Somewhere around the halfway mark of my recent holiday in Singapore, dermatological disaster struck. A week of constant ping-ponging between the sweltering heat and the Arctic air-conditioning so beloved by the locals had reduced my hands to an eczematous mess. I hightailed it to a nearby pharmacy in the hopes of scoring some antihistamine tablets to soothe my ragged soul and itchy fingers.
Clutching my pills and dreamily anticipating that first sweet hit of Zyrtec, I bumped into a woman on the way to the cash register. We smiled distractedly at each other as we took our places in line. Not 30 seconds later, she turned to me and said in a rush, “I just found out we’re moving back to the States and I’m not supposed to say anything to anyone yet but is it okay if I talk to you about it because I don’t know you so it doesn’t really count.” Then she took a much-needed breath and looked at me expectantly.
I blinked a few times, willing my sluggish brain to make the shift from impending itch relief to impending repatriation.
“Er, congratulations,” I said. “How do you feel about it?”
With that, the floodgates opened. This poor woman was so rocked by her unexpected news, she didn’t know which way was up. Relief, despair, excitement, dread, uncertainty — a slideshow of emotions flitted across her face. It was clear she hadn’t even begun to process what was about to happen. When she found out that I’d already made that particular journey — and survived — she pounced.
“I’ve got two months left,” she said in a voice that wobbled just a little. “What should I do?”
“Build a raft,” I replied.
Okay, so perhaps I wasn’t quite as clear as I could have been. (My fingers were on fire, after all.) What I meant to suggest was that she follow the predeparture process outlined by the late David Pollock, co-author of the fabulous book “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds.” Pollock used the acronym RAFT to refer to the four crucial steps every expat should take before moving on or moving back:
Reconciliation. It’s so easy, when you’re an expat, to avoid the messy business of repairing broken relationships. Why bother, when your eventual move will solve the problem for you? You may think clearing the air before you leave is too much hassle, but the truth is, leaving unfinished business behind will only get in the way of a successful transition. If you’ve burned some bridges, shore them up. You can’t move forward if there’s a weight holding you back.
Affirmation. Don’t even think about setting foot on that airplane without first affirming your valued relationships. Make sure those who meant something to you during your stay know it. Thank them for their love and friendship. Promise to stay in touch. And then do it.
Farewells. Taking the time to say a proper goodbye is a gift to those you leave behind. But don’t just stop at your friends — include all the people who brightened your life in some way. One thing I did right when I left Bordeaux was making a point of bidding adieu to my favourite waitress at the café where I spent so many happy hours. (I didn’t want her to wonder why I wasn’t coming around anymore.) And it’s not only people who deserve your farewells: visit your favourite places one last time, eat your favourite foods, engage in your favourite activities. Give them the leave-taking they deserve, and they’ll live on in your memory unsullied by any pesky feelings of regret.
Think Destination. A bit of soul-searching is in order here. Honestly assess how you feel about the place you’re leaving and the place you’re headed to. Be realistic in your expectations of what lies ahead. This may require some research into both the practical side of the move (where you’ll live, how you’ll spend your time), and the emotional side (how you’ll deal with culture shock or re-entry shock). Doing a little prep work now will save a lot of grief later.
By the time I’d run through the RAFT, our time together was up. “Thank you,” she said as she turned toward the cash register. “Good luck!” I replied. And I headed back out into the steamy afternoon air.