First-Post Tips for a Trailing Spouse: Part One


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expat life, moving overseas, moving abroad, foreign service, foreign service wifeAs soon as I discovered this global community of FS bloggers, I’ve been pondering doing an interview post on their experiences as a “trailing spouse” and tips for first-timers like me. After stalking reading a few blogs, I decided to reach out to Dani at Hot Pot, who has just finished up her first post in Chengdu, China and is in DC for the summer before packing out for Post No. 2: New Delhi, India.Besides having an insightful and clever writing style and an adorable nine-month-old son, Dani and her husband had a similar whirlwind engagement-wedding-departure* experience that my husband and I are going through now. Fortuitously, Dani recently launched a new blog series, “Life Lessons from Overseas: Things I Learned as a ‘Diplomat’s’ Wife,” in which she tackles expectations and reality when it comes to being a Foreign Service spouse.She agreed to answer a few questions about how to prepare for — and what to expect from — life overseas. This is Part One of our interview; check back tomorrow for Part Two!

Natasha: Looking back from the experienced perch of a completed first tour, what is the one piece of advice you wish you could have told yourself in the months/weeks prior to your first pack-out? What are you doing differently to prepare for your second post?

Dani: I don’t know if I would tell myself one thing, I think I would have written myself a novel entitled “Girl, You Seriously Don’t Have a Clue What’s About to Hit You Do You?” But actually that is what is really important to know. Moving to a new place is always going to be a massive learning experience; no matter how prepared you think you are. That’s the beauty and the hardship of living overseas! You are constantly reinventing your entire life – from who your friends are, to how you get to the grocery store, to what you do with your spare time. It’s not always going to be easy and the “right thing to do” is not always going to be obvious.The most important thing is to always remember that a tour abroad will always bring you moments of joy, elation, great insight and adventure. On the flip side, it will also always bring moments of crabbiness, resentment, disappointment and anger. All of those yucky things are part of the deal, but it’s how you deal with them that will make or break your experience. Understanding that they are normal, inevitable and usually justified reactions to a new and difficult experience is half the battle.N: Speaking of packing, how did you decide what was essential to bring, and what you could do without? Did you have any trouble staying under your weight limit?expat life, foreign service, moving abroad, moving overseas, what to pack when moving abroadD: I feel like we brought a lot of stuff to post, including a giant couch, a giant book case, several small pieces of furniture and a 50-pound brass duck that belongs to my mother-in-law and that “mysteriously” ended up in our HHE (household effects). Even with all of that heavy stuff, we were still under our weight allowance so I don’t know what all a person can bring to be over a weight allowance but I know it’s possible, especially for larger families.I’ll divide recommendations up into three categories and just cover a few things that might not always be the most obvious things to bring:Luggage:

  1. A set of clean sheets from home (GSO sheets are notoriously yucky I think and it’s nice to have that smell of clean and home to crawl into on that first night in a new place).
  2. Breakfast /coffee/tea: I read somewhere once that even the most adventurous eaters tend to be fanatical about eating the exact same thing for breakfast every morning and that’s certainly true for me. Your sponsor will probably leave wonderful food in your house, you’ll be able to get out that first day in town and go buy everything you need, but it’s nice to wake up in a new place and be able to eat exactly what you want to for that first jetlagged meal at 4 a.m. on your first morning in town.
  3. A picture in a frame.  Makes things feel homey while you are waiting for all of your “lovely junks!”

UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage):

  1. Pictures! See above.
  2. Baking dishes/supplies! You will get invited to all sorts of coffee socials and newbie functions and it’s nice to be able to make something to bring. You can totally wing it using a wine bottle as a rolling pin and making 7-minute frosting by hand with a whisk, but it’s nice to be able to just bake an easy pan of brownies too.
  3. Knives! If you like to cook, you’ll want your knives
  4. Favorite plates/coffee cups, etc. GSO is great but it’s not enough if you want to invite people over before your HHE arrives.
  5. If you have kids, this is all pretty much moot, you’ll fill your UAB up with their toys and anything of theirs that you couldn’t fit in your luggage.

HHE/Consumables:I don’t have much to say here except that if it’s a personal toiletry item, and it’s liquid, and you think you might even possibly want to continue using it overseas, buy two years’ worth and pack it in. For example, I thought contact solution was the same all over the world. Not so. The first time I used the Chinese version of Bausch + Lomb, my eyes burned and I couldn’t see clearly for an entire 24 hours. It was really scary. Now I know better. (This might just be a particularly China problem though!)Also, if you cook a lot, it’s worth bringing your own aluminum foil, cling wrap, paper towels, etc. You can usually find that stuff overseas but the quality will be lower and you might find it really frustrating.Giant force-flex trash bags!!! Americans produce more garbage than anyone on the planet, hence we make the best trash bags. Any local version will ultimately let you down.You might also find your cooking changes overseas based on what ingredients you can get. For instance, I think Chris and I used canned tomatoes maybe once a month in the States? In China it was more like once a week!Some people don’t want to bring their artwork or their favorite things because they are afraid they will get ruined. I say what’s the point of packing your favorite things away for twenty years where you won’t get to enjoy them? Chris and I have a few giant paintings that we brought to China and will bring to India and it’s amazing how much more “us” that made the place look.N: I’ve written (half-jokingly) about missing Costco and other uniquely American things (because after all, what is more American than fast food and consumerism?). What did you miss that you didn’t expect to? And what advice do you have for adapting to life without?D: Before we left Washington D.C. I knew that I liked big city living; but before we moved to Chengdu, I didn’t realize how much. Even though Chengdu is a major city of 14 million people, it always felt like a small town. Everyone was from the exact same ethnic group, everyone spoke the same language (Sichuan-hua) and people often wore identical clothes (literally – girls went out wearing the exact same outfits from hairbow down to high heel).  People are born in Chengdu, grow up, go to school, and many times never, ever even leave the province. There are very few restaurants that serve anything but the specific dishes of the Sichuanese cuisine and – even when you see Chengdu families out at other restaurants – say a Taiwanese or a Beijing-style restaurant, most of the time they still only order the Sichuanese dishes on the menu.Things are changing very fast in Chengdu, but in many ways, our time there reminded me of my childhood growing up in a small town in middle America.  I could recognize and understand that sort of world-view and the comfort people felt being surrounded by only people like themselves, but it still felt stifling to me. I still remember the first time we left Chengdu and landed at the airport in KL. Suddenly we were surrounded by people who all looked different, dressed differently and spoke different languages. There were Singaporean-style drinks at the Starbucks and Halal hamburgers available at the McDonalds. There were girls in hijabs and skinny jeans and boys in tight t-shirts holding hands. Instantly I felt comfortable and relaxed in a way I hadn’t in all our time in Chengdu. I looked at my husband and we just sort of watched each other do this giant exhale and breathe in the vibrancy we didn’t even know we’d been missing in Chengdu.On a less meta level I really missed sunshine and the American version of a hiking trail. In China, going for a day hike entails lots and lots of stairs. Stairs clogged with thousands of people stopping every few feet to pose for pictures in the middle of the stairs, buy fruit or ice cream from vendors and later throw the wrappers on the ground.  It’s kind of the opposite of the solitary, peaceful, quality time with nature that we get here in the States.I don’t know if I have any good advice, but I think it’s a useful mental exercise to take some time to, as unemotionally as possible, figure out exactly what it is about the place that is somehow falling short of your expectations or disappointing you in some way. For me, it was realizing that, on some level, I expected a city as big as Chengdu to be more cosmopolitan than it was. My expectations of what restaurants, what amenities, what culture “should” exist in a city of 14 million only made me more and more frustrated every time I left our apartment.  Once I realized how totally misguided my expectations were and I began to think of Chengdu as the big small town that it really is, I was able to make peace with its quirks and ultimately really enjoy many aspects of the small-town lifestyle.  N: On the flip side, what do you miss about post that has surprised you?D: Raising my kid in an environment where no one cares about what you do or how you parent as long as your kid is happy and healthy. That was really nice!Check back tomorrow for Part Two of our interview! We talk about language barriers and making friends, among other things.  And be sure to visit Dani’s blog, Hot Pot, for more Life Lessons from Overseas.*I love this post, not just because I’m a sap for love stories, but because it is a love story about Washington, DC: the place where my husband and I also met and started our lives together and that will always be “home” to us. [Pullquote font courtesy Kayla Aimee at Only Slightly Neurotic.]

Published by La Vie Overseas

I'm Natasha -- writer, runner and wife to a Foreign Service Officer with USAID. Current location: Frankfurt, Germany.

12 thoughts on “First-Post Tips for a Trailing Spouse: Part One

    1. Thank you! Honestly, Dani did most of the work! Drugstore.com is a good idea. Are there restrictions on what can come in the mail, or does it depend on where you’re posted? I still need to look into that.

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