Creative Nonfiction

The (Un)Packing List

Living abroad as an excuse to escape family? Don’t worry, many expats do. An arm’s-length relationship is easier when you’re halfway around the world. 

If you’re nervous about an upcoming visit home, use this handy checklist:


▢ Headphones/earbuds. These tell prying relatives you’re busy or assure neglectful ones you didn’t want their attention anyway. Bring a Y-jack for your partner or loved one, if you’re lucky enough to have one—they can provide a welcome distraction all on their own! 

▢ Digital camera, so you can take an excess of photos. Remember: one significant family member has died during each of your overseas sojourns. Even if you avoid looking at pictures of yourself for months (oh, how you cringe at your image), you’ll come to treasure still frames with departed loved ones. Either in ten years when you want to revisit your most recent memory, or when it’s been long enough to think, looking back, you looked young and cute.

Escape Funds (Because You’re an Adult Now) and Other Distractions

▢ Money. Bring a debit card, a credit card, and plenty of hard cash, in case you need an emergency hotel. Did your favorite aunt scream at you on Christmas, saying you’re just like your awful mother? Call a hotel and taxi, and jet out of there. Remember: you’re worth it! 

▢ Journal and pens. Pretend to catalog your trip and expenses while venting about passive-aggressive comments and lack of support in a more socially acceptable way. Use a journal with acid-free paper like a Moleskine to make those memories last. Or, use a cheap and readily flammable notebook if you want to forget this ever happened. 

Toiletries and Emergency Items

▢ Aspirin. You have to visit your family every couple of years, or it gets suspicious, right? But you’ve learned the warm welcome of the first vacation home from abroad wears off. A step-mother jumping up to drive you everywhere becomes a father who says, “Nope, sorry,” to your request on New Year’s Eve. You’ll need the pain-relieving assistance of an easy-to-swallow tablet when, later in the trip, you ask Dad for help with taxi fare, and he yells, “I didn’t ask you to come home! You chose to! I know it’s expensive, but you chose to!” Your stomach turns. Maybe Christmas wasn’t the best time to visit. Future expat holidays, filled with fried chicken and tiny plastic trees, will leave you briefly homesick but grateful to be far, far away. 

▢ Thyroid pills and size 9.5 shoes. You’re running out of essentials, so you accept your friends’ requests to come home. Maybe going to Toronto on the way was a mistake. Remember, you want to get it over with; not find yourself in the middle of Kensington Market surrounded by bohemian couples, your chest bruised from the inside out. Your breath speeds up, your pace slows down, and your arms stretch to the side for balance. Stumbling into a vegan café, you Google on your phone, “Why does my heart feel squeezed?” Not a smart idea! When you finally leave, the row of Degrassi houses watches as you forget how streetcars work and the commute to your cousin’s house takes three-and-a-half hours instead of one. 

▢ Ativan, multiple. 

▢ Travel-sized shampoo and conditioner. Avoid the stress of using your brother’s specialized herbal formula only to read this warning after: “Do not use if you have high blood pressure.” Your thoughts spin: How high is too high? What will the liquid already soaking in my hair possibly do to spike it even more? Will that cause a heart attack or something? Oh God, oh God, get it out!

▢ Deep breaths, if you can. When shopping alone the next day, you feel like you’re swimming underwater, the pressure pushing against your entire body with only a straw in your mouth for oxygen. Count them: inhale, one, two; exhale, one. No, no, that’s much too short. Try again. Inhale, one, two, three; exhale, one, two. Better. Keep going! 

▢ Company. Friendly faces provide a distraction from your body’s need to panic. The knots in your muscles relax as long as someone is with you. Progress! 

Optional Bring-Alongs

▢ Inflatable pillow. These are handy for snoozing in the car while you travel with bickering parents. An eye mask will complete the look of, “I’m here, what more do you want?” 

▢ Duct tape. Roll it around your mouth in broad swaths to make sure you don’t say anything that could set off a family member. If this is too uncomfortable, wrapping it around a pencil works just as well. You’ll still feel constriction in your airways preventing you from speaking too much, or too openly, by merely being in their presence. 

▢ Gifts. Overcompensate! Fill half a suitcase in addition to the box you sent ahead, the contents of which you mostly forgot and re-purchased, like the sheet masks that seem to have populated like bunnies. You didn’t realize you had so many! Hope that doling these out every few days will charm and distract your parents, buying a few hours of generosity in return, like a drive to the mall or your friend’s house across the river.

Necessary for Trip Cancellation (It’s Not Too Late to Turn Back!)

▢ Acceptance. Your father was right: he never asked you to visit. This time, try waiting until he does. You suspect it will be a long while. 

▢ A change of plan. Consider returning to your home country but not your actual home, if you know what I mean. Send your close friends a lengthy email offering your regrets and an invitation to join you elsewhere.

If reviewing this list has you frantically searching for plane tickets to Boracay, that’s okay. Take the money you’d spend on vegan pizza delivery, an expanding pile of comfy underwear, and years of therapy appointments, and put it toward a beach trip! Slurp down that milk-free Halo-Halo and know that your family will always be there waiting whenand if!you’re ready.

Yolande House tree cropped

Yolande House

Yolande House is a bisexual, disabled writer whose essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Grain, Joyland, and elsewhere. After teaching in Asia for eight years, she’s now based in Treaty 13 territory (Toronto) where she is revising a completed memoir. Visit her online: / Instagram: @healthruwriting / Twitter: @herstorian.