Is An Expat Experience the Ultimate In Family Travel? Part I

I don’t know how one can anyone can completely scratch the foreign travel itch. It is insatiable. It is insufferable. And I am sure, for some people, is an addiction, for certain.

And, if you choose to have a family, you realize, you can’t afford the number of vacations you crave.

We’re three years home from the ultimate trip. A few years ago, we relocated our young family to Brisbane, Australia, for just under two years.

Why Go Expat?

What compels a thirty-something American, middle class couple and parents of two small children to upend everything and leave the comforts of a mortgaged house in the west hills of Portland, Oregon? I’m still not sure.

It certainly wasn’t money nor the lure of a plush, executive expat business assignment I’d seen in the movies. Nor was it a midlife crisis. We were too young for that.

To be perfectly frank, I’m pretty sure the Kindergarten year and the fear of a predictable American life was the motivator. Kindergarten kicked us in the pants in the responsibility department. No one talks about it, but all of a sudden this world of parenthood you own and create for five years becomes part of massive system that you have to report in to every day and it comes with lots of paperwork and other people telling you what to do and where to be and how to be (it’s called school and attendance I’m being dramatic, but that’s how I felt. I’m much better about it now!).

It seemed as though the next 16 years of public school and sports schedules stretched before us like a giant ball and chain.

That, combined with the fact that over the previous five years, my sister had fallen in love and married a South African husband and was raising her young family on a merino farm in remote Africa – and I missed her fiercely.

I missed her so terribly bad for a few years, that I decided I couldn’t sit around Oregon and be sad any longer. And I couldn’t afford to visit her nearly as often as I’d like. We’d already made two trips to South Africa with the kids using money we’d borrowed against our house. So we decide to aim for a working vacation; perhaps try for an expat assignment.

Going While the Kids are Young

We knew we needed to do it while the kids were young enough to be malleable and adaptable. Pre-teens or teenagers would need more security in an established social group, we figured. I now realize we could have done it any other time - as many families go at other stages - but this worked for us.

Our kids were still portable, adaptable and game. Only our 6-year-old son was in school – just finishing kindergarten, of course.

After a brief bit of disbelief, he quickly felt our excitement and made us promise surf lessons (and he got them). Our 3-year-old didn’t care as long as she was with us. Though -- and I’m going to gloss over this part to spare the sentimental fool I am -- saying goodbye to my parents and school, even at these young ages, presented a fair amount of grief.

Though, we knew we were coming back. And that made all the difference.

Where You Can Go - And How

We were so desperate to go - almost anywhere - that we considered lots of avenues, i.e. taking on completely new careers or companies in Europe or doing family volunteer work in South America. And we certainly tried professional connections in my husband’s field of environmental consulting to try and end up near my sister in South Africa (it didn’t work out).

Even though we knew a fair number of American family expats in our local U.S. community, as it turns out -- unless you’re presented with an opportunity by an existing employer -- most families don’t go seeking expat scenarios. Expat scenarios come to them.

Here’s why; being sponsored by a company or organization, we discovered, is a very critical part of success for a family while overseas. Moving anywhere outside the U.S. is expensive and the paperwork and visas and sponsorships and logistics and legalities of foreign movies are exhausting and overwhelming. Without some type of community or employer or security or help moving you and your stuff back and forth, you're faced with more roadblocks than you can imagine.

After considering many crazy scenarios that could have involved us selling everything or living in a volunteer village or risking it all and taking foreign jobs. We ended up decided we should have some parameters, after all:

  • We wanted the experience to last four years or less

  • We wanted to return to our home in Portland, Oregon

  • We ultimately decided we should live somewhere relatively safe and secure for our small kids

My husband knew they were looking for foreign workers through his current employer -- a major environmental engineering firm. But, our options for an overseas assignment with his company were Australia . . . . or . . .  the other side of Australia (pretty much another country). Perth on the East Coast was the first option, and later they offered us far remote tropical northern town of Townsville (think crocs in the street!) and finally Brisbane came to be a choice.

We chose Brisbane. The offer was officially made in August and we arrived in Brisbane on December 1. It all happened very quickly.

As I tell it, nothing - and I mean nothing, not even childbirth or becoming a parent - was as hard as the monumental task of closing up life in the U.S. and relocating to another country. This time, I’m not being dramatic.

What Happens to Your Life Back Home?

Depending on a family's specific expat situation, your life back home could have one of several pause buttons.

  • Is your move included in your assignment? Is your company moving a certain amount of your furniture or will they compensate you when you arrive for new furnishings?
  • How expensive is it to live in the place you’re moving?
  • If you have an open-ended work assignment, you could sell everything, go simple and start over completely in a new land. It’s not actually as bad of an idea as it seems.
  • If your foreign work visa is for a certain time, you may choose to pack things away and take only the minimum and rent your house out.

We had a four year work visa but expected we’d only stay two or three years. And the company was moving our things (so it was cheaper to take them with us then store them.) So, we chose to rent our U.S. home out and sell one car. We lent the other car to my parents. We cleaned and sorted and pared-down (healthy). This wasn’t a complete commitment to a long-term foreign life -- but it ensured we had a home to come back to and that our mortgage would be paid for while we were gone. And that was peace of mind that paid off when we had to come back earlier than expected.  


- Up Next: “Family Expat Living Part 2: Arrival, Acclimation and Departure” -