Tips for your International Move (with only what you can fit in your suitcase)

What happens when your spouse gets an amazing job overseas but the company doesn't pay for relocation? How do you survive an international move with kids and only what you can fit in your suitcases? Here are a few things that I wish I'd known, may they help you with your move! With a bonus flight survival guide!!

1. Create Familiarity
    This seems obvious, and it is, really. I mean, how hard can it be to make sure you have your child's favorite blanket or stuffed animal? They fit easily in a suitcase, especially in a space bag, and are a no-brainer. But sometimes that isn't enough,  when you are going to a new  country where almost no one speaks your language and the customs are totally foreign, a taste of home is truly needed. Take any posters or artwork that can be rolled up and mail them to yourself, or if you have no address as of yet, leave them with a family member and have them mail them to you as soon as you have an address. Having your child's room look as familiar as possible really helps with the transition. Laminate them, if you can, 5 years and a few moves later and my daughters posters and artwork from friends are in tatters! Pack the sheets and/or pillowcases from their beds. Even if the mattress sizes are different, you can make use of sheets somehow and it will bring another element of home. Suitcase size is precious, but a sheet set or even just the pillowcases don't take up much room.

2.  Don't over pack the carry-on!
     I have read so many articles on flying with kids. On internationally flying with kids. And oh my goodness, they always have an insane amount of stuff to pack to keep your kids amused. The first time we flew internationally, I followed these articles suggestions and ended up lugging around a heavy bag full of stuff that we never used. Seriously, didn't even open it. My daughters were 18 months old and 11 years old at the time. The next time, I pared it down a bit but kept the new suggestions for snacks and mini-games. Again, never used. You know your kids, if they, like my youngest, don't eat well on a plane, a bag of snacks is a waste of space and money. My oldest sleeps for most of a 16 hour flight so we got her a quality travel pillow. My youngest carries what will fit comfortably in her child-sized backpack.
       So what do you actually need? That depends on you, here is my recommendation though...
            1. Clip-on empty water bottle. Clip it to a purse or backpack with a carabiner if you need to,
                 fill it when you can.
            2. Headphones, child-sized headphones for each child, trust me, get nice ones that will last.
            3. Gum. Let them pick it, let them get the Hubba Bubba or fancy stuff, whatever, just tell them
                it is for take-off and landing only. Get it days in advance and stow it away in the carry-on.
            4. electronic device of choice, for my kids, the Kindle and DS are must-haves. Get a new
                 game for the DS for travel day and stick in the carry-on. Don't let them play it before travel
                day, they will be excited to go! Load some new books or audiobooks on the Kindle.
            5. One small toy, be it Barbie or a couple of Matchbox cars,  a little goes a long way here.
                Actually, we are taking an 11 hour flight to visit family this autumn and we aren't bringing
               anything other than the electronics and water bottles. These items just never get used.

3. Surf Online for Houses
    If your situation is like ours was, you won't be able to secure housing until after your arrival. This can be super stressful for kids and adults alike. Start searching rentals in the city in which you will live to get an idea of what is out there. Do this together as a family, get your kids excited about different features and prepare them for housing that is different than what they are used to. Explain to them that they may not have this exact house, but use it as a way to show what the architecture of family homes in that area is like. If you know exactly what part of town you will be living in, you can find parks in that local area on google maps and get them excited about a new place to play. You can also find museums, zoos, and cultural events such as festivals and concerts and talk about how cool it will be to attend them.
  
4. Hotel Living 
  Am I the only one who loathes hotel living? We were in a hotel for almost 2 months after we landed in Japan. It kind of, sort of had a kitchenette-type thing. It was not a nice hotel, we were on top of each other, everyone was cranky, it was difficult to meet people. So we walked. Every day, rain or shine, we walked. We toured the are the hotel was in, we found a park, we played there daily when the schools got out, we listened for other English speakers and tried our very new, very bad, very limited Japanese out by greeting locals that we saw. We dined out twice (or 4 times) a week. It was expensive but it gave us a lay of the land. Once we purchased our beater, the 4-wheel drive Vanzilla, we took a drive every Sunday. We had no destination, we just drove and stopped when we saw interesting things, we used our phones and google maps to get us back if we got lost. It got us all out of the ho-hell, we met people, and we found a number of places that it took others that we talked to months to find. Don't be afraid to get out and go.  We also drove around and looked at houses. TONS of houses. We wrote down the house numbers of the ones we liked and looked them up online after. That is how we came to find our first Japan house.

5. Moving In 
  Because my husband works with the government, we move on SOFA status, which is a world apart from moving to a foreign country on a work Visa. Also, because of this, it is assumed that we are military and have sponsors to assist us. Nope, not even close. We were told ahead of time that the housing office on the military base where my husband would be working would assist us in finding a real estate agent. Nope, not even close. They assist active duty and GS only, if you are another type of civilian, you do not get assistance at all, not even a list of real estate agents approved by the base as having safe housing. SO...we were blind and without help. Pro tip, if you move to Japan, expect to pay between $10k and $14k for your deposits and key money, because most of this is key money, you will not be getting it back. Ever. It is gone, you just thanked your landlord for the opportunity to give him money every month. It is a shocker, for sure. Especially when you also have to furnish your home and purchase appliances, and in some cases, lighting. Just be prepared for anything, if you are planning at looking at overseas jobs, start putting money in savings now or be prepared to run up your credit card debt...which no one wants to do. Also, join up some sales sites, if you live in an area with a large number of expats, you can join swap and sales groups and furnish your home with secondhand, affordable, and usually in good condition furnishings. The only thing we bought new were our mattresses because I like sleep and sleep doesn't come on a lumpy mattress. We purchased our appliances at a local recycle shop, so remember to scour those as well. As we've lived here longer, we've slowly been replacing our used furnishings with new, thanks mostly to the fact that we now live an hour away from Ikea. Hello, cheap and easy to break down and rebuild for the in-country moves that we've done in Japan. Before you know it, you will have a house that looks just as cluttered as your old home was...no one will believe that you relocated with just your suitcases!

6. Getting to know You 
   In a perfect world, I would have learned Japanese before we arrived. But we were given two weeks notice and you can't learn Japanese in two weeks. We were in the rural northern farm country for the first 4 years we were here. I haven't become fluently conversational, but I am improving daily. My life as a homeschool mom is busy and I don't have time (or the money!) for expensive private lessons, but I did purchase a book and cd and work on it daily. I often find that even trying delights people and communication happens in broken Japanese and English, punctuated by a lot of laughter. My koto teacher speaks almost no English and I successfully took music lessons from her for 3 years. Don't let a lack of language get you down. In every part of Japan that I have lived in so far, there have been pockets of people who run International Friendship clubs. Seek out any international groups that you can, especially if they are hosted by natives of your host country. They often have great events, potlucks, park days, cultural outings, and are just as happy to have you share your culture as they are to share theirs. Get your kids involved in local sports and clubs that allow foreigners, you'd be surprised at how quickly kids pick up a second language just by being immersed in it. It takes a little time, but you will find friends and settle in. Culture shock is real, it feels a lot like depression, and it happens, just acknowledge that it is there, cherish photos from home, skype a friend or relative, order some grits from Amazon (I have my grits on autoship!), get outside, get outside, get outside, it really does help to just take a walk and get some fresh air when you can.

7. Be Prepared to fall in love
   We planned on being here for 3 years. We are now coming up on 5 years here and plan to be here for 5 more. My youngest was 4 when she moved to Japan, she calls Japan her home, she considers herself to be culturally Japanese. When we went back to Florida last summer, it was the first time we'd been "home" since we arrived in Japan. We all struggled a bit with culture shock and with realizing that Japan had become home for all of us, we all fit in culturally and feel quite comfortable and happy. We are fortunate that we are able to stay where we thrive for now, but we know that eventually the jobs will dry up or better opportunities will present themselves elsewhere and we will have to move. It might be even harder than leaving Florida was, at least we know that Florida will always be our first home, our place to go back to. But once we leave Japan, that might be it forever. That finality is sad and scary but it is something that we will have to prepare for..and possibly another blog topic once we have faced it.  You and your family might like your new international home, you might hate it, you might fall in love and never want to leave. I think that if you approach it with an open mind, open arms, involve the whole family in the process, and arrive with a smile, you will root no matter where you are planted. 

BONUS!!  Food Section! 
  Let me tell you, my kids became the pickiest eaters when we moved! I loved every morsel I ate when we lived in the Middle East. My kids ate hummus and pita, wouldn't even try anything else. I haven't loved every morsel I've eaten in Japan (seriously, crab sperm sushi..no, just....oh god, no), but I have tried a lot more foods than I ever thought I would, mainly because I didn't want to be the rude American. My kids still aren't adventurous when it comes to food but they do try more than they did 4 years ago. Both of my kids prefer the egg salad sandwiches and fried chicken from the local combini (think 7-11 but clean and food that won't poison you) over a local Japanese fare restaurant. But they have been able to find something on the menu at pretty much every place we have gone. Grocery stores don't carry a lot of familiar items but they always have fruits and vegetables so my kids consumption of those have increased. And we live in the glorious age of Amazon and Amazon.jp, both of which have a huge array of American foods and British cookies, er, biscuits (why do you guys have such amazing biscuits, damn it?!).  Kids aside, explore your culinary playground! Eat local, try new and weird things. I have had horse sashimi...raw horse...at a street festival, I have had sake from a communal barrel at a summer festival, I have eaten shrimp brains...I didn't like them, but I tried them. I have never been more uncomfortable in my entire life when it comes to food than I was my first year here. And it was awesome! I was never picky but I was afraid to try new things and now that I am over that, I love trying new things! But you know what, sometimes my American palette just needs a good old American shit food fest. Thankfully there are a number of American restaurants here and an even larger number of creative Japanese chefs making American style food...the burgers here, outstanding, out-freaking-standing. So, if you get tired of eating local fare and there is a T.G.I Fridays or Shake Shack within a few hours of you, don't be ashamed to go get it, we all need a little taste of home sometimes. Even if that taste of home is in a language you don't understand! And even if you have to resort to McDonald's...I hadn't had it in over 6 years when we moved here, but when a massive homesick urge comes over me, I head for those friendly golden arches and order up an American  fast food burger done Japanese style (which is so damn much better) and an order of glistening, golden, crispy fries and watch The Price is Right on youtube.


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