The Pack Out Paradigm

Monday was Pack Out Day (cue Jaws dun-uh-dun-uh music), the day our entire household got disassembled and dissected, all our worldly goods boxed up and labeled for their journey to our South American onward assignment.

Kitchen Boxes
Boxes in kitchen.

It’s hard for me to express just how deeply I dislike packing out. Think the scene from Julie & Julia where Julia is packaging up a cookbook and mourning her impending departure from Paris…. Then graft in a bit of Oscar the Grouch. And there you have it–me on Pack Out Day.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m deeply grateful that the Foreign Service contracts for moving companies to do the actual packing, the heavy lifting.

Book UAB
Air shipment cartons & books.

But it’s a challenging, stressful process nonetheless as you rub your crystal ball and think your way to a headache, trying to anticipate what should go to storage, what you should ship by air (the small, 450-pound shipment that reaches you first), what you should ship by sea. It’s an emotional thing, too, seeing your current life being dismantled. Excitement, fear of the unknown, anxiety…. It’s all there. Yes, we’re eagerly looking forward to our next destination. But our China post and our China friends have been good to us–it’s turning out to be much harder to say goodbye than I’d predicted.

Safe Room
Our “do not pack,” hand-carry luggage room.

Yet as much as I hate pack outs–a loathing I’m not alone in, though there are rumors of individuals who actually enjoy it–I can admit that the moving process has its positives. (Beyond the obvious one of your stuff making it to the other side of the world with you.)

So here are a few silver linings of the pack out tsunami cloud:

No.1: Packing out forces you to interrogate your belongings. As in, “Why do I even own you?” Or “Why did I think this piece of documentation was worth keeping?” There were several items–clothes, tools, CDs, etc.–that my husband and I set aside when we first moved to China, saying, “If we don’t use X in the two years we live here, we’ll get rid of it.” The number of items that fell into that category was shocking. These are the kinds of things that, if we lived a more conventional life-style, would probably accumulate across 5, 10, even 20 years. But moving every 2-3 years, coupled with the fact that we Foreign Service folks have weight limits for our shipments, forces you to slay the junk dragon on a much more regular basis. If we continue in this career long-term, we stand a good chance of avoiding ever making an appearance on A&E’s Hoarders.

Fragile Sticker
My packing state of mind.

No.2: It offers a good distraction from impending goodbyes. After my last day of work at the Consulate on July 8, I went home and cried. Nothing so dramatic as sobs or hysterics. But a few tears were definitely shed. My job was fulfilling, personally and professionally; it’s only natural to be sad to see it come to a close, especially presaging as it does many more, far more difficult goodbyes yet to come. We’ve already said farewell to one dear set of friends. This week we’ll be saying adieu to still more people we’ve come to value. It’d be far too easy to yield to melancholy in this final week leading to our departure. But the pack out process is so cumbersome and stressful that my having to focus on it allows me a distraction from those sadder emotions. And upon pack out’s conclusion, there’s an additional burst of relief; the successful completion of this weighty task, coupled with the resurrection of your home from chaos (albeit in an emptier state), brings about a sense of triumph that, at least momentarily, tempers the grief.

No.3: It illuminates the tour you’re concluding. Both the belongings I saw packed away and the emptiness of our apartment following those belongings’ exit brought to life a wealth of memories. The wooden elephants we purchased during our trip to Cambodia, and all the fun my husband and I had on our anniversary trip there. The rough silk tablecloth from Thailand, and the game nights we spent with friends, cards and Settlers of Catan pieces spread across the blue and gold threads of the silk. The smoker/grill that

Stacked Book boxes
Part of our book collection, ready to roll via cargo ship.

enabled my husband and I to host Thanksgiving for the first time, producing the smoked turkey our Foreign Service friends garnished with contributions of wine, cranberries, and pecan pie. The now-naked nails throughout our apartment, marking our blank walls with the ghosts of the paintings and photographs a friend helped us arrange. The echoing nature of our apartment now bereft of our books, our decor, our plants, identical to the night we first arrived in Chengdu. Sharply do I remember my feelings during the initial months of our tour: lonely and isolated and struggling to navigate this strange new place, I was resigned to our two China years passing in a greyish sort of blur. Now, looking back at the last two years of my life, I marvel at their fullness, feeling the depth of the blessing they’ve been, full of people and experiences that have colored my life in a truly unique way.

Packing Label
Packing label.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be one of those envy-worthy-but-bizarre people who enjoy pack outs. (I put these strange individuals into the same category as those who like running–quite distinct from those who like having run, the group to which I belong.) But maybe now I can find solace in its benefits, rather than just anticipating its annoyances. By God’s grace, I’ll better maintain a cheerier, Julia-Child-esque attitude when we find ourselves packing out again in two years. In the meantime, I’ll aim to have a better perspective toward unpacking our house upon its arrival in South America–to see it as unpacking promise and hope for the two years we’ll have in our new home.


*Featured image is property of Drew Coffman

4 thoughts on “The Pack Out Paradigm

  1. We are going through this same thing now, although we’re not moving to another country, just across the country (Colorado!). Our Pack Out Day is Sunday. I’ve never heard it called that, but I like it. 🙂 Sounds like something to celebrate, not dread (guilty!). I feel better about my big stack of book boxes after seeing yours, haha. I really liked this post about the difficulty of downsizing books: Maybe you’ll enjoy it, too. Good luck with your move! Hope you’re very happy in your new place and new country. What an adventure!


    1. I don’t think it matters whether a move is trans-state or transnational–it’s hard to leave behind a known, especially if it’s a good known, for the un-known! But congratulations on your own new adventure; may it bring you joy! Thanks for the post recommendation, too. I’m excited to read it! Before we moved to China, we made the painful decision to send half of our books to storage; it left me feeling this weird, quasi-sense of betrayal, sending some volumes to book prison, while their friends joined us on our Asian odyssey!


      1. I sure hope so! We’re getting them out of storage to ship to our onward assignment, so I’m hoping this’ll get me out of the penalty box. Read your suggested post, by the way–loved it! I have a few other book lovers I’m planning on passing it along to; thanks for introducing it to me!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s