Gird your loins people, this is going to be expensive.
So, you’re on your way to becoming an expat. You are not on holidays, you are not a traveller, you aren’t migrating forever and you won’t be staying wherever you are going but you won’t be home for a while either. If you want to stay sane, it’s going to cost you.
Here’s the thing; travel is generally fun and as every traveller knows, it’s perfectly possible to exist for quite a while on the romance of a destination (or even simply just not being at home). You can stay starry eyed through smoky motels, poor Wi-Fi, GPS that send you well into New Jersey when you’re trying to get to Pittsburgh, odd smelling airBNBs, bugs, 5am flights and weird travelling companions. There’s an almost perpetual Vaseline lens to reality when you’re on holidays that helps you put up with almost anything and somehow stay happy. It is not, however, possible to exist harmoniously as an adult without say antiperspirant deodorant if you’re used to it and, in our case, Berocca, bed sheets or bar soap.
There are people, I know, who will pride themselves on travelling the Yukon armed only with a pocket knife and grit. Wonderful, but that skill set is not going to help you look professional if you have to turn up to work having spent the night in a 3c apartment because the A/C remotes are all in Chinese. Knowing how to order beer in 15 regional dialects likewise won’t help you maintain the romance when you discover that the only solution to buying bed sheets is IKEA or that it will take a specific trip to a specific store in a specific part of town to buy deodorant or that buying normal bread is a basic impossibility.
Some of life is easy. Some of life is fun and some of life is hard. Some of being an expat is fantastic and some of it is so breathtakingly difficult that there are days you’d rather panhandle at home than be where you currently are.
The following are my suggestions to soften the edges as much as you can when you first start out in a new country.
- Bring EVERYTHING you use on a daily basis, enough for two months at minimum, more if you can carry it. This means face wash, deodorant, vitamins, hairspray, shaving gel, moisturisers. If you use it daily, bring it. Why? This is the routine of your life and it grounds you like nothing else can. If you’ve spent the day looking at apartments with Hello Kitty themed bathrooms, snoopy doorknobs, dungeons or being told by a prepubescent real estate agent that he “knows what housewife like”, getting to the end of the day and using root beer flavoured toothpaste because that’s all you can find will break you like nothing else will. Having to get up the next morning and face the world after using durian scented face wash for the same reason will take a part of your soul you may never get back. Be kind and merciful to yourself. These are things you can control in a world that will be completely and utterly out of your control and realm of experience. Control what you can. I say two months because that’s how long it will take you to find these things, or to realise that you will never find stick deodorant in Shanghai and have someone post you supplies.
- Bring a set of sheets and a pillow per person. These are remarkably hard to find if you are new in a country and even if you have the luxury of a serviced apartment, there is almost certainly going to be a lag between you arriving and your stuff. You need to be able to sleep.
- If you are a tea drinker, bring tea. If you are a coffee drinker, bring coffee. Bring a nice mug. It will help, when you want to scream or cry or kill someone, to be able to sit down and drink something hot from a real mug that you know and recognise.
- Pack presents, for yourself, into your shipment (seriously). Not large and not necessarily expensive but before you send your shipment on its way, put in presents. Buy yourself a few books you really really wanted but haven’t bought. Stunning, beautiful coffee table books or some leather bound classics you meant to read. A ginger jar you have had your eye on or some new slippers. Not a lot and be careful with breakables but at some time during the drudgery of unpacking and figuring out where everything will go and how on earth to work your new microwave, you’ll stumble on these things and they will make you smile. It’s a reprieve and will remind you of good things.
- Carry in your luggage, if weights and local quarantine allow it, the essentials of your favourite dish. Mine, as an example, is spaghetti. The first time I tried to make this in Shanghai, I found myself wondering if the dried mushrooms I’d had to buy (because I couldn’t find any others) were the type you ate or ah, smoked. They’d been on a shelf next to dried caterpillars (I kid you not) so it was a reasonable concern, I think. I clearly hadn’t bought mushrooms or mince with me but I had bought new, sealed packets of rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and dried garlic. After a month, I could source all of these except the garlic but a week after landing, I didn’t have that capacity and I promise you, that first spaghetti was one of the best things I’ve ever smelt or eaten.
- An eye mask you can sleep in, light ear plugs and ear plugs heavy enough to cancel out the devil himself (or Chinese war dramas which go, roughly, marching, drum roll, firing squad, screaming, silence, repeat). Constant noise will grind you down, especially in the early days. China uses the car and scooter horn as a language of commuting but if you’re trying to sleep anywhere near a road at virtually any time, the only language you’ll be using or hearing is expletives. Walls are thin and televisions and conversations are loud. If you don’t need them, fantastic but if you do, could you mime face mask with a certainty that wasn’t going to lead you into some sort of odd BDSM moment and would you know where to?
- Prescription medication. Do I really need to tell you this? Yes there are doctors where you are going and yes, they may be perfectly nice. Conserve your energy for figuring out where to buy edible mushrooms, at least for the first few months.
- Bring some small prints or postcards and bluetak but be judicious. Do not bring photos of home, they will not help. Bring photos of friends in far flung places and yourself being adventurous or a post card by your favourite artist. Until your stuff arrives, they will help you make “home”, home. Scented candles, if that’s your thing, also work well for this, just pack them carefully in case of temperature fluctuations in the hold.
- Something silly, something sentimental. Don’t strip away your life and leave nothing behind, even if you are racing for a fresh start. Bring an old stuffed toy (in your carry on if it’s really sentimental, don’t risk checked luggage or your shipment). Bring a sports jersey or a desk ornament. Americans and Canadians seem to love travelling with flags, bring one if it’s your thing. The point of this thing is to remind you that you’ve had good times and bad times and that life goes on so it probably shouldn’t be a new thing. I have Elliot, the intrepid travelling elephant who has been to India, the US, HK, China and Australia. A friend has a green sheep toy from the story ‘Where is the Green Sheep”, photos of which he used to send to his wife when he was on business trips. Another couple has a polar bear of jaunty name and aspect. This thing helps you laugh at yourself while bringing comfort. Figure out your Elliot and bring it.
- Clothes. Yes, really. I have a very, very dear friend. He’s a lovely man and very smart and, with his wife, he migrated to China. He lovingly packed his computers (he’s a programmer) and all and sundry pieces of technology then got to Beijing in the middle of winter and realised that he had forgotten to pack pants. He had the jeans he’d worn on the flight and that was it. Trying to buy basic items of clothing, even if you speak the language of your destination country (which he didn’t), is not how you want to spend your first day. Pack pants. Double check that you have, indeed, packed pants.
As I say, it’s going to be expensive. You will not want to pack some, or all of these things. You will feel the money veritably racing out of your wallet and think you can economise. Now is not that time. Being an expat is really hard, especially at first and especially if you don’t have a lot of help landing wherever you’re going. If you can control even just these things, it will help free up your mind and soul for all the other things like bank accounts and mobile phones and internet connections and rental agreements and visas and bread and deodorant and mushrooms and you will need that brain space, especially if they sell the dried mushrooms next to the dried caterpillars.