Welcome to a new series on the practicalities of moving overseas!
We hope our experiences living in four countries
can help you navigate your own journey of discovery!
How to Move Overseas: Got Kids?
Do you have kids? No? Okay. Then you can just move overseas. Enjoy.
We’ve actually made six international moves in our years living as international nomads. The first two we made with no kids. They were super easy. There are some no-kids moving tips we would share with you, though, so don’t skip ahead just yet. And if you have kids, these count for you too.
When you’re packing your life up and getting ready to make the move, it’s important that you identify a handful of sacred objects in your lives that will travel with you no matter where your adventures take you. Depending on your tax bracket, this may include some pretty substantial items. Some people always bring their car, even if it’s got the steering wheel on the wrong side. They just want the piece of mind that comes with knowing your own vehicle.
That’s far beyond our scope.
We brought a teddy bear, a frying pan, and a set of silverware for each of us – one fork, one knife each.
That was our list.
But it can be that simple!
When we first moved overseas, we’d been married all of two months and had been grown-ups all of about two months and one day. We had no real mass of possessions or life experiences to draw from to select sacred items, but we looked at our situation and walked through the exercise anyway.
The exercise goes like this:
Imagine yourself having the worst day of your life. Nothing has gone right. You’re suffering from food poisoning. You can’t read a single word on any sign or package in the entire country. Neither your mom nor your best friend can bring you a shake or a smoothie. In fact, there are no shakes or smoothies for 700 miles, and those are in an adjacent country. You’re sweating bullets. You hate everything.
Now, ask yourself, what items around you from your normal life would make this situation feel better?
It’s not intended to be a profound question, but it can be.
The simple answer for us was a teddy bear. I’d given Lyns a little teddy bear when we were dating. It was supper cute and we called it Scraggles. It was the first thing we’d both “Awwwed” at together. That phrase right there nailed it for us. If we could both look at it every time and say, “Awwww!” than it was a sacred object for us.
This sacred object helped us to relieve stress simply by being in its presence and giving it a squeeze. It would bring a smile, and that smile would be contagious.
Our second sacred object was a single set of silverware each. This is a little more profound.
Sacredness can transcend levels of perception and experience.
A proper piece of silverware can fill the grip with pleasure. It should be weighted and robust, but still delicate. The finish should appeal to the user, in my case, highly polished stainless with clean lines and no perceptible sharp corners or edges on the handle. Just using it becomes a wonderful part of having it.
Then there’s its purpose. Delivering food to your palette.
Not only a pleasure to use in itself, quality silverware goes on to deliver sustenance, nourishment, the pleasure of a wonderful experience in dining even for as mundane a use as something simple like rice and chicken. A good piece of silverware makes the meal itself a better experience.
Maybe you’re with me. Maybe this means nothing to you. But given pause to reflect, I realized that I’d better bring a set of silverware from the US that I knew I’d love. The right silverware could class up any meal!
To add a third layer, we’d just been married! Part of newlywed culture in the US at the time was a gift registry for your wedding where people could go to a specific store and buy exactly the items you had chosen from a list of items you’d scanned with a little digital scanner that shot your coveted items like a little laser pistol. It was tons of fun to set up a registry! And how romantic!
We had 448 people at our reception, and a mountain of gifts. That set of his and hers silverware, however, was the only wedding gift we brought with us to Thailand. It represented a year of wedding plans and a lifetime of friends and family who’d supported us and who’d stood by us on our wedding day to wish us well. All other gifts were stored in the US for two years, unwrapped, unused, untouched.
That silverware proved to be exactly the perfect choice. At the time we lived there, all silverware to be found in our experience was stamped from aluminum or steel sheet metal and was cheaper than the cheapest quality ever sold in any dollar store in America. Having ours was a welcome respite when I really needed the tactile experiences of home, family, a shared meal, friends and family, and the love of a community that had supported me for years throughout my childhood.
This sacred object helped to heal the effects of stress. It transported us to another place in another time with another world filled with warmth and familiarity on so many levels.
We also brought a Teflon coated frying pan.
This one was strictly practical. We figured, if we are in a country where there isn’t a single non-stick pan in existence, and we’re newlyweds who would be learning to ruin all manner of foods anyway, let alone the cooking-in-a-foreign-country angle, we’d probably not want to be contending with the dried burned bottom of an untreated frying pan.
This sacred object would help us avoid the stress in the first place. And if we came home frustrated with everything we’d encountered in our every interaction at every step of the way for the entire day, we could at least count on the dang frying pan to work!
It was a third perfect choice.
For our first move, that was it. We fit our lives in four suitcases and a cardboard box and moved to Thailand. Scraggles, our silverware, and our frying pan were really all we needed to survive.
We did bring along some sheets from the US too, figuring it couldn’t hurt. That was also a good idea, but they lasted only a few weeks until the harsh laundry conditions rendered them scratchy and tattered in no time. Thankfully, we just kept thinking of them as American sheets and the trick worked. They felt like American sheets.
The idea of sacred objects is transferrable…
Moving with Kids
Everyone has sacred objects, and everyone should get to bring their sacred objects with them – especially kids.
When we moved back overseas after our round-trip Thailand experience concluded, we moved to Hong Kong with a 7-month-old. There were certain items that we knew would qualify for him. Some of them were specific to his preference, and some to ours but on his behalf.
We knew we’d need to bring his favorite onesies, his specific pacifier (and a few replacements just in case) and a handful of small stuffed toys that would travel easily. To meet our needs, we’d bring his Pack’n’Play, a fold-and-go playpen/crib popular in the US at the time. We’d also want to bring our baby bag. (I’ll spend a moment on the baby bag in a bit.) And most importantly, just in case they didn’t have it in Hong Kong, we brought a solid supply of A&D ointment, a diaper ointment which we swore by if needed. We brought – and still have, to this day, in spite of the fact that our youngest is 12 years old – a Baby Bjorn front carrier. The base model, denim version. Hands down the best baby carrier ever made. And lastly, we brought a small baby backpack which I’d modified with 1990’s era US Army A.L.I.C.E. rucksack shoulder straps to fit my preference.
We did bring Scraggles, again, but that was it.
This was a move with a 7-month-old. Our advice: bring a comfort toy or two but focus more on your needs as a parent at the time – basic baby needs. We ended up buying an awesome stroller in Hong Kong as he got older, and an abundance of toys and books, and every other thing one thinks a baby needs. You’ll settle in to baby culture wherever you are and be just fine as long as you have your list of top necessities that will make you feel in control of baby-ing in faraway land.
What about older kids?
Moving on a bit. We had more kids. And the kids got older. And we moved back overseas again, this time back to the US. And because our employer gave us a great shipping package, we shipped everything we owned back to the US.
What would we have brought had that not been the case? One item.
Our double stroller, front-to-back model. A must have. They’re super practical in an East Asian city and in a North American mall food court. The double-wide ones are just idiotic, to us. They are completely impractical. We’ve watched a thousand women struggle over or through, or around, or between a myriad of obstacle with those – not to mention crowds, throngs of people – and always wondered what the appeal was. Our opinion, though, take it or leave it. The front-to-back stroller model is a must.
Honorable mention goes to the Watson’s cut-to-size bandage strips!
We’d never seen these in our lives!
Imagine a band aid. The imagine a roll of that same exact band aid that you can cut to length! If you need a one-inch wide band aid, you cut it one inch wide. What if you have a huge cut, say three inches? Cut a three-inch wide band aid. What if you need to cover your son’s entire calf on both legs to stop him from scratching a host of mosquito bites that are cracked, bleeding, and getting infected? You cut a 10 inch strip and apply accordingly!
Sadly, we only brought two rolls to the US. We tried in vain to have a friend send us more. Oh, if only we’d known! I still wish I could get those in the US!
Moving back to the US, you see, we knew we’d be able to get whatever we would need. But if this had been another country, we’d have packed the same few items with the addition of our stroller: Bjorn, Baby Backpack (with rucksack straps), Pack’n’Play, Front-to-Back Stroller, and our baby bag (more on this at the end).
Moving on. We had more kids. And the kids got older.
When next we moved overseas, we moved with four kids, aged 2.97, 4, 6, and 7 years. This move was the first move where sacred objects for kids became a real consideration. Here’s how it went for us. We went through the same drill as we’d done for ourselves on our first overseas move, but we did it on behalf of our kids.
We got a modest shipping allowance of a thousand bucks. We decided we’d bring the custom-made toy shelf with the locking-lid bins that I had made for them years earlier. Every toy that could fit in one of the sixteen bins was allowed to come. From there, we had a mental list of the ones which we’d never get rid of (Thomas the Tank Engine, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie, My Little Ponies, and Matchbox Cars to name a few). We let the kids, however, have a say as to what went along to the Cayman Islands.
As you might imagine, they picked all of those we’d already earmarked, and then loaded up the rest of the bins with the rest of the toys which we’d have done too. It turns out we all had shared value for what was a bare-bones keeper inventory and what was expendable.
The key, we would suggest, is making the kids feel like they chose the toys. The finite space limits them to a certain volume. From there, it’s over to their imagination to come up with a way to fit what they want to bring, or to cast it aside and move on.
The toy shelf became a sacred item. It was glorious, and compact, and promised years of fun ahead!
By this point, you might have thought, stuffed animals had become a part of life too. We limited stuffed animals to whatever they wanted to bring. Our overall inventory wasn’t so big that had to force a major cut, but the kids naturally made the cut themselves. They were in a groove. They each brought one or two, but nothing too much.
On the parents’ side of kid things:
We brought every stitch of clothing we could lay our hands on, and pairs of shoes for each kid plus sandals. Having done our research, we knew that Cayman was going to be nearly double the cost of living we were accustomed to. Kids grow out of clothes so quickly! What we didn’t know, however, was that hand-me-downs weren’t really a thing on island in our community. We did have expat friends who did so, but it wasn’t an established part of Caymanian culture to share used stuff, so thank goodness we had expat friends we could share with! Thankfully, we have a friend who owns a kids’ consignment shop and she let us go on a shopping spree in her unsold inventory room. Perhaps you could ask around for the same sort of deal near you.
This oddly specific sort of preparation can only be prepared for if you do your research, as a parent. Find out what specific things you’ll need by getting involved in online expat communities and forums long in advance of your move!
Moving on. Our kids got older. When next we moved internationally, we had 5, 6, 8 and 9 year old children. Sadly, our toy shelf had to go. We did not get a return shipping allowance. We spread all the toys out throughout our luggage evenly distributed by weight and ditched the shelf. The toys were sacred enough, shelf or no shelf.
The more we’ve moved, over the years, we’ve found, the fewer items our kids hold to be sacred. Even now, as 12, 14, 15, and 17 year-olds, they still insist we keep the toy inventory. They still get them out occasionally. It’s cute.
Raising kids internationally, you’re likely to find, however, changes the landscape of family and individual values. Internationally mobile kids value time and relationship more than they value stuff. Everyone picks up the odd item here or there, and in our case, from different countries. But rather than becoming laden with more and more stuff, we have become lighter and lighter and less and less burdened by things.
Before moving on, there is one sacred item that we decided to bring to Hong Kong for ourselves – another honorable mention. Our king-sized foam mattress. With one baby and another on the way, we decided it was worth sending our super nice mattress to get us through sleepless nights for a period of who-knows-how-many years. It was just wonderful. Another perfect pick. And of course, Scraggles. He’s come everywhere with us, to this day.
The Baby Bag
And one last word on our baby bag. Take it or leave it. We learned in years and years of diaper changing in countries around the world that we needed four basic things:
L.L. Bean Back Pack – the one with two big pockets and two smaller ones. Durable. Comfortable. Reliable. Guaranteed for life.
Changing Pad – a stuffed vinyl pad, about 24x24-ish, which tri-folded into a convenient 6x9-ish package tucked inside a small pocket on the baby bag.
Wipes in a Hard-Side Container – we were a Huggies wipes family for the duration of our diaper years. The containers are bulletproof and the wipes are mild and smell reasonably subtle.
A&D Diaper Cream – a must have.
That’s it. The rest of the biggest pocket was stuffed with diapers to meet the demand for whatever time frame we were out. One pocket held snacks. One held a change of clothes for Mom, Dad, and Baby. We always had burp cloths with us too.
Simpler is always better.
What About Schooling?
There are four basic options for schooling your kids overseas.
International Schools – International schools are institution which claim varying levels of prestige in varying contexts. There are three basic tiers.
Tier one schools are the schools staffed mainly by expats with mostly expat students. They are usually vastly more expensive than any other option. Diplomats and Military kids usually go to these as well as really wealthy local families. Everything is done in English and curriculum is usually British, American, or International Baccalaureate. Almost all kids are expected to fly the nest and change the world as adults. These are truly world class schools.
Tier two schools are staffed largely by expats at upper levels and may be more 50/50 at the teacher levels, expats and locals. Most kids are locals, but with a robust expat student body too, usually. Everything is done in English, and the curriculum is usually patterned after something more local-ish with some American-ish organizational structures. These are good schools which cater mostly to lower-income expats (a term relative to the uber-wealthy expats who can afford tier 1 schools) and upper middle class locals whose kids will likely stay put but at the higher levels of local society. Expats from these schools will likely go back to their parents’ home country. These schools offer a great world-experience to expat kids.
Tier three schools are run by locals, for locals. There may be a heavy sampling of expats at the staff and student level, but usually not more than 10% or so. Not everything is done in English. Not every kid who comes is going to end up profiting in adult life from their association with Tier three schools. They a great option for a local family, but for expats become more of a cultural experience than an educational one. A lot of Tier three expat kids end up supplementing their education with a little extra online or at home. These schools are the cheapest ones.
Private/Religious Schools – there are a handful of religious schools usually set up by missions organizations for the kids of missionaries. These schools are usually pretty close-knit and mostly closed-community enrollment. Not to say they wouldn’t welcome other expats – they usually do – but the vision is not world class education. It’s school for missionary kids. Some are really good institutions. Others are good enough. Others may need some supplementing at home or online.
Local Schools – usually meant as a cultural experience. Most expats who send their kids local do so for the morning and then home school or virtual school them online in the afternoons. This is a great social experience but can be almost without merit academically in regards to future institutional educational aspirations.
Home School/Un-School/Road School/ Whatever-Y-Wanna-Call-It School – this is the option many people go with if they favor independence or if budget or predictability are at issue. These options require you to do your homework before leaving. None of them are free, though some states have online virtual schools that are free – do your research! – and may be completely paid for by the state government. I know Florida has FL Virtual School, FLVS. Poke around to find out.
As with any other item involving your overseas move – get online and start asking people who already live there!
And a last option- if you go work at a school, your kids often go for free! Not always free, but usually at least deeply discounted.
How do you pay otherwise? Will your work cover it for you? Will you be making enough to cover it yourself?
What About Insurance?
Medical and Life Insurance are available for expats! Look ‘em up! Some may be from your home country, others may be from travel companies, others may be found in your host country. In three of the four countries we’ve lived in medical coverage was gloriously and conveniently provided by the government at little to no cost to the patient. Guess which one did not provide for the welfare of its own people! Thailand, China, The Cayman Islands, the United States. Big shocker. Of course, the US.
Kids with Special Needs?
Families with children who have special needs live in every country in the world! If you’re worried about making the move with a family whose landscape includes this dynamic, you simply have to choose. Are we going overseas or are we not? If you’re in, get online and get hooked into the communities that are already in place! Start asking every question that you need answered before you can feel good about the journey ahead.
Medical needs are often easily solved, if a bit frustrating. Most countries will have what you need, but not always what you’re used to finding in terms of service or comfort. Good news: it’ll likely be pennies compared to what you’re used to spending. Wheelchair access in developing countries can be frustrating in major cities and completely absent in smaller cities and certainly in small towns and rural areas. Be prepared with a solution of your own. Ask around about employing a driver and a car for the years you’ll be there. Sounds absurd but may be far more affordable than you could ever imagine.
Educational needs are often left unmet. If you’re hoping to find special needs school resources that will be tailored to your child, you’re likely not going to find it internationally. Look anyway, but be proactive and be prepared to find disappointment on this one. Be prepared to solve the problem before going. Online, homeschool, international co-op. If the move is worth it to you, then solve the educational need yourself. Be aware, though, trying to throw a student with special educational needs into a general population at an international school and hoping for the best can end in major embarrassment and frustration, expulsion, leading to disillusionment with the whole living overseas experience in general – even if that’s not specifically a reasonable connection to make. If you know your child has special educational needs, be real with yourself and with your potential educational providers!
Bad Overseas Day
And so we come to our last point for moving with kids (or without kids).
You are going to have bad days.
You are going to have days when you hate your new host country.
You’re just going to hate everything about it.
You must stop now and give yourself permission to have a bad overseas day.
For us it started as a Bad Thailand Day. Some days we just hated the place. Everything.
Years later, our second country overseas, Hong Kong, we had Bad Hong Kong Days. Now, they were fewer and way farther between because we were no longer brand new baby expats. But we had Bad Hong Kong Days.
And then, country number three, Bad Cayman Days. Ugh. Some days we hated it. but, here’s the thing. This rarely happened. We were old pros! But they happened. And it was okay. And we knew it was ok. And we gave ourselves permission to swim in it. Till our fingers got all pruney.
But here’s the second trick. Yes, give yourself permission to have Bad Overseas Days, but then, remember, as you recover front hem, that you had bad days at home too. Days when you just couldn’t win. Don’t compare you worst overseas days to the good ones back home. Anything would look bad compared to those. Bad Overseas Days are just part of a landscape of days that you’re living and they happen to be overseas, so some stuff is heightened.
Don’t lose heart!
And when your kids have Bad Overseas Days, teach them to label them as just that. A Bad Thailand Day, for example. Thailand takes the blame on those days! Your kid gets a free pass! Let them learn how to seek refuge in a free pass. Be loving and forgiving and encouraging when they need it – young and old. Kids are people too! And help them transition back to the world of the everyday when they are ready.