It’s hard to believe that we only have a year left on this island. Equally hard to believe is that a year ago, we were at Disney land! Looking back to our trip to Disney puts time in perspective for me. Sometimes if feels like our time on Sint Maarten is an eternal summer that can never end, but our time here is not so very long after all. I don’t know if that makes me happy or sad. I do look forward to a new season and actually being able to have a job, but I don’t want to leave the friends and the life I’ve made here. Time just keeps ticking on.
The reason we went to California was because of Ben’s interview for American University of the Caribbean. We drove six hours to LA (and then another three through LA for the last twenty miles to the interview location) from Phoenix for the interview and a getaway weekend. At first, we weren’t sure if Disney tickets were a wise financial decision, since our med school location was still up in the air at that point. But my parents decided that we needed to go– especially since Ben had never been to a Disney park. So they gave us tickets!
Of course, we had an awesome time at Disney Land. It had been a decade since I’d been, so we discovered it together. I had the layout of Minnie Mouse’s house memorized, but I didn’t even remember that Frontierland exists! The fireworks were rained out, but we were able to see something better– the Abe Lincoln show. Seriously, that’s the best part of Disneyland. After Rapunzel, of course.
Ben nailed his interview. A few weeks later, we knew where we were going to go for med school: some faraway island called Sint Maarten where people stood on the beach and let airplanes fly a few hundred feet above their heads.
We started planning. We had no idea what life would look like. No idea what our home would be, who our community would be, what we’d do in our free time. Everything was behind the next door, and we couldn’t wait to step through it.
We’re kind of in the same boat now. In a year, we’ll leave again. We don’t know what life will look like or where we’ll be headed.
A year ago, we were at Disney. A year from now, we’ll be getting ready to move again. Life changes fast. I don’t want to miss the moment I’m in now. Sometimes, I just wish away time so I can get to the next new and exciting thing. But I know I need to hold on to each precious season and moment. There are so many years of change and adventure ahead, but I’ll never get this day back! So I’ll make the most of it.
Moving overseas is a momentous operation. But it does not need to be a miserable one! There are many things that you can do to make your big move easier and happier. Before I made my first big overseas move, I worked for a company that operated internationally. As part of my job, I briefed and trained interns who were heading overseas for a few months or years. I learned a lot in the process and soaked up insight from my husband, who has made five major international moves in his life. And when I finally had my chance to go, I learned for myself what it’s like to transition cultures and countries.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Everyone has different experiences, and I’d love to hear your stories and insights in the comments, too.
Expectations. This is the single most important thing to consider when you’re moving overseas, especially if you’ve never visited that place before. The truth is, your expectations define your experiences. They are the biggest culprit in relationship breakdown and disappointment in general. Before you go, write down your expectations so that you know what they are. Read them over and remind yourself that you have a 99% chance of every one of those things being different than you think! For example, I was totally convinced that I would get fresh mangoes off the tree every day in Sint Maarten. Not so– everything is imported. Try to prepare yourself for this sort of thing. Have as few expectations as possible. Be open to new and surprising things, and make it fun.
The big fights. One side effect of leaving is that you will find yourself experiencing tension with the ones you love most. Don’t worry; you’re not losing your mind. This is normal– and knowing that makes big blow-ups avoidable. The inclination to fight is your subconscious’ way to make leaving people easier. Obviously, it has the opposite effect. Remember that the people you are leaving are experiencing loss, too, as they say goodbye. Have grace for others, and ask them to have grace for you.
Saying goodbye. Saying goodbye is hard, but closure is important. Let people know you’re going. Meet with friends and make plans to keep in contact.
What you need to pack. What you need to bring? Probably nothing more than yourself and your passport. Of course, your clothes and books are nice to bring, too. As you prepare to go, redefine “need” and “want” in your mind so you can judge what will be helpful to you and what will be cumbersome. Be sure to bring a few things that will remind you of home– maybe some photographs. Don’t spend a ridiculous amount of money toting the entire contents of your home across the ocean when you can replace it for cheaper when you get there.
Your first day. The last thing you should do when you land is go to your new home and surround yourself with American (or Canadian, or whatever) things and people. Even if you’ve been on a plane for fourteen hours, try to spend your first couple hours on the ground immersing yourself in the culture. Go shopping. Take a walk downtown. Ride the bus. And remember that the faster you force yourself to adapt to a new time zone, the faster the jet-lag will wear off.
Staying sane. Culture stress is a real thing. Some people feel it quickly, others don’t. Generally, most people experience the “honeymoon stage” for about three months and then go downhill from there. Rock bottom is at two years, and then things start to look up. However, charts and graphs can’t define your experience. This journey is what you make it, and somehow you’ll have to survive the bad days and the homesickness. Go exploring, try out restaurants, shop where the locals shop. Journal regularly, and start a blog so your friends back home can follow your adventures. Skype friends and family regularly. Write lists of what you love about this place. Write lists of what you hate and turn them into positives.
Take care of yourself. Unfortunately, people take advantage of foreigners. We see this in our home countries, and it’s just as true anywhere else. Being taken advantage of can range from being quoted the “white price” on buses to date rape and muggings. Learn what the safe and dangerous places are, get to know local prices, and don’t take unnecessary risks.
Feel what you feel. Not what you think you’re supposed to feel, not what your boyfriend thinks you should feel, not what a “strong” person would feel. Adjustment is hard. And that’s OK.
Have Fun! With all of these points on how to survive an international move, it might sound like I think moving overseas is a drag. But transitioning to a new place can be a lot of fun! Enjoy yourself. Take a thousand and two photos. Try things you’ve never done before.
Community. Without community, you will have a tough time feeling at home. Build community with other expats in your area. Make friends with locals, too. Both are essential for being truly integrated in your new home. Find a church, find a club, invite people over.
Get involved. Becoming part of the community and culture around you will bring you joy and save you from many days of loneliness and wishes of a return ticket home. Some of my friends and I volunteer a few days a week to tutor kids with a local program. This really was the best thing we’ve done on this island– we were all feeling a little lost and isolated until we started focusing on something other than our own lonely selves. A sense of purpose brightens life anywhere you are.
Understand the culture. The best gift you can give to yourself is the ability to understand the place you are living in. Learn the basics– how to properly greet people, what is decent apparel, and how to get around. New cultures can be frustrating at first, but remember that just because things are different it doesn’t mean that they are wrong. In the end, you’ll have fun as you achieve little cultural victories and begin to be able to understand and use the new language or dialect around you.
Here’s a special post written by my husband, Ben. This is his story.
A single set of car headlights could be seen bobbing up and down on a remote dirt road at midnight. Our jeep jolted over every bump as it raced through the night. My parents were driving me to Heri Adventist Hospital in remote Tanzania. I had appendicitis and needed immediate attention. My only hope was a surgeon named Dr. Alvin Rocero, the only person within hundreds of miles that could perform such a surgery. The journey was not a comfortable one, and each bump caused a sharp pain in my lower abdomen.
After several hours, we arrived and Dr. Rocero was there to meet us. We were so grateful that he and his team were willing to receive us so late at night. The staff performed the necessary blood tests and confirmed that I had an elevated white blood cell count. I remember being wheeled into the operating room and after the anesthetic, blackness.
I awoke the next morning, blurry eyed and confused, but grateful to be alive. The appendectomy had been successful. A four inch incision, complete with stitches, marked the lower right side of my abdomen, since the materials for a laparoscopic appendectomy were not available in rural Tanzania. As I lay there in the hospital, I watched the medical staff come and go. I saw the incredible needs that they met with limited personnel and equipment. I saw the love with which they served people they did not even know, treating each patient with the utmost care.
Five months later, I injured my knee while playing rugby at my boarding school in Kijabe, Kenya. I underwent a successful arthroscopic surgery at Kijabe Mission Hospital. Unfortunately, thirty minutes after the operation, I began to get a severe headache. The pain escalated until it was unbearable. I do not remember what happened after that, but the hospital staff said that my fever spiked and I slipped into a coma. My condition worsened by the minute, and the doctors thought that I was going to die. They called my parents, telling them to get on the next flight from Tanzania to Kenya because they did not think that I was going to survive. However, they performed a spinal tap and discovered that my cerebral spinal fluid was a milky color. Doctor Myrick immediately suspected meningitis and started me on intravenous antibiotics. His quick decision saved my life. Thirty minutes after they administered the antibiotics, I snapped out of the coma and began to recover.
In the span of six months, I had endured much pain and suffering and almost died twice. It had not only affected me physically, but also mentally and emotionally. I realized how fragile life is and how quickly it can be lost. As I recovered in those mission hospitals, I had ample time to reflect on this and to observe the personnel who worked there. They had not only administered to me with loving care but also to everyone else. These people dealt with stressful situations every day. They were either paid too little or not at all. Many of them had sacrificed lucrative practices in the United States to come and voluntarily serve thousands of medically underprivileged people. Yet, they treated each patient with the dignity and respect that every human life deserves. Just because the services were free or at expense costs did not mean that they did the bare minimum. These people went above and beyond. They saw me. Not just whether I needed another antibiotic injection, or an IV bag, but they saw the trauma that I had gone through. They took compassion on me. They would talk to me to make sure that I was doing OK. They noticed when I was confused about something and clarified it until I understood. They exhibited the often-forgotten part of caring for people—to actually care about them. Many medical professionals can easily give a good first impression based on their physical appearance. However, all of that can be quickly forgotten if they are aloof, uncaring, and insensitive. People want to know that doctors care. They want to see it in tangible ways. It is a life-long journey of learning how to become a more compassionate and caring healthcare provider. I believe that is what separates the great doctors from the mediocre doctors.
Living through these experiences inspired me to become a doctor, a compassionate and caring doctor. I want to be a physician who can care for physical ailments and conditions, but also someone who can empathize with the hurt, the confusion, the pain, the stress, the unknown, the chaos, the unfair, and the loss that patients in hospitals experience every single day. There will be many tough cases that I will face daily. There will be many demands that are placed on me. People will be difficult. Patients will be ungrateful. Technology will become frustrating. Co-workers will not cooperate. Even though all of these things will happen, I will choose every single day to see the needs of people, not just their physical needs, but their emotional and spiritual needs as well. I want to comfort the person who is crying, to acknowledge the one who feels lonely, and to clarify when I see confusion in someone’s eyes. I want to be there when someone’s world is falling apart. Being a compassionate and caring doctor is a lifelong process. It is part of being a true professional; a professional who cares.
Today is the day! We were up until the wee hours last night packing our bags, and somehow spent almost the entire day today finishing our moving preparations. It’s hard to explain the emotions of moving away from home for the first time ever. Maybe that’s because it hasn’t really sunk in yet. Right now, I’m sitting at our gate with an hour to go until takeoff. I’ll have fourteen hours to process this huge change once we are in the air.
I’m excited but sad. I’m excited because I’ve been looking forward to an adventure in the great wide world for so long, but sad because of those I’m leaving behind. Someone recently asked me what God has been teaching me through this process. One of the biggest things He’s taught me is to place less value on the things I can buy and more value on the things I can’t. In other words, I’ve learned to appreciate people even more through this move. I’ve always been thankful for the people in my life, but now so more than ever. It’s been one of the most bittersweet lessons I’ve ever learned, because I’m now moving far away from those same people. There have been so many goodbyes this month. The hardest of them happened just ten minutes ago, when I said good-bye to my family at the entrance to airport security.
The past few weeks have been so wonderful. We have been absolutely showered by love from friends and family. We’ve had so many encouraging notes and words given to us, so many gifts, so much generosity. My parents opened their home to us when our lease expired at the end of July. Our church gave us a special send-off prayer and blessing. Even one of the little girls in our Sunday school class brought me homemade jewelry on our last day of teaching. We’ve also had so many fun things to do. I’ve loved our “Arizona Adventures,” exploring points of interest around the state. I’ve loved our babysitting jobs for kids from the school I worked at last year. I haven’t loved the heat, but I did use that to my advantage (My sister and I baked cookies on the dashboard of my car last week).
The next few weeks will be wonderful, too. We have a week and a half before Ben’s classes start, and we have a whole island to explore– Spanish ruins, beaches, surfing, new food. I have lots of plans, but hardly any idea of what to expect! You know how you plan so much for Christmas that you hardly remember that December 26 exists? That’s how I feel right now. I’ve come to the culmination, to the end of my knowledge, and now I don’t know what comes next! I suppose that’s part of the adventure. I’ll find out what comes next when our plane touches down. Until then…
We’re about a month from our move to St. Maarten! We already have an apartment ready for us to move into when we land. We’ll be living in Rising Sun Apartments, a two minute walk from Ben’s medical school and a five minute walk from the beach. It is a one-bedroom and is 490 square feet, bigger than our current apartment, which is nice! It’s also almost twice as expensive, which you have to expect from a touristy island where nearly all the area’s apartments are owned by one single company. I’m planning to fix it up like a beach cottage and get crafty with shells and rocks that I find on the beach. Our place is close to the airport and also conveniently near to two or three shopping centers. We don’t plan to have a car– shipping our Kia would not be worth it, so we’re selling it to my sister. Public transport on the island is supposed to be pretty good, anyway. We don’t use public transport in Phoenix– the city is so spread out that the bus system is not as effective as it is in other big cities. Getting used to using buses will be a new adventure! We liked using buses when we were in the Bahamas last summer. I wonder if it will be similar.
Here is a video that shows the sights of St. Maarten. You can get a feel for where we’ll be living if you watch this. We will NOT, however, be sandblasted by jets landing and taking off near Maho Beach! Not our idea of fun… we’ll be surfing.
We are officially set to move to St. Maarten! We have plane tickets for August 18, Ben’s medical tests are done, our letters of good standing are filed away with the school, and all the little checklist items have been completed. Our move itself is relatively inexpensive. Our total cost for two one-way tickets is under $500. Since we can’t take a moving van with us, we won’t have that expense, and we decided to leave our car here rather than take it with us. We get to bring two 50-lb suitcases each, so anything we want will have to fit in those and in our carry-ons and personal items.
The last two or three weeks have been filled with sorting, planning, purchasing and preparing. We only owned one large suitcase, so we went to Goodwill (actually, four Goodwills) and bought three more. Our total was about $45 for all three, and they are strong and in good shape. I love second-hand stores.
Our first course of action in preparing to leave our apartment was to declutter it entirely. Don’t you hate moving and sorting through unused junk at the same time? I thought I had decluttered my stuff when we got married and moved in to this apartment a year ago. Turns out I was wrong. Apparently, I have saved every single bank receipt since I was seven–and categorized them by month in envelopes. Same with pay stubs since I started a regular job as a college freshman. I also saved and organized all my college notes, assignments, and syllabuses by class and semester. By the time I went through all of that and all the random papers stuffed in between books on the bookshelf, our trash and shred piles were enormous. We managed to condense our giant accordion folder into one and a half tiny ones. Fortunately, we also found some long-lost important paperwork that we needed.
After we went through our papers, we went through the rest of our random stuff- you know, the kind of stuff that ends up being shifted from the bookshelf to the table to under the bed to the closet and back to the bookshelf? That stuff you can’t do anything with but can’t get rid of? As it turns out, we actually could get rid of most of it. It’s amazing how much stuff I thought I needed until I started planning to move overseas. We also wrote down everything that was left and decided what we would do with it– sell it, give it or donate it, store it at my parents’ house, or take it with us. The list of what we’ll actually need to take is quite short. It mostly consists of books and clothing. The stuff we’re storing is the stuff we can’t take, but will use to set up house again when we return to the States, such as our dishes, bedding, and that kind of thing, as well as things we got as wedding gifts that are too big or too heavy to take with us.
Speaking of books, we also went through those. My books are my friends, so it was hard to say goodbye to so many of them (but not nearly as hard as it will be to say goodbye to our human friends). We packed up about half our books to sell or give away (I kid you not- half of our books). I think I also still have a nice collection of Bible commentaries at my parents’ house, but I don’t count that because it hasn’t been in our apartment. Besides, Ben has Logos software, which contains most of the best scholarly Bible study materials anyway, so print books aren’t really necessary. They’re too heavy to move, and an iPad isn’t (I hate to write that– I’m still a supporter of pages. I love pages far more than screens). Perhaps there also comes a point when a book may be good, but if I’m really not going to read it again, and probably won’t loan it to anyone because it’s not quite that good, then I really don’t need it anymore. Share the love; sell it and let someone else enjoy it. Maybe that’s my attitude because I know I really don’t have a choice at this point; maybe I’ll be a book hoarder again when (if) we settle down and stay somewhere for a long while someday.
I had already gone through my clothing once, so I had (for the first time ever!) fewer clothes than Ben did. I had already sold or donated about 1/3 of my clothes, and I think that yesterday we probably got rid of half of what was left between his clothes and mine. We stuffed them all in a giant laundry bag, which Ben says weighs more than I do. According to minimalist websites and my own findings, all you really need for clothing is seven T-shirts, five nice shirts, a handful of dresses (unless you’re a guy… switch this for button-ups), a blazer and business skirt/dress pants, a sets of workout shorts, a pair of denim shorts, a pair of denim capris (or your favorite substitute), two pairs of jeans (one dark pair for dressing nice and one work pair), a few skirts if you’re a girl, one or two jackets, some warm things for cold climates (not sure what that entails, because I live in Phoenix) and enough socks and underwear to last a week or two. I actually kept a few more skirts and dresses than I need because I like them and they fit in the suitcase. In reality, what one REALLY needs for clothing looks nothing like this. You can survive on a lot less clothing, and most people in the world do.
If you are not interested in cutting down your wardrobe, come to our garage sale in July and take some of those clothes off our hands at a great price…
We packed our clothing suitcases yesterday, just to see what we could fit. All our clothes, plus shoes, cosmetics, and nail polish, fit into two suitcases weighing exactly 49 pounds each. Now we have two remaining suitcases, two carry-on bags, and two personal items to fill. We’re taking about 20-25 books, including some of Ben’s science textbooks, and I suppose we’ll decide later what things are most important to fill the last the space in our luggage.
Thanks for reading this long post! Maybe I’ve inspired some of you to take a weekend or two and declutter a bit. It’s amazing what we keep in our closets, bookshelves, and bedrooms that we really don’t need. Cleaning out the clutter is making our home more peaceful and our lives more simple. That is a great reward. Oh, and did I mention that we found almost $100 in the process? Now, if that doesn’t motivate you…
Three weeks ago we got the news… Ben was accepted to medical school at American University of the Caribbean! AUC is located on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, a tiny island in the Caribbean. It’s beautiful.
The past couple of the weeks have been a flurry of activity. Ben’s teaching job ended a week ago, and immediately after we flew to Indiana for our friends’ wedding. Since we’ve been back, we have spent the last four days doing almost nothing but prepare for the trip. We have a small one-bedroom apartment, but the amount the random needless stuff we have found so far is enough to furnish a mansion! At least that’s what it feels like as we take our nightly trip to the dumpster. This morning, it looked like a wild chimpanzee broke in and had a disco party in our living room. After we get rid of all the trash, we still have to sort through the stuff to store, sell, and pack. It looks like we won’t be able to take much; whatever we bring will have to fit into two suitcases each. Fortunately, I’ve read that the island has just about anything you can find on the mainland, just not much variety.
We found a place to live today, a one-bedroom in an apartment that is a short walk from campus and just a few minutes to the beach. I can’t complain– I’ll have Ben home for lunch every day and the ocean within sight! The only downside is that it is going to cost us $1,100 per month, plus utilities. Believe it or not, that is actually in the inexpensive side for island living! Despite the cost, it will be nice to have a little more space and the ability to walk where we need to go.
As an aside, I started a CafePress shop this week! My products are inspired by the third culture and cultures around the world. Come see my artwork and designs: http://www.cafepress.com/thirdculture
Keep us in your prayers as we make this transition… it still hasn’t completely sunk in yet that we’re leaving, but it’s coming soon.