International relocation: Mastering resilience amidst several challenges

For many, an international move often conjures up images of white beaches, swaying palm trees, the scent of coconut and sun tanning lotion and new adventures—but for those of us who have experienced it, it’s just plain hard work. As a friend who recently relocated with her husband from Canada back to Australia said, “I deserve a medal for this.”

Imagine being awarded a medal for the unpacking of cardboard boxes; learning to order a coffee in a new language or enrolling children in a school in a new country. These activities may not be medal-worthy but they are definitely personal bests for the newcomer.

Why is international relocation a daunting challenge?

The physical and emotional challenges of such a move can feel like we are in a skirmish fighting for survival and running a marathon at the same time. If we are employed by an international firm, the military or in the diplomatic service certain essentials will be provided from housing and schools to relocation expenses and opportunities to meet other expats.

For those of us who did not fall into these categories, it is much more time consuming to plan and execute a move. If we are independent, we must undertake our own research and project management. After a decade away, we decided to move from Seattle, Washington back to live in Melbourne, Australia. The first thing on our checklist was to research moving companies. We looked for a company with positive testimonials and a long track record.

Once we compared prices and made a decision, the next thing we needed to do was figure out how to get all of our belongings packed into one shipping container. (I began to feel that shipping ourselves in the container was our best option!) Numerous excellent books and websites exist with advice about how to cull stuff and organise and pack belongings.

But in my experience, something always gets lost or broken. My professional photography portfolio is now being reviewed by schools of fish somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and a favourite antique lamp with a round handblown glass sphere was shattered when I moved into a new home in Australia. Our prized possessions are in for a workout.

How can we deal with common mishaps?

If there is a loss or damage, we just have to shrug our shoulders and realise this is the price we pay for our international lifestyle and international shipping insurance. How are you going to manage finances in the transition? I would advise any global nomad to keep as many options available as possible. Don’t close your main bank accounts in the country you are leaving because there will be outstanding bills to pay. Retain as many credit cards as possible.

These can be difficult to replace without a credit history in a new country. Create a list of responsible firms and the names of trusted individuals who can help with financial questions about tax and investments, etc. I am acquainted with a few American expats who are considering giving up their US citizenship because of outstanding tax problems and penalties.

Health insurance is another critical consideration. As a dual citizen living in Australia, I can access the public health system here, but I knew when we moved to Seattle that health care insurance would pose challenges. For the short term, we continued our travel insurance until my husband and I started full-time employment. This proved crucial when my stepdaughter was on a school excursion to Hawaii and dislocated her shoulder while kayaking.

Her public school did not have proper medical coverage and we would have been in a serious legal and financial tangle with the school’s administration without our insurance.

What about the elephant in the room?

Now that we had mastered the sport of moving our household from the US to Australia, the marathon was almost finished. Correct? Well yes, but actually no. Our return to Australia brought unexpected challenges, in the pursuit of rental accommodation and employment.

Fortunately, we were able to stay with my husband’s family while we looked for a rental property. (This saved us a great deal of money and gave us time to begin to acclimatise.)  The rental market in Melbourne was not just hot—it was sizzling. After going online to see the available properties, we decided to go to an opening in an exclusive part of the city.

As we drove up, I wondered why there were so many cars parked along each side of the road. To my astonishment, there were at least forty people tripping over one another to view a small townhouse. The opening lasted just a half an hour and there was a sense of desperation about the process. The estate agent was by the door accepting a flood of rental applications and I couldn’t decide whether she was smirking or trying to suppress her panic.

We went to a number of rental openings and we were shocked to see how many people were urgently looking to rent in areas near the city. There were even rumours that estate agents were covertly accepting higher bids for monthly rental fees from desperate applicants.

Eventually, we found a property outside of town. (This experience could have been the basis for an episode of Survivor.) As we waited for our household goods to arrive, we made do with opportunity shop tea cups, cutlery and loaned appliances. I got a glimpse of a newcomer friend’s garage stacked with boxes and I had an uncomfortable moment of déjà vu.

It looked just like our garage had for a year while we were applying for a mortgage to purchase a home. (This is another piece of good advice. Rent a house with a dry garage!) Another hurdle was finding employment. My husband and I both had excellent work records.

He had references from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and I had worked at the University of Washington for over a decade. For my husband to gain employment, he was required to do a certificate accreditation course in order to do the same security job that he had been doing overseas for more than ten years! My job search was trickier.

People were impressed by my resume but whether it was chauvinism or an allergy to newcomers, it took me over a year to find employment. One memorable exchange with two older men reminded me that I was always going to be seen as a foreigner, despite being a dual citizen with Australian citizenship. They were interviewing me for a volunteer position at a community museum and one of them said, “You know, we don’t like Americans here.”

Regardless of how long we intend to live overseas, the adjustment to our new home will take time. Initially, we will feel like a tourist but gradually, most will begin to feel at home. An international relocation takes physical stamina, patience, flexibility and a sense of humour.

No one can really understand the effort that it takes to make such a move until they have done it. International relocation is a modern-day extreme sport without the medal tally.

Joyce Agee is the author of The Newcomer’s Dictionary, which tells more stories about the experiences and feelings of individuals and families who move home frequently. Joyce Agee’s career as a photographer, curator and journalist began in London, England. Her work was published in the New Statesman, The Guardian, Time Out, the British Journal of Photography and other publications.