Expat Ninja: How to Live a Coherent International Life
Sure, you think planes are convenient now. Just wait.
Some Considerations when Contemplating an International Move
As with most facets of life, there are a few possible variations to consider as you establish yourself in another country. Are you making a clean break of it, or will you want to return regularly, slightly less regularly, or just for big family functions? Once you've put yourself in one of those categories, your choice will play a big role in shaping your budget, not to mention your acquisition patterns in your new locale.
So let's go through each option and how it would impact your preparation for the move and the process of settling in. For good measure, I'll also throw in some advice for switching gears midway, just in case. Safety first!
The Clean Break
I would imagine this one is pretty rare, but maybe that's just because my family is delightful. I understand this is not always the case. And anyway, maybe you got some amazing top-secret spy job and if you accept then the government will fake your death and you'll assume a new identity and never ever be able to go back to your home country. God be with you, sir, and don't do anything your mother would be ashamed of.
Okay: practical stuff. You will need to decide what is coming with you. This sucks with the new, ever-more-asinine airline restrictions. But then again, if you're never coming back, you can maybe afford to shell out some extra dough for overweight baggage - or in extreme cases, for one of those old-fashioned shipping crates to follow you across the wild blue ocean, arrive some months later in questionable condition, and be stuck in customs for another decade while you scrape together the customary bribe.
On the hand, it's the perfect opportunity to go minimalist.
Your New Best Friends
Regular Return (long-term)
Okay: you work or study overseas, but you spend a chunk of time with family and/or friends every summer.
Consideration no. 1: Plan. the freak. Ahead. Expect airline tickets to consume a good amount of your budget - but less if you can buy way in advance. Do what you can, and learn to navigate the flight sales. Get on a couple frequent flier programs: this is even easier now that they all own each other (oo, incestuous!), and will absolutely come in handy when you need to ask for favors, or if you've ever dreamed of being randomly bumped up to first class. It does happen. And when it does, I thank my frequent flier card.
Consideration no. 2: If you have a safehouse/HQ in your home country (again, thank you Mum and Dad), think about leaving some summer expendables in a few boxes tucked away. I am incredibly fortunate to have been allocated a section of the attic *and* a proper dresser, so when I come back everything doesn't smell like attic, and what does can be aired. May you all be so lucky.
However, I'm going to go ahead and assume most of you in this category are, because why else would you opt for regular return? Unless you like to turn in your taxes in person. Weirdo.
If, for some reason, you don't have someone(s) you want to be seeing on a regular basis but you still want to fly yourself back every dang year, read on.
Semi-Regular Return (short or long-term)
Invest yourself in a storage unit, and don't close your bank account.
For All of You Expats-to-Be, Regardless of Your Rate of Return:
Friends! Yes, you need to submit US taxes! You can do this online, for the most part, and you've got an extended deadline (June 15th), but it's gotta be done. Pain in the butt? Yes. So much so that there are plenty of companies that specialize in doing Expat Taxes (including getting you caught up, in case you've been abroad for a while and hadn't realized: apparently a very very common problem for Expats).
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The Super Tricky Part
So now that we've gone over some of the practical considerations, I'm going to jump right into the much less obvious:
Don't underestimate the disconnect that will inevitably develop between your life abroad and your life 'back home,' wherever that may be. No matter how often or irregularly you return. If you're regularly spending a month or more every year back in Home1, there will be a real temptation (or inclination?) to think of that time as... not exactly your real life. If I could put it any more awkwardly, I would - but the point is that you need to fight that feeling hard and make sure that you mentally integrate the two places (and thus the two timelines). It took me three years to get the hang of this, but once I did I was both much more productive throughout the summers, and able to handle "re-entry" much much better.
If you're close enough (or good enough at craps) to return for actual vacation-length vacations (1 or 2 weeks), this will not be so much of a problem: It's at the 4 week/1 month mark that vigilance will become necessary.
I have found the following to be incredibly useful:
- Have a small project for the duration of your visit. It could be a writing assignment, some research, or a burning desire to cook your way through the Moosewood Cookbook your aunty gave you for your birthday last year. This will serve two purposes: 1.) it'll seriously reduce any sense of aimlessness (or, heaven forbid, regression) that might descend as you try to figure out what a grown kid like you does in your childhood home and 2.) If you're there for so long, there's a pretty good chance your family will not be hanging loose the whole time, and if you've got stuff to do then it also makes it easier for them to go about their 'real lives'.
- Get yourself a routine. I am Routine Queen, so maybe this one isn't for everything, but if I'm on vacation but stationary (i.e. not resort-hopping with my Saudi Prince or climbing the Appalachian), I've found it great-times-a-thousand to keep up with my "fitness routine," and designate a time for keeping up with my language lessons, etc. And of course, you're not on vacation if you can't take afternoon naps.
Again, we're talking about a month-long visit, not a week's vacation. The aim is still to relax and all, but also to keep in mind that the people around you have other obligations. Incidentally, here is one of my favorite coincidences: picking up extra housework or yard work is *both* a simple guesty courtesy and a nice way to feel like your childhood home is still yours. Nothin' but win!
Now the last aspect of the super tricky part is something I have actually failed at miserably: keeping in touch with non-immediate family members. Fortunately, the farther away you go, the more leeway you seem to be given in this matter: something about the time zone mismatch, I imagine. But any amount of effort you can put into keeping up with close friends or extended family (I have it on good authority) is well worth it. Between Skype and Gchat, and with a reasonably flexible schedule, I imagine something can be arranged.