Making a new place home... by Patricia Myers
About 36,000 feet somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, my tears began to flow. I wasn’t surprised, in fact, I was expecting them, like an old friend, I welcomed their arrival.
I glanced over at my husband and two young teenagers, relieved they were sleeping peacefully. In the darkness of the cabin, lit only by a few faintly glowing monitors, I didn’t have to explain the complicated tangle of emotions, so I let the tears and the emotions flow unhindered.
What spilled out were tears of joy from so many happy memories and friends we’d made in our last country and tears of sadness at leaving them behind, tears of excitement for new adventures ahead and tears of nervous anticipation for another new chapter filled with questions and unknowns.
These were sacred, healthy tears vital to experiencing each emotion and processing our move well.
After receiving news of a new post, the excitement of investigating housing, perhaps a pre-move visit, and, for those moving with children, picking schools is followed by packing boxes, selling cars and letting go of extra possessions collected along the way, hoping to fit years of memories and furniture into one shipping container. We attend a dizzying array of dinners, lunches and goodbyes where we hug friends for the 100th time, afraid to let go, and sometimes try to memorize the sound of their laugh or the greeting they give when we walk in the door. Then we load up our suitcases for the final trip to the airport, one so familiar from our travels around the region, but this is our final departure from this treasured adopted home.
So, how does one make a new place home?
After ten years and four countries, I’ve learned a few things. I am not an expert, but I hope the wisdom I’ve gleaned from trial and error, from success and failure will help some of you as you embark on your new journey.
Things I’ve learned
*Decide before you go
When embarking on our move to Jakarta a friend asked, “Do you think you will like it?” I replied, “I know I will!” Puzzled, she asked how I could know. I told her I’d learned the hard way that you must decide before you move to find the good and make the most of each new adventure, to focus on making new friends, enjoying a new culture, trying new foods, learning a bit of language. Inevitably there will be minor or even major annoyances and adjustments. Decide early to be flexible, mine the good and beautiful treasures in your new home country. Like making lemonade, combine the bitter lemon with honey and enjoy!
*Embrace the sweet and the sour
The excitement of a new adventure does not cancel out the sadness of leaving treasured friends and memories behind. Keep a running list of things you will miss and things you looking forward to side by side on a sheet. Post it somewhere where you can see it and add to it as thoughts come up. Acknowledging the bittersweet emotions allows us to grieve the things we will lose and look forward to the things we will gain. This may be especially important when returning to our home country. We can carry a sense of guilt at not being 100% happy to return, but a beautiful mix of emotions is quite normal and means we have embraced and enjoyed the adventure away from home.
I didn’t understand this advice at first, but it became one of the most valuable gems I carry in my emotional moving toolkit.
Leaving isn’t easy and some feel tempted consciously or subconsciously to destroy relationships or start noticing only negative aspects of a current post in an unsuccessful effort to make letting go easier. Preserve and deepen relationships, and take time to repair ones that might be strained. Visit your favorite spots one more time. Don’t avoid goodbyes. Say those heartfelt words, express appreciation to your friends, colleagues, helpers for their friendship and care. It’s ok to cry with sadness and laugh together in the same sentence.
Don’t forget to keep making new friends, the person you meet two months before leaving may turn out to be the friend you cherish for a lifetime.
*It takes time
Realize the “honeymoon phase” at your new post may give way to the discomfort of adjustment. The excitement of parties and friends saying goodbye are likely to be followed by a few lonely days along the way as you re- establish friendships and routines in your new home.
Don’t wait for others to make the first move in friendship. Be the first to introduce yourself, invite new acquaintances for coffee or tea, or a walk. You will find many times others, also looking for friends, are grateful you reached out.
For many of us “trailblazing spouses/partners” work isn’t an option, but volunteering is a wonderful way to learn about the culture, make new friends and find satisfaction in helping others.
If you have an interest like hiking or photography, Bible study or yoga- find a group of likeminded people to join. If you can’t easily access a former hobby, don’t be afraid to try a new one.
Volunteer opportunities exist for those who want to put their education to use. An engineer friend helped with structural improvements for a nonprofit building project, an architect friend helped design a new layout for a refugee school, a teacher ran the Boy Scouts program at a local school… just a few examples.
For those who really want to work, Yvonne Quahe and the Professional Development Team https://www.wbfn.org/professional-development-team provide a wealth of information and support. Another resource I’ve found helpful is a website tandemnomads.com.
I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that many support systems for expats are designed with women in mind- International Women’s Clubs are a wonderful place of support for women, but have not traditionally included men. Thankfully, things are changing, and now many organizations are beginning to acknowledge and offer support and networking for male accompanying spouses/partners. WBGFN is on the forefront of recognizing and supporting all accompanying spouses/partners.
*Realize when you need to put your oxygen mask on
If you travel with a family, it’s tempting to settle everyone else first. While some of this is absolutely necessary, be kind to yourself in the process. Realize when you need to “put your oxygen mask on first” in order to help others.
*Network, network, network.
If there is a WBFN Champion in the country or region, reach out to them if they haven’t reached out to you first... and if they have already reached out to you- reach back, they are there to help!
Keep a gratefulness journal or photo collection. Count your blessings. There will be days of unimaginable joy and times of deep sorrow. Embrace them both, they are a beautiful part of the journey.
Patricia Myers is married to Bernard Myers. Together they have enjoyed posts in Bucharest, Romania; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with their 3 children. Patricia served as WBFN Champion in Indonesia and Malaysia, helping families adjust to their new post. They returned “home” to DC in August 2021, and she now works as a licensed Realtor. Please feel free to reach out with questions or comments 202-384-8166 PatriciaRCMyers@gmail.com. Im very happy to be a resource for any moving questions