Saturday, September 22, 2012

How We Did It: International Pioneering with Kiddos, Part 1

The thought of moving to a new town can give me heart palpitations. A new country is a whole new ballgame. And yet, we did it (though not without a ton of help!). I know many people who, if they're not seriously considering an international move are, at minimum, curious how we made ours. So, I've laid it out for you here, Cliff-Notes-style.

Like I said, it's a daunting transition. I've been to Baha'i conferences where the topic is pioneering. It goes something like, "Dear friends," (even if we're not actually friends--but we want to be!) the speaker will begin, "We have yet to meet our international pioneering goals for this plan*," then he/she might pause dramatically. "We have yet to establish pioneers in [insert here most remote country you can think of]." There is always at least one, if not several, in the crowd who will--moved by some joy within--jump up and declare, "I'll move there next week!" If you're that person, props. Though you're likely not, since you're reading this particular post. If you're a planner, if you sucked at that getting-to-know you game where you had to fall backwards trusting the stranger would catch you before your skull cracked and leaked out on the sidewalk, if you have your own five-year-plan, then hopefully you'll find a nugget herein. Read on, fellow planner.

So, here's how we did it--the whole, long process from decision to move.
When Josh and I married in 2004, we both knew we wanted to live outside the States. Our primary reason was to international pioneer for the Baha'i Faith, but we were both also blessed/cursed with copious amounts of wanderlust. We'd both traveled fairly extensively and had both lived in foreign countries as young adults before tying the knot. You could say that we came into our partnership with a handful of individual international living experiences which, no doubt, we're pulling from even today.
We took turns finishing up our formal education. In 2008, when we'd taken turns each earning the degrees we wanted to for the time being, we started looking to leave our homeland. We worked. We dreamed. We threw our energies into our children and the Baha'i community. In early 2009, I sat down and looked very carefully at my student loans (we'd paid off both of our Bachelor degrees by that time) and realized we weren't going to pay them off terribly soon. "Josh," I turned to my loving husband, anxious, "we're not going to be done with these loans for a long time. Let's just go."

Step One: Test the Waters
After much consultation, we decided to take an extended international trip to test the waters. Could our family actually live in a different country or were we really just dreamin'? That summer, we spent five weeks in Nicaragua with a pioneering couple and one week in Costa Rica. Knowing that we weren't dealing with many of the stresses of regular life (juggling a job, maintaining a home), we were confirmed: Yes. We can do this. And it feels right. Having awesome hosts in-country didn't hurt either. (Thank you, Mark & Lorine! <3)

Can't make that kind of time commitment in your current life? Spend as much time as you can outside your comfort zone, outside your cultural norm. For example, if you're a peace-loving hippy, go to a few gun shows. If you're a three-times-a-day meat-eater, check out the vegan scene. Be uncomfortable. Often. Then make peace with it to the point where you're okay with yourself and you can sincerely, whole-heartedly respect that others are okay too (even if they aren't anything like you).

Step Two: Set Yourself Up for Success
After that summer in Central America, we laid out our plan to become expatriates. We're both educators, so we've been trained to see the end in the beginning. What do you want your students to be able to do? Where are they at now? What steps need to be taken to connect the dots from here to there? With so many unknowns, we identified the things we knew we wanted regardless of our geographic location to make any transition as smooth as possible (you read it here: we're weenies):

   1. Ability to communicate in local language
     Sucking as I do at languages, I didn't want to learn another. Josh picks up language like he does mangoes at the market, but he was understanding of my wishes. He's just awesome like that. This narrowed our options the-world-around to countries either English- or Spanish-speaking. And no, at this point in the game, we didn't know where we were going to move.
     Our desire to move didn't spring from a political reason ("If so&so is elected, I'm leaving!") or from any kind of distaste for our dear country ("The whatever here sucks, I'm leaving!"). No, no, no. The US is actually quite an incredible country. If you don't think so, consider international travel. It's called perspective. Our desire to move sprung from our belief in unity. As Baha'is, we believe that world peace is not only possible, it's inevitable. But not without a wholelotta work. Learning about and coming to appreciate different cultures, languages, spots on the map, is our way of working towards that unity. We're able to open doors to deeper understanding, allowing for unity not only among individuals, families and communities, but among entire nations. You know, the whole world.

   2. Sufficient savings to live 6 months without income
     This point, more than anything, determined how much longer we would be in the States. After several invaluable consultations with our sweet Auxiliary Board Member, Hal, we decided to fulfill a familial goal (Josh be a stay-at-home dad for Max's last year before school) and then meet this money-goal (which we weren't terribly excited about). We're eat dessert first--or anytime you want it, really--kind of people. Nevertheless, we had two splendid years. It turns out that Josh is a phenomenal stay-at-home dad. That year, I found countless reasons to appreciate him ever-more. <3 Gush. The second year, we worked like dogs while living in the same place with relatively the same expenses as before, saving almost half our income each month. Even though we were both working full time, we had decided it was of the utmost importance to maintain the core activities we'd nurtured for several years leading up to that us-working-full-time-craziness. You may be thinking, Rebecca, it's quite normal for both parents to work and be integral parts to Baha'i activities during the week. Yes, dear reader, I realize this. But we're weak and not nearly as cool as most people. So, it was a struggle. Our ultimate goal, international pioneering, kept us going on days when we felt completely exhausted. We were super fortunate to have the neighbors we did. There will always be a big, special place in my little heart for our wonderful, Mexican neighbors (Who am I kidding? Thank you, all Mexicans, for all of your people's awesome contributions to this planet). These sweet neighbors (several different families) fed us copious amounts of tasty Mexican cuisine at least three times a week as their offspring attended children's class, the mothers participated in RUHI study circles, the fathers learned English (with a Baha'i-inspired, Honduran program), the boisterous junior youth played/studied/served and we attempted devotional gatherings every once in a while. 'Twas joyous.
   In the end, we had a nest egg. Except, we never wanted a nest, so we've been slowly eating the egg. It's delicious, by the way and kept us from starving. Good call on having savings, Hal.

   3. Own relatively few material possessions
      This one wasn't too tough for us. We lived in a little apartment which limited our ability to acquire things. We had two small children which limited our desire to own nice things. And, lest we forget, all of our disposable income automatically went to savings like it wasn't even ours to consider spending. Ta-da! When it was time to move, we sold a few things, gave away several (a friend moved into her own, unfurnished place at about the same time which worked out quite well) and put a few items in storage--aka Mom&Dads. It seemed silly to us to ship anything that would already be available in our destination country (beds, chairs, tables, etc). Nor did we have anything worthy of hauling 3,466 miles across the globe anyway.
      We didn't, however, skimp on books. Books are awesome. Books are also, coincidentally, relatively scarce here in the Dominican Republic. Our collection grew over the course of those two years and is still growing to this day. We put our bookshelves right next to our front door in that little apartment in the States. All the neighborhood kids would come over after school every day and read and read and read. We had a small community library of sorts. We have yet to recreate that sense of community here. Its a bit trickier. But we're getting there. Little by little.

   4. To be valuable human resources
       We became training junkies. Anytime a training was offered at work or in the Baha'i community, we did what we could to take part. I learned a lot about education, both in contexts of the political world and within the Baha'i community's scope. As if that wasn't enough of a blessing, we were then able to experiment with our learning, putting it into practice. I'm fascinated by education in all its forms and functions. 'Tis a truly beautiful process.
       The RUHI Training Institute is all the rage in the Baha'i world (and has been for at least two decades now), and rightly so. It is both simple and complex, spiritual and practical, and it's transforming the world (not just Baha'is). No joke. Where else is there a training institute dedicated to the spiritual transformation of communities being implemented in every country in the world which happens to be immersed in a cyclical process of learning, application and reflection? I'm telling you, jump on board because this thing is inexplicably wonderful. Hubster and I both made sure that we'd been through all the books in the training sequence that were available in our language and area come departure time. (Except I missed one. But Josh has always been cooler than me, so that's par for the course.)

   5. Meet a pioneering goal of the plan*
       Although we've always wanted to international pioneer, the actual goal countries change as the Baha'i communities change and develop. It would have been silly to choose a country to pioneer to before we were ready, assuming our entire purpose is to pioneer for the Baha'i Faith. Make sense? So, when we were ready and we'd looked at the goal list and several other factors had pushed us in a certain direction, we decided. The Dominican Republic. Josh also went to check out the country for a week. I know, I was jealous.

Step Three: Jump. And Then Jump Again... And Again. (Good, now you look excited about this.)
Before we knew it, everything was in place, mostly. We bought plane tickets. That, for me, seals any deal (though I recognize that is entirely in my head). From there, it was just a matter of details and getting over any jitters. Things we considered along the way, which fall under the 'details' category:
   *Getting all travel documents together
   *Making sure we had all of our vaccinations and medications for travel
   *Researching legal status options once in country
   *Finding a place to stay for the first month while we acclimated, figured out where we'd be longer term
   *Contacting the Baha'is, both in our own country and destination country to alert them of our plans
   *Studying the airline's baggage limitations & requirements, then slowly narrowing down what was important enough for us to bring. And weighing it. Then getting rid of more. And weighing it again. This also forced me to think about what I could bring without adding weight to our suitcases. My recipe books? I started a blog the year before we left where I documented all my favorite recipes which I can now access whenever I want without having to physically bring anything. We scanned everything we could. We ripped all of our CDs (who uses CDs anymore, Rebecca?). We ripped all of our movies.
   *Researching kids' schooling options. This one was tough. We ended up deciding to homeschool for the first year to help the kiddos transition in. We are educators and they were still young--pre-school & 1st grade--so it wasn't a huge deal. Timing your move right, you could have enough time to do this research once you're in country. Depending on where you go, there may be only one or two options anyway.
    *Researching employment options. In most cases, you can't. And though we found a few options online, this happens to be a culture that places huge importance on relationships. That's right, you need to show up, in person. Know what? Once we did, we got jobs.
    *Spending lots of quality time with friends and family. Take lots of pictures and videos. The kids will need these as they're adapting to the new place and especially before they have made new friends.
    *Checking out every single book from the library about destination country and moving to a new place. I also bought a few choice ones. And we read them all the time. Our dear offspring were very aware of our plans, where we were going and what we planned to do once there. They shared in our excitement and we comforted them in their anxiety.
    *Looking at all kinds of pictures and travel blogs about destination country with kids. Let's face it, this is not something that hasn't been done before. We are not trailblazers. Or exceptional in any way. We're even living in a time and space where communication is instant and easy. Travel is, dare I say, the most comfortable its ever been in the history of travel. We've got it easy. So, relax. Heck, your seat reclines! And take another free orange juice to compliment your airline-mixed-nuts.

If you're thinking, This list is huge, it's all details!, then you're mostly right. The thing is, the details are important, but they're not the deal breakers in most cases. You being emotionally/psychologically/spiritually ready (or at least willing) and having the appropriate attitude are far more important.
And the most important thing? As Baha'is, we turn to the Writings of Baha'u'llah for this one:

"And when he determineth to leave his home, for the sake of the Cause of his Lord, let him put his whole trust in God, as the best provision for his journey, and array himself with the robe of virtue."  --Baha'u'llah

Trust in God--or some higher power/order if that's more your style--that things will work out the way that they're supposed to. I love this, because while it is not an easy task, it's absolutely accessible for the whole of humanity, which is more than I can say for most things in this world.

Happy travels!

Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.

*The plan I'm referring to is the current course of action for Baha'is around the world, that has been laid out by the Baha'i international governing body, The Universal House of Justice (UHJ). The Baha'is current plan spans 2011-2016 and can be found here. It is most often referred to as "The Five Year Plan".

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