This is the time when thousands of individuals and families who have spent time living in a foreign country, will pack it up and call it a day. If you’ve never been that person you may be surprised that there is a specific high season for leaving but if you call yourself a foreigner I probably just struck a chord. Even if you’re staying right where you are the annual Expat Exodus is a tough time.
If you are leaving, I feel your pain. I was you exactly one year ago. After 7 years in China we found ourselves packing up, saying goodbyes and downsizing the full sum of our family’s possessions into 8 suitcases. To call it a high stress time doesn’t even come close.
Here are ten tips that we have picked up on the journey.
Tip #1: Make a Plan
Seriously. The last days of your expat experience are inevitably going to be chaotic. Your schedule will get crammed with unexpected details and all of the things you really want to do run the risk of being pushed out. The day you wanted to spend with your closest friends will get squeezed by your well meaning 15th closest friends who “need” to take you out to dinner. You get stuck regretting that you missed a lost opportunity with your #1’s or feeling like an absolute jerk to your #15’s.
It all works better with a plan. Start as early as you can. Include appropriate time for your 15’s but reserve your best time for your 1’s.
Take an hour. A day. A weekend. Write it out. Make a spreadsheet. Draw a picture. Whatever works for you but make a plan.
Tip #2: Build a RAFT
One of the simplest and most brilliant plans for transitioning well was developed by the late Dr. David Pollock. It’s called building a RAFT (genius). Paying attention to these four areas can mean the difference between success or failure, flopping or thriving, great memories or horrible regrets. Way too much for one blog post but you should Google it (Try “Pollock RAFT”).
Here’s the short version of what goes into a RAFT:
Reconciliation: Strained or broken relationships don’t go away when you do. Make it right.
Affirmation: People are dense. Don’t assume they know how much impact they have had on your life. Say it well.
Farewell: Different people need different goodbyes. Think beyond people (places, pets and possessions too).
Think Destination: Even if you’re going “home”, much has changed. Brace yourself. Think forward.
Tip #3: Leave Right Now
When are you leaving? June 6th? 15th? 21st?
Chances are you answer that question with the date on your plane ticket. Fair enough and technically correct but if you think you are leaving when you get on the plane you’re missing something really important.
Leaving is a PROCESS — not an event.
You started leaving when you made the decision to go and you will be leaving even as you settle in to your next home. Everything you do as you prepare for the airplane is a part of the process. Each meal with friends, each walk around the city, each trip to the market, each bumbling foreigner mistake are all pieces of the process which is closing out your full expat experience.
You are leaving now.
Tip #4: Give Your Best Stuff Away
What to do with the things you can’t take with you is always an issue. Don’t be surprised when the non-leaving expats come crawling out of the woodworks to lay claim on your toaster oven or your bicycle. Opening your home for a “rummage” sale may be a good way to sneak in some good goodbyes. Posting pictures online or sending an email may get you a better price with less work.
Consider this though — Giving your stuff away might just be a great way to add some gusto to your goodbyes. Giving your BFF something that you could sell for a lot of money can be a powerful expression of how much you value their friendship. It’s not about price. It’s about value. Maybe it’s a cheap trinket with a special memory attached. Even better but give something more than your leftover ketchup and mop bucket.
Go crazy with the pictures. Pictures are what you’re going to be looking at twenty years from now when you can barely remember what life was like way back then. There is no better way to capture great events. More than that though, pictures can become the event themselves. Grab your friends, your camera and hit the town like supermodels. Go to your favorite spots. Eat your favorite foods. Take a thousand pictures (that’s a conservative number) and laugh until it hurts.
You’ll love yourself for doing it in 20 years.
Too crazy for your blood? Tone it down and hire a photographer to do a photo shoot for you and your friends. Then go to dinner.
Picture events can be a great way to say goodbye to your friends and the memories will last for decades.
Tip #6: Rank Your Friends
You read me right. Don’t be afraid to rate your friends from best to worst. Write down everyone you know and tag a number on them. Your highest ranking friends need a special level of your attention as you leave. In contrast you don’t need to do dinner with people if you don’t know their name.
Here’s an example but make it your own
Closest Friends — Quality time alone – Go away for the weekend
Close friends — Go to dinner individually
Good Friends — Go out as a small group
Friends — Invite to a going away party
Acquaintances — Send an email about your departure
Stupid People — Walk the other way when you see them
Important sidenote – Once you have your plan you should destroy all evidence that you ever ranked your friends. Seriously. What kind of person are you? Jerk.
Tip #7: Don’t Fret the Tears or the Lack Thereof
Know what’s really common as you pack up to shift every piece of your life to a different part of the planet and say goodbye to people and places you have grown to love deeply?
Know what else is common?
Lack of emotion.
Strange I know but people are different. Crying makes sense. There is plenty to cry about. However, wanting to cry and not being able to is every bit as normal. Maybe it’s because you’ve already cried yourself out. Maybe it’s because the hard part for you was the process of deciding to leave and you spent all your emotion there. Maybe you just can’t wait to get out.
Whatever the reason — don’t feel guilty for weeping like a baby . . . or for not.
Tip #8: Get specific
When you are telling people how much they mean to you don’t settle for the generic version:
“Hey, (punch on the shoulder) you really mean a lot to me.”
Where I come from, that would pass for good, solid, heartfelt, transparent affirmation. Almost too mushy. But try setting that statement aside for a moment and lead with the specifics.
- What have they done that means so much to you?
- How has that impacted your life?
- What qualities have they shared that you are taking with you?
- What are some specific examples?
- How are you a better person for knowing them?
THEN finish with . . . “and you really mean a lot to me.”
People are dense. Don’t assume they know how you feel.
Bonus Tip: You get extra points for being awkward. Make eye contact. Go for broke.
Tip #9: Do Your Homework
What’s the protocol for checking out of your apartment complex?
What’s the penalty for breaking your lease?
What immunizations and paperwork does your cat need to fly home with you?
Does he need to be quarantined? Before you leave? After you arrive?
How do you close out your bank account? Your cell phone?
What’s the weight limit for luggage on your airline? What’s the penalty for going over?
This list goes on and on and only bits and pieces of it are relevant to you. But in the masterful words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”
A little homework early can save you a huge headache and a boatload of cash during an already stressful time.
Tip #10: GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself
When your good friend finds out you’re leaving and asks if he can have your TV . . . Give him some grace.
When your kids don’t know how to process so they just fight . . . Give them some grace.
When your husband shuts down and doesn’t talk for a day . . . Give him some grace.
When your wife explodes for “no reason” . . . Grace.
When your landlord tries to milk you for some extra money . . . Grace.
When the whole community doesn’t even seem to care that you’re leaving . . . Grace.
When your #15 asks if she can ride to the airport with you and your #1 . . . Grace.
When someone offers you half what your asking for your Christmas tree . . . Grace.
When you fall apart and snap on your friends, your kids, your spouse or the lady trying to steal your Christmas tree . . . it’s for you too . . . Grace.
Leaving is hard. There’s really no way around it. People whom you love dearly will inevitably and with the best of intentions, say and do very stupid things. So will you.
If you are packing up, I hope this helps.
If you know someone who is packing up, please pass this on.
If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy. Add your tips. What worked for you?
Click here for Part 2 about what happens after the plane ride: Landing Well — 10 More Tips on Repatriating With Dignity
And here for Part 3 about saying goodbye and going nowhere: Staying Well — 10 Tips for Expats Who Are Left Behind