x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A little older, a little wiser and on the move again

It's all very well moving to a new city as a solo expat. But throw children and families into the equation and there's so much more to worry about.

Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

They say that change is as good as holiday. Moving countries, however, takes that old adage to a whole other level. And holiday is not a word that I'd use to describe it, despite the change it brings.

It's been almost five years since my daughter and I moved countries; the last time being from Hong Kong to Abu Dhabi.

That marked the first time my daughter moved countries (and houses, for that matter), having been born in the former British colony.

At just five, it was a difficult, confusing experience for her. Not only was she leaving behind all that she knew, she was moving to a city she'd never visited, let alone heard of.

Before that, it was just me. Moving from Australia to Papua New Guinea seemed relatively simple in comparison. Call in the shippers, get the paperwork done, wait for your visa to arrive and start your new job.

It was the same when I moved from Papua New Guinea to Hong Kong. Another call to the shippers and another wait for the visa to come through.

All I really had to think about was myself.

When I arrived in Hong Kong with a couple of suitcases and a job contract in tow (while the rest of my belongings took the slow route), all I had to worry about was checking into my hotel and negotiating my way to the office. Of course, opening a bank account was on the list, as was finding a decent and affordable place to rent.

Those were the days when I travelled light. By the time I left Hong Kong, I had a whole lot more than when I'd arrived. Child included.

So there was much to consider when we came to Abu Dhabi. And, in hindsight, a lot of lessons to learn, too.

It's all very well moving to a new city as a solo expat. But throw children and families into the equation and there's so much more to worry about.

Getting my daughter into a good school was at the top of my list, although I had no idea just how hard that would be.

Thanks to the huge influx of expats who arrived in the city in 2007 and 2008 - stretching its infrastructure, housing supply and schools to the limit - there were no places available. Anywhere. And the prices were astronomical (some still are) for the quality of education and facilities that were on offer.

It took a couple of years, but we did find a great school for her. And I could finally breathe again. The same goes for where we live.

Looking back, I know I was guilty of not paying enough attention to the high emotional and financial cost of moving to the UAE.

Sure, some things were out of my control, such as finding affordable education and housing (although that has since eased).

I was consumed by the practicalities of the move rather than the impact it would have on our finances and on our emotional well-being (at least in the short term).

Those practicalities included deciding what to bring and what to sell or give away, getting quotes from the relocation specialists to pack our belongings and ship them to our next destination, finding a place in a school before we left, who to bank with, buying a car, finding a nanny and a place to live. The cost of living and tackling a new job were up there, too.

Then there's the people you leave behind; your support network, your friends and even family, especially if it's your first relocation abroad.

It's difficult on many levels, but that's the price an expat family pays in return for career opportunities, attractive salary packages and the chance to make some serious savings for the future.

On the flipside, many of us know that, as expats, we've had some amazing life-changing experiences.

According to HSBC's Expat Explorer Survey 2012, the financial benefits are one of the top motivators for people to move abroad for work.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn't look at the costs involved in setting up in a new country, although if you have a good relocation package, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Then again, I remember reading some time ago that it can take up to two years to recover financially from an international relocation, even if your employer is paying for your move.

If you haven't already guessed, my daughter and I are preparing to leave the UAE.

And you'll be happy to know that I've learnt my lessons during our time here.

In fact, I've just heard back from the school we were hoping she will be able to attend. They've confirmed a place for her, so we are off to a good start - despite everything else that has to be done before we leave.

But I'll fill you in on all that next week.