What to Pack When Moving Long-Term to Another Country

After 11 years of living abroad in the United States, I’m packing up my life (and the cat) for my move back to Malaysia.

Eleven years worth of belongings. Deciding what to bring back, what to sell, give away or simply leave behind — it’s a bit of a nightmare.

I’ve mailed about 118 kilograms (260 pounds) of items back, spread out over about 10 medium-sized boxes. On my flight, I’ll be carrying a total of about 45 kilos (100 pounds) in carry-on and checked luggage. And the cat.

“It’s just STUFF! Just throw EVERYTHING away,” one of my older lady friends practically screamed.


“Buy new when you get back. It’s nice to have all new things. Right?”

Not really.

I’m one of those tree hugging, conservation advocates who believes in reusing when I can. I’m gonna give away perfectly good dinnerware that may languish in a thrift store for years before getting thrown out, only to end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You won’t find me Kondo-fying my things; if I wasn’t a minimalist to begin with, how is throwing out my stuff gonna help that much? And yes, shipping my things all the way to Asia contributes to pollution, but other people’s packages are headed that way anyway — mine are just joining the ride. At least I’m reusing materials, not creating a need for new resources.

Besides, I like my old things. Quite a few are items I’ve owned for years but have no practical use at all.

Like the “talking stick” I always hung near the head of my bed. I bought it from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., on a day trip I joined during International Student Orientation Week at Penn State, way back in 2003. Seeing that dark brown, pen-sized stick, mini feathers on a string and a ring of sea green beads stuck close to the tip, always told me I was home safe and sound in my own little space in this strange country. Now it’ll go with me to Malaysia — a reminder that I once called another place home.

It’s a souvenir with a little personal story, and I have many more items like that from places I’ve visited, enough to fill three boxes. Those items are not just stuff — they’re memories. When I’m 75 and sitting in my rattan rocking chair, I know I’ll want something to jog my memory of a time gone by.

Still, one can only pack up so many memories. It’s only worth it to spend a certain amount on shipping, and you have to know when to pull the plug. Knowing that I might not stay permanently in the US, I’d always pick the cheapest furniture, cheapest appliances, cheapest household items and to a certain extent, cheapest clothes. In between apartments, I’d lighten the load by leaving something behind for the next tenant, or giving away to people who helped me move. I made it easier on myself by ditching the burdensome clutter but keeping what means the most to me.

While I didn’t need an exercise in packing to know this, it’s helped me fully understand why I’m putting myself through this major upheaval. In my 11 years abroad, I’ve saved memories from my childhood home country too, and now they’ve manifested — the city I grew up in is changing swiftly, my generation has grown up and entering our 30s, and the parents are getting older. The longer I stay here, the more I’m missing out on developments at home that I could be a part of.

Since I can’t be in two places at once, I’ve decided that my priorities are all back in Malaysia for now. Living my early adult years in the States has been an amazing, life-changing experience. I’ve learned knowledge and skills I would never have known had I stayed in Asia. Now it’s time to quit my job here, say goodbye to friends and take my adult self home to rediscover my corner of the world. After I leave the United States, my adventures aren’t over — I’m just starting a brand new chapter.

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