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Friday, February 7, 2014

How to make a home: packing to move abroad

When we moved from Seattle, Washington to Taiwan almost two years ago, we packed our suitcases like we were going on another backpacking trip. In retrospect, our actions were, simply put, crazy. And we weren't the only ones. Close friends of ours reported doing the same exact thing when they moved here. We, and they, got rid of so many important things thinking: I won't need that in Taiwan.


The things I gave away, left behind or sold really blow my mind. Apparently, I didn't think I would need: a hair dryer, rain boots, winter coats, my favorite perfume/makeup/nail polish/dresses, my hobbies like reading or scrapbooking and so much more.

This type of thinking, in hindsight, was completely absurd. What kind of world was I moving to where I would want to go to work with wet hair everyday or walk (more like scoot) through a rainstorm in my toms instead of galoshes? I was not thinking very clearly about the situation because there was so much to think + worry about and we had never moved abroad before.

We had no idea what to expect or what we were doing.
We had never even been to Taiwan before.

So in that spirit, here is advice from a more seasoned expat (now) about how to pack not like you are going on vacation but instead moving somewhere where you will want to build a home:

Take things that matter
Picture frames
Sentimental knick-knacks
Letters + cards
Childhood blankets
Memory books

We did not bring any of these things. We thought: why will we need them? Honestly, we didn't and don't. But we didn't in the states either. The thing is though: we want them. They remind us of special moments in our lives and make us feel closer to the people and places that we miss dearly. Over the course of the last two years, through family visits and care packages, my bookshelves have started to look like they once did before we moved: my Venetian mask from Venice is proudly displayed, the pebble I gave my mother when I was a young girl and she kept for 20+ years because I told her it was magical rests on a shelf, pictures of my parents and my dad's obituary are framed on the walls and the memory book I made Sean before we got married is there for us to peruse. These objects matter to me because of what they remind me of and I want them close by.

Be sure to consider these things when you start to wonder: what to pack and what to leave behind? You may not be able to take everything but even taking a few things will help you start to build a home in your new country.

Notice the things you use on a daily basis and take them all
Nail polish

When we left, my goal was to fit everything inside one large red suitcase. A lot was scarified to accomplish that goal. But it was all for no reason; there was no rule book that said: though shall only bring one large suitcase when you move to Taiwan. It was a nonsensical rule I imposed on myself and I paid dearly for it once we arrived. You see, I am a routine-person. I do the same thing every morning: alarm + roll out of bed and into the shower + lotion + dry hair + deodorant + perfume + foundation and mascara and lip gloss + earrings and ring and necklace + Anthropologie outfit + coffee and breakfast while reading + leave husband a sweet note and kiss him goodbye + shoes + out the door.

I was floored when, suddenly and all of my own doing, many pieces of my morning routine were missing. No perfume? No hair dryer? No accessories? No cute Anthropology dresses? No sharpies to write the husband a cute note with? I was out of it for months and felt in a funk until my first care package arrived overflowing with my favorite products from home.

Logically, if you use something every day in your home country chances are you will want to use it everyday wherever you are moving to as well.

Do some research before you go about climate + weather + other trivial things
Wool socks?

Whatever. I'm moving to Asia. I've spent months backpacking through Asia. I was never cold. In fact, I was bloody hot all the damn time. I won't need any of those things.

Yup, that was a real thought process that went into my packing experience. And therefore, I was completely taken by surprise when I discovered that Taiwan, even though it is in Asia, has this thing called winter and during winter it is actually really cold. Taiwan basically has two seasons: summer (think: miserable heat + humidity) and winter (think: brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr + so much rain). I packed very well for summer and virtually not at all for winter.

This leads me to point two: don't assume you are moving to a place where stores will sell clothes for your body type. I am a person of the female variety and I have a human body with all the normal kinds of body parts. That said, it is definitely different from the normal female Taiwan human body and because this country is so homogenous and lacks pretty much any diversity of any kind, I may as well be an alien from outer space with extra limbs and what not. You see, I am not a size 0 AA. Quite the contrary, I am a petite, curvy lady who wears a size 12 and 36C. I had to order all of my clothes, because I gave away all of the clothes I did not bring, including jeans, skirts, dresses, bras, leggings, etc. from America.

Even if you think you know better, pack for all occasions and pack so if you're in a tight spot, you're covered and you don't have to freeze for two weeks while you wait for your winter clothes to arrive.

Value your hobbies and bring them with you, but do it in a creative way

I was the kind of kid growing up who would sometimes choose to spend a weekend with a really good book rather than people. Sometimes, I still want to do that. Back home, I had a huge library. I loved my collection of books and nothing was more relaxing than grabbing a good book, lighting a candle, grabbing some wine, a hunkering down in a bubble bath for hours. I still wanna do that sometimes. One thing I knew I could not do was bring my collection of books. That would take five huge red suitcases alone. But that did not mean I would have to go without. Instead, I gave in and bought a NOOK. Now, I can still rely on one of my favorite past times but instead of grabbing a physical book, I fire up my NOOK. That said, I did bring a few very special books like the Harry Potter I bought in England.

I also left behind thousands of dollars worth of scrapbooking materials and missed them from day one. Scrapbooking is one of my favorite things to do. Materials arrived via care packages + family visits over the course of a few months and my poor father had to dig around the creepy attic to find where they were. Sean was smarter than me and brought his guitar, videogames and music recording equipment along with his rock climbing gear, which he then used to build a rock climbing wall in our apartment.

Bring what you love because you will still love it and want it once you disembark from the plane in your new country of residence.

Spend some money to turn your new place into a home
We dropped a wad of cash at IKEA to make our apartment ours. We bought rugs, throw pillows, lights, new bedding and an entire coffee station so that we could feel more at home and be more comfortable while at home. Because when you move abroad, wherever you go and whatever housing you have becomes your home. Some people decide not to do this when they move abroad because they understand they won't stay permanently and they don't want to "waste" money on something that won't last. We don't understand that mentality. We've already been here for nearly two years. We plan to stay longer. Why be uncomfortable and a stranger in your own home the whole time?

So there it is: I did it all wrong so hopefully you can do it all right!

Add your comment

  1. At least your learned from your mistake :)
    I'm moving from France back to the US at the end of the month and I'm currently in the middle of the big clean out and packing... not fun!

  2. your apartment looks so cozy! i love it! and i made so many mistakes when packing for korea. we have this mindset that things will be so completely different and we want to pack as little as possible that we forget that we will most definitely want the comforts of home : )

  3. There are a few things I wished I had brought with me from Australia to London. My family sent over my favourite quilt at Christmas time so I feel a little more at home :)