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The Real Stages of Moving Abroad

30 Aug 2015 8:51 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)


If you have done any research on culture shock, you likely know about the noted four stages: Elation, Resistance, Transformation and Integration (also sometimes called Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery).

There are also noted and recognized stages of transition back into your home country (or your passport country, whichever situation you find yourself in). Those stages are Settled, Unsettled, Chaos, Resettling, Settled.


Imagine standing on a very solid road, with firm footing underneath you. You have a warm cup of tea in your hand, and in the other, the arm of a loved one. This is SETTLED. It is your current state, comfortable and content.  Ahead of you is a bridge and you can clearly see a storm brewing in the middle of that bridge.


Watercolor, Mia Hattaway

As you set down your tea, and begin to cross the bridge towards the storm, you can see the sunshine and firm road behind you … and the sharp, shocking lightning flashes ahead. As you progress towards the storm (UNSETTLED), the bridge begins to sway. Nothing is where you remember leaving it and everything feels out of reach.

Right in the middle of the bridge, where there is no sure footing, the climate around you is dark, rumbling and gray, this is CHAOS. Gone is the feeling of contentedness and you’re not sure whether it feels safer to turn around or forge ahead.

BUT soon after chaos comes RESETTLING. You’ve stepped off of the swaying bridge and the lightning has diminished to almost non-existent. You’ve likely landed in your new home and while you can still very much feel the after-effects of the chaos brewing behind you, you can see the rainbow stretching over the expanse of the bridge you’ve just crossed.

Slowly, but surely you regain your steadfast footing and cross onto flat and strong land again. SETTLED!

Doesn’t that sound (while a bit daunting in the beginning) relatively surmountable? It’s all fine and good and is quite a nice description of how it sometimes feels to move (whether abroad for the first time, relocating as an experienced expat or returning home). However, I believe there should also be an acknowledged set of stages that pertain to the moving process as a whole!   

Based on our personal experience (as well as the collected input from several well-traveled friends), here are the “Real Stages” of moving abroad:

Decision-Making

    You and your spouse or partner (or just you possibly) know there is a change brewing. 

    You spend what feels like every waking moment poring over the details and options.

    Most likely you cannot talk to anyone about this, so your ability to process is limited.

    There will be stress in your home, as you can also NOT let your children become aware of the potential move, as it would completely disrupt their world.

Waiting

    You’ve made your decision, and now it’s time to wait for the formal offer, or perhaps time to wait for the approval process for your relocation package.

    You still cannot tell anyone and you’re on hold still with telling your children.

    The stress in your home will multiply because at this point, you begin to second-guess your choice and decision.

    Your children, friends and family cannot figure out why you seem to have something bothering you, yet you can’t share the reasoning behind it.

    You start to disassociate with those around you because you are subconsciously (or consciously) starting to disconnect and move on.

    You’re in a complete state of limbo, you can’t book anything, you can’t make forward plans or holidays, you don’t know whether to re-register your kids (if you need to) at school, your gym membership is about to expire, your car registration is due, as is your mobile phone contract, you don’t want to commit to anything that will lock you into a new contract or unnecessary expense if you do end up moving.  You know there’s tons of things you could be doing in readiness for the potential move but you can’t so you’re chomping at the bit and can’t do a thing … except … the limbo!

Processing/Telling

    Perhaps the most difficult phase of the whole game. Telling your children can either be a refreshing load off of your shoulders or a very emotional experience.

    When you begin to tell your friends, expect that you are likely excited about the move and they will be sad to see you go.

    Telling your family is extremely difficult, especially with grandparents and close family members who feel you are tearing the children away from them.

Organizing/Planning

    Let the hard work begin! Whether you need to sort out schools for your children, find a home, sort out insurance or simply vaccinations, it can be confusing, exhausting, tiring, thrilling, painful.

Purging/Packing

    This (for me anyway) starts out being a really fun part of the process!  It’s spring cleaning on steroids and often I start out gung ho. Several weeks later however, I found my motivation waning.

    You will use several different colors of sticky notes to designate whether a specific item goes in the air shipment, the sea shipment or into suitcases.

    You will also invest in several packages of black trash bags.  NOT clear, black! When you discover loads of things that you can recycle to a new family, the black bags ensure that your children won’t remove those items, while declaring “You’re not getting rid of THIS are you?”

    If you’re experienced at this whole moving gig, your purging requirement becomes less and less as you go, however your treasures begin to accumulate. The gorgeous prayer altar from Singapore, the bamboo vase from Thailand and who can rival the camel cart coffee table from India.

    Deciding what to put in storage, what to give away, not to mention what to do with the reality that once you’ve relocated more than once, you get bitten by the “sentiment bug” – that inkling inside that ceases from allowing you to get too close to anything of sentimental value so that you don’t have to purge or pack it in the future.

    Sue brought this to mind: The first time the movers came in, I was so stoked about their efficiency. The second time not so much and by the last time we moved/unpacked, I was downright irritable about their presence, not to mention the HORRIBLE sound of packing tape.

The Mattress Stage

    This is when likely, your spouse has left for the new country and you are sleeping on mattresses.

    The packers come and in a whirlwind like effort, completely decimate everything that you thought was your home, relegate it to hundreds of boxes and leave you with a cheery “see ya tomorrow when we load up!”

    Kiddos are missing their daddy/mama and the spouse left behind is exhausted, while the spouse who has already moved is second-guessing this decision and missing home.

Saying Goodbye

     Painful goodbyes to humans and animals alike.

The Landing

    Wide-eyed, jet-lagged and a bit shell shocked, you land in your new country

    Depending on where you’ve landed, this can be a relatively smooth landing, or it can be

The Slump / Crash

    Often the rush and hype of moving overseas bitterly overshadows the realization that you might not be as prepared for this move as you thought.

    You are EXHAUSTED.

    You’ve managed to go from a bazillion things, goodbye parties and other engagements, and then BAM, you have no friends, nothing on your calendar. It’s discomforting, this quiet, this initial lack of to-do-lists, your friends are likely asleep while you’re awake so you can’t even call anyone!  

    And, then there’s the illness….moving to your new country means new germs for everyone AND it can take a long time to build up your immunity. We spent a good bit of time with nebulizers (our new best friends in Delhi), with home doctor visits because of Delhi Belly and the like and let’s not even discuss Chikungunya (which I haven’t blogged about yet in all of its glory).

Making New Friends

    This is easier said than done depending on your location, but regardless of the ease or difficulty, this is both a stressful and lovely piece of the puzzle

    The need for immediate friends is fulfilled by the ease of finding some like-minded spirits. This might be new relationships based simply on the stamps in your passport, or the ages of your children or even your choice of drink at the bar that night. 

Finding Your Way

    Whether it is part-time work, volunteering, time at school or exploring your city, this is where it all comes together. You are flourishing and enjoying your days

    Part of “Finding Your Way” may be REmaking new friends. Some of my moving experts all mentioned that those early friendships may not stand the test of time, and part of this piece of the puzzle may include taking time to find the things and friends you truly want to have. It may mean letting go/walking away from the early support systems you had and walking toward the things that are more meaningful to you.

    Finding your way which is not just about part time work or volunteering but the having to REfind everything that you need to make you and your family feel as if this new place is home. Finding where to buy mincemeat or … toilet paper, or … some other staple that you need to get by. It took one of my friends a LONG time to find good bread in Delhi (probably located just before she found out they were moving again)

Saying Goodbye (again)

    This stage hits hard and whether you are saying goodbye to friends or doing the leaving yourself, it wreaks havoc on a settled household.

What other stages can you add to this list? I haven’t exhausted all of the different pieces that come into play. Let me know what else we can inject into the stages that I’ve identified above.

Contributed by Naomi Hattaway. After living in several states in the United States, Naomi and her family moved overseas to Delhi, India and then Singapore. Now back in the United States and living in Loudoun County, Virginia, she enjoys making an impact - even if only with a small corner of her world - for the better. She is the founder of 8th & Home [http://8thandhome.com], a boutique real estate and relocation company and also blogs about relocation, life with itchy feet and living your best life at www.naomihattaway.com

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