that his toys were not going to be the same, that we weren’t going to have the same books, or food, or anything that felt even remotely recognizable to his small self. The baby didn’t need all that, but how was I going to find the diapers, baby food, formula, and creature comforts in a city that wasn’t even on my radar a few months before?
Which leads me to my first piece of advice: Pack light.
My husband would laugh at this because this is exactly what I did not do. My air shipment included mostly toys; my sea shipment included a crib and a glider; my packed luggage included enough formula, snacks, and clothes for the kids to last at least a couple of months. As we boarded the plane, we had three suitcases apiece, a backpack for me, a backpack for my son, a stuffed diaper bag for my daughter, and an umbrella stroller. I estimate that the luggage weighed twice as much as the three of us put together, all with the intent of making the transition easier.
But at the end of the day, most of it was not necessary for them, short term or long term. On the plane, the kids slept and watched videos. The 5-year-old played iPad – at the time still a novelty to him, how quaint – and the baby was happy with the Happy Meal toys we amassed along the way. We forget this as traveling Americans, but the international airline served us more food on even short flights than we could eat. Longer term, the kids outgrew clothes and toys faster than we could unpack them. We found diapers in Asia too. And even (gasp!) kid-friendly food.
Beyond the physical, I found that I could leave a lot of intangibles behind, too. “Everybody speaks English” is becoming and more true; the hours of Duolingo could have been better spent. I had read up about what “the” things to do in the Philippines were; I found few of them relevant to my expat life, and I never made it to some of the most visited touristy spots. I also had a lot of expectations about how my Philippines life would be. Granted, some advance planning is helpful for the first few days or even weeks. Beyond that, bringing too many preconceived ideas with you might stand in the way of the opportunities that actually living in the host country can bring.
And above all, the worries that I had about navigating life in a completely new environment should have stayed at home. Like many expats, I am blessed with a very loving extended family to whom the international life makes absolutely no sense. Maybe because they did all the worrying for me, I didn’t really need to think up my own beforehand; and for that I am grateful. It really is a matter of perspective. It’s true, every day living in a new country brings new challenges. But, every day brings new adventures.
Pack light. There will be things to get where you are going; people raise kids there, too. And there’s a reason you are moving internationally. You aren’t supposed to have all the comforts of home. It will be easier to truly experience this new adventure with a lighter load and a lighter heart.
Julie Cromer Young is an international trailing spouse who also happens to be a successful professor, lawyer, consultant, and writer. Also, a current member of the U.S. diplomatic community. Julie is navigating the world with her family and cat in tow.