Seven months into being back in the U.S. and two months before we leave for Pakistan, there is a hum of activity as the return to life overseas ramps up. It is a testament to how many visa applications I’ve filled out that when it comes time to fill out the applications for Pakistan, I already have the six required passport photos ready to go in a folder. Chinese characters are stamped in the corner from the booth I used in a metro station in Guangzhou. I remember thinking at the time that I might as well take a bunch for the inevitable next time.
Our to-do list for our time back stateside is lengthy. So much so, that I have avoided thinking of everything on it all at once, edging away from a seemingly endless abyss of paperwork, appointments, phone calls, interviews, meetings, etc. etc. There are items to get done for Pakistan and things that are simply easier to take care of while here, like organizing our finances, seeing doctors, and getting new glasses. Now two and a half months out from leaving, we’ve thankfully checked off a lot of it… except for the dentist. I resolve right now to make an appointment this week… just as I have resolved every week since getting back.
Some of the biggest to-dos also delve into major life decision territory. Like landing a job in Islamabad and starting to consider if we want to extend our time there. Some expat decisions are quick, spontaneous leaps of faith into the unknown; others take lots of introspection and lengthy reflection. All require a healthy acceptance of uncertainty.
One of my best friends recently shared a perfectly beautiful analogy with me that she originally read on Dear Sugar and that is based on a poem by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Blue House.”
Per Sugar, “Every life, Tranströmer writes, ‘has a sister ship,’ one that follows ‘quite another route’ than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.”
Every decision is like choosing a specific ship to sail away along a certain route. In our wake, a sister ghost ship leaves in a different direction, heading off along the path we didn’t choose.
I, like everyone, have so many ghost ships out there on utterly different paths. The me who never left the UK at age 10, the me who kept up tap dancing or karate or swim lessons, the me who didn’t break my ankle at age 18, the me who went to a different college, the me who never learned French, the me who never studied abroad, the me who chose to stay put.
When I look back, I have few regrets, because one, I generally worry more about the future than the past and two, I always try to choose the path that feels like moving forward. For me, moving forward often means moving outwards to places unknown, languages unlearnt, and cuisines untasted. And that is how my husband and I said yes to going to China and then to Pakistan, and why I always have a good amount of passport photos ready for the next international adventure.
It is a blessing to live this way and also a conscious lifestyle choice manifested over and over again in the smallest to biggest decisions; the snap judgements and the lengthy musings.
Preparing for this international move has me thinking about my very first posts from the spring of 2016 when everything about Guangzhou and China was unfamiliar and unknown, and I was surrounded by a Sea of Boxes as I navigated moving ourselves and our possessions overseas.
This time, the international moving game may not be my first rodeo, but it remains as confusing and time consuming as ever. As I look around our apartment, I am already thinking of our belongings in terms of which category they will fall: storage, freight, unaccompanied air baggage, suitcases.
Considering how popular the Kon-Mari method of tidying up has been lately, let me offer a complementary or perhaps parallel method… Simply move house every six months to two years. You will surely get rid of anything superfluous that does not bring you joy. Well as long as you follow my method of asking the hard questions, “Do I really want to have to pack that thing up?” “Will I miss it while it’s literally at sea for 2+ months?” “Will I survive if it’s lost forever/broken/covered in mold or whatever liquids explode during transit (sadly, freight shipments arriving covered in various unappealing substances is an all too frequent occurrence)?
I do have a friend with two small children who’s contrasting technique is to not sort at all during pack-out and just deal with it at the next place. No judgment there- that is a perfectly legitimate way to survive an international move and certainly less time consuming than the existential crisis I go through with every one of my belongings during pack-out. And now apparently I need to thank them all on their way out.
At this point, I feel that I am an advanced level organizer and packer, or at least advanced-intermediate. Somehow I think hiring managers would not be impressed to find that on my resume. Other non-resume-worthy skills I possess include: “beginning-intermediate haggler in Mandarin,” “boss level ability to aggressively ignore shady/fake taxi drivers,” “proficient in washing clothes in hotel sinks,” “medium tolerance for spicy food,” and “advanced unidentifiable accent” (in recent months, I’ve been asked if I’m from Eastern Europe, Australia, and Russia…).
Ironically, having people often ask me “where are you from?” after hearing my strange mix of English-English, American-English, and unidentifiable expat-English has helped me embrace my identity as a serial expat who has lived in a lot of different places.
In Guangzhou, I got used to and ultimately embraced my identity as an expat living in China. It was an attribute I let go with a certain amount of sadness when I left last June. But now, as I embark on this next chapter, I’m about to learn all kinds of things about myself as I take on my new identity as an expat in Islamabad. It’s certainly a challenging transition in many ways to take on the foreigner identity in a new place, but it also comes with joys. In Pakistan, I’m looking forward to trying out my limited Urdu on locals (sorry in advance for butchering yet another language), to getting to know the food, to listening to the music (ok A and I already do this and the music is wonderful), and making new friends. Thank goodness that there are kind, gracious, and generous people everywhere. There truly are, and I can’t wait to meet them there.
In preparation for Pakistan, I have been learning Urdu, which has been equal parts awesome and confusing. My favorite thing about it (well after how beautiful it looks written and sounds) is that it’s mostly backwards from English when it comes to grammar. It has post-positions instead of prepositions, verbs including “to be” go at the end of the sentence, and most of the double digit numbers start with the second digit over the first IE twenty-four is chaubis (translating literally, fourtwenty). This last point has caused me to seriously question why we say thirteen and not teenthree in English, but I digress.
In Urdu, to say “Today, I go to school with my friend,” you say “I, today, school to friend with go am.” It requires learning the language directly rather than translating from English IE hearing the sentence and internalizing the structure as it is rather than how it relates to my native tongue. This is a skill I have spent many years cultivating and love to work on.
Along with learning Urdu, I’m actively reading up on language learning in general. I’m currently reading Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners on one linguist’s search for and investigation into hyperpolyglots or people who speak huge numbers of languages. Apparently, it is generally accepted that it is near impossible to actively and fluently speak more than 6 or 7 languages at a time, though the jury is somewhat out on that. What I find interesting is that it does indeed seem to be true that each language a person learns opens up doors to other languages. I am certainly experiencing this myself with Urdu, finding that words and grammatical structures are accessible to me in ways that they weren’t back when I was learning French for the first time or even in my most recent Chinese studies.
One tidbit I love from this book is the idea that “language learner” is an identity that anyone can achieve and that is instrumental in itself to language success. Simply thinking of oneself as a language learner brings a sense of accomplishment and confidence that is so crucial for continuing on in a language. In my case, it has become an integral part of my identity that stays with me wherever I am. So, if you are already or are thinking about learning a language, have at it. You’re a language learner. Welcome to the club!
Ultimately, my long to-do list for any international move boils down to three simple things:
- Stock up on U.S. things, be it groceries or doctor’s check-ups, to bring/have with
- Learn the language
The third is the best and most fun.
Important note: Original image credit here