For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones, to be exact – from my small hometown located in south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions to “simplify, simplify” from my 18th Floor Homestead.
I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. This excerpt introduces an important step in the life of an expat. Imagine you are getting ready to move to another country. What would you take?
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What to Pack (and What to Leave Behind)
Packing for any trip always involves a number of go/no-go choices. Even if expense is not a factor, taking too many items greatly complicates the travel process. On the other end of the scale, living out of a backpack is not really a viable solution for starting an expat life. There are a number of items and issues to consider when deciding what to take. Obviously, for an expat relocation, the number of both items and issues goes up exponentially.
In my case, a couple of weeks before flying, I packed three large, sturdy cardboard boxes and took them to the Post Office. I mailed them to myself via the Foreign Affairs Office at my new university. Inside those three boxes, I had stuffed clothes, books, and personal items. I also decided to pay the surcharge for carrying a third suitcase on the plane. Two suitcases were simply impossible for carrying my irreducible minimum for starting a new life. Thus, when I stepped off the plane to begin my expat life, I was accompanied by a padded laptop carrier (my carry on luggage) and three softside suitcases crammed so full that they were round and with the hopeful expectation that those three boxes would eventually catch up with me. But I was relocating for an indefinite period, not merely visiting for a short time before returning home.
So, what are indispensable items for your own suitcases? It depends, of course, on the length of your stay, what you will do at your destination, and how much you are willing to live without in order to simplify or reduce expense and weight. At this point, personal preferences enter into the picture; what I deem essential may not feel seem so important to you.
For the typical expat relocating to a new country, the packing process means prioritizing slowly and with much forethought then, in the last week, frantically attempting to cram everything into a manageable size and weight. The first consideration, of course, is the length of your stay. Two weeks as part of a tour group is entirely different from becoming a semi-permanent resident. Another big factor is where you will be staying when you are at the unpacking stage. If you are in one of the larger cities, you should be able to purchase almost everything you need after you arrive, even imported items. So, anything you forget, forego, or deplete can later be obtained locally.
Here are a few factors to consider as you plan and pack:
Suitcases: I prefer the wheeled type of suitcase with a handle but choose your own style. If it doesn’t have wheels, be sure it has shoulder straps. Have name tags on each item. Colored tape, monograms, or some other form of easy, highly visible identification will make your luggage unique in appearance. Sturdy, of course. There will be many people handling your luggage; not all of them will be gentle. Likewise, there are many opportunities for your suitcases to be torn, dropped, spilled upon, sat upon, or used as a stepladder. Be aware of loose straps or anything else protruding that might catch on people or things while on a conveyer belt.
Essentials: Medicines (with prescriptions), glasses and spares (with prescriptions), birth certificate, medical records and vaccination history, work documents, passport with visa, official letter of invitation or contract, and any other documents that might be needed to identify yourself and verify the purpose of your trip.
What else to bring: Clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries take up lots of space. Choose what you really, really want to continue using in your new life but keep in mind that it is usually cheaper to buy new things after you arrive than pay to ship old things around the world. Remember also that everything you pack means leaving something else behind.
While traveling by plane, always keep your passport, visa, printed ticket or itinerary, and boarding pass handy and always in the same place so you don’t have to search for them while standing at the head of the line at some counter. Keep them safe and all together; they are your critical travel documents. Lose any of them and you can expect your day to get much more complicated.
Use exactly the same name on all of your documents. Make sure it is the same as the name shown on your passport, that universal identity card for foreigners. Exactly the same. For example, Randy Green is not the same name as Randall Green. And, Randall Green is not the same name as Randall Lee Green, as shown on my passport. Think it doesn’t matter? It does. Don’t ask how I know.
Electronics, a necessity yet often the bane of modern life, are a class of possessions that requires careful and thoughtful consideration and preparation.
Computer: Unless you have a good reason, bring your own computer. It can be in whatever form you prefer – but bring one with you. You will undoubtedly have digital files you want and need to bring. While carrying only an external hard drive loaded with those files is possible, it may be difficult to buy computers with software in English (or whatever your native language is) in your new country. Remember that there are still very few foreigners in most countries so technicians may or may not be familiar with the English-language versions of the software. And, all too frequently, those same technicians may not be too fluent in English. Additionally, if you purchase a computer post-arrival, you may be dealing with Windows and other software in another language. (Also, if you plan to buy a computer or software after you arrive, be aware of counterfeits. Microsoft certainly is aware of those counterfeits and Microsoft doesn’t like them. Expect continual messages to remind you not to depend on pirated software. Those messages are for a good reason.) Obviously, local computer stores cater almost entirely to local customers. Those local customers don’t request computers with software in English so the stores don’t carry them. Subsequently, salespeople are frequently unprepared for such contingencies.
Cameras: If you want to bring a big, beautiful camera with a bag full of lenses, sophisticated video equipment, and other gear, okay; it’s your choice. If this is on your list of possible things to pack, you probably already know the pleasures and perils of carrying all that stuff around. You decide if it is worth it. Or purchase them locally or online after arrival. Most major brands of electronics are available internationally.
Smartphone: Your present phone can probably be adapted to a new country’s system. If you are interested, do an online search for the details of using your particular phone in your new country. Shortcut the process by asking someone who has been on-site for a few years. It always helps to talk to someone with experience with local conditions. (Note that this does not mean every expat becomes an authority in this sometimes tricky process. Most go through the process only once. Besides, conditions and regulations are constantly changing. But at least listen to what they tell you of their experiences.)
Usually, it is possible to convert your current phone to the local phone system after arrival. But be aware there may be local products that will offer the same features, sometimes for a much lower price. Like Hank Thoreau said, “simplify, simplify”. Why torture yourself to save a few bucks? I have always bought my phones locally, letting the techies transfer the data and apps between old and new phones. Hint: Make sure the salesperson understands this data transfer to the new phone is a non-negotiable requirement for the purchase. Then get it done at the time and place of purchase. Watch the language on your newly purchased phone; menus in a foreign language are staggeringly unhelpful.
Carrying illegal drugs for personal use? I have no experience but I would strongly advise against it. If you get busted, you sit in jail while waiting for a court date – and foreign courts have a dauntingly high conviction rate. Dealing in drugs? I would suggest: Don’t even think about it. Still, it’s your life, your choice. They say foreign prisons are lovely this time of year. You probably won’t be served the breakfast you wish for but you are certain to meet some interesting people.
Here, as a few final reminders, is an excerpt from my own records:
I was exhausted from the endless preparations and tasks to complete. The last two weeks, as my to-do list seemed to grow longer each day rather than diminish, I found myself looking forward to the flight. I consoled myself with the thought that whatever was not completed by my D-Day (February 5) would either remain forever undone or, in the case of emails and other writing, could be handled on my new laptop computer at 30,000 feet or from my destination if necessary. Each day that last week was carefully planned to allow for shopping, errands, packing, final tasks, and goodbyes.
Everything was wrapping up. The checklist for the final weeks included: my last day at work… making arrangements for my car and van to be left with my parents… getting an international ATM card from my bank [Make sure your ATM, credit, and debit cards are configured for international purchases. Don’t ask how I know.] … filing my income taxes… paying the last bills… leaving tax records, car titles, and a few other documents in a briefcase with my father… last meals of my favorite dishes at some of the local restaurants… several long, leisurely last meals at friends’ homes… transferring computer files from my desktop computer to the new laptop computer I purchased to carry with me… getting familiar with my new digital camera… purchasing a special wallet and money belt for carrying my passport and cash on the trip… ensuring the plane ticket confirmation printouts were easily accessible in my newly purchased, padded briefcase that would hold the laptop computer… copies of the letter of invitation in my carryon briefcase… a printed list of telephone numbers and email addresses for when I first arrived… flight numbers and schedules written in my pocket appointment book [written, not digital] … emailing flight information and receiving assurances that I would be met at the final airport… carefully choosing and setting aside the clothes I would wear on the flight… one last load of laundry… even selecting the book to read on the three flights. Everything was complete.
All the lists were nearly completed. Everything critical was finished and checked off. Even more important, anything left on those lists would become irrelevant; what was not completed on my lists would never be checked off. Upon arrival, I would begin new lists, a new life as an expat.
A final thought about packing: Relax. In the bigger cities of most countries, you can find almost everything you used in your old life. However, be prepared to conduct a time-consuming search for sources of specific foods and many electronic items – and perhaps to pay a premium price. Ask the local expats where they shop and what places they avoid. Note that I said you can find almost anything. After many years, I still have not found shrimp nachos as good as they were prepared at the Mexican restaurant in my hometown. You may experience this sensation also. In that case, you will need to remind yourself that favorite foods from your old life are often associated with people, places, and events that have nothing to do with the specific food.
Did I forget something? Undoubtedly… and you will too. Moving to another country is a great way to duplicate Hank Thoreau’s quest to identify the true basics of life and to “simplify, simplify”. Moving is also a great way to find lots of things you hadn’t seen for a long time.
And what do your leave behind? This is a much, much longer list. Most of the choices about what to leave behind are obvious. Are you going to work on an oil rig in the middle of the desert? Probably, you won’t need to pack your scuba gear. Still, you will be amazed at the amount of stuff that seemed so essential and pleasurable in your pre-expat life which is suddenly transformed into nostalgic junk.
Perhaps even more important is deciding what mental attitudes, expectations, and habits to discard. Beginning a new expat life is a wonderful opportunity to begin a new inner life.