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updated 12:00 PM UTC, Nov 17, 2017
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Expat Nightmares; Cross-Cultural Adaptation

Its is difficult to believe that many multinational corporations spend from 150,000 to as much as half a million US dollars on moving an expat family to China. It is also then quite staggering to realise that half of such money was a complete waste.

Despite evidence to suggest that China is among the most preferred destinations for expats, a variety of reports put a figure of as much as 50% on the number that leave China within the first year. Need comforting? Those who survive initial shock stand a better chance of faring better in their second and third year with failure rates dropping to around 30%.

Of course, the expatriate manager coming to their new job in China faces a new set of hurdles to overcome.They need the specialist knowledge and skills unique to their operation, but they also require the flexibility to adapt to a hugely different and complicated business environment.

Depression is a lot more widespread than many people realise

The early return home is often blamed on stress and low job satisfaction.Those who remain still struggle daily with cross cultural adaptation and many operate at decreased capacity. As a result, depression is a lot more widespread than many people realise. While it is impossible to provide expats with a one-size-fits-all solution to their relocation woes, much has been done in understanding the concept of interpersonal conflict as a driving force in cross cultural adaptation.

The divisive "us versus them" mindset

It is obvious that to be remotely successful, expats need to become comfortable with the values, attitudes and normal practices of doing business in China (and this is obvious to the expats that end up going home early too), but more notably it is the inability to learn new behaviour and respond appropriately during interpersonal interactions, that raises the likelihood of the expat rejecting Chinese culture; and developing the divisive “us versus them” mindset, ultimately leading to their return home.

Research has shown there are three broad categories of interpersonal conflict that expats most frequently encounter in their working lives abroad:

  • Differing perceptions of time, urgency and implementation
  • Negative stereotypes

  • Ethical dilemmas

Expats are frequently depressed at difficulties experienced in implementing new ideas. What is often forgotten is that anywhere on earth the outsider will display a greater bias for action than their local counterpart, who shall have a better knowledge of the lay of the land, the impracticalities of the proposed plan or potentially hostile political fallout that may come about as a result.

Pressure to coerce, bribe or worse

The legal system in China is modernising rapidly but remains a complicated mystery to the average expat with countless laws that are perhaps less rigorously enforced than in one’s home country. Coupled with incomprehension of the language, it becomes therefore impossible for the foreign manager to ensure all their decisions be unquestionably legal. It thus also follows that all such action on the manager’s behalf may also be interpreted as a transgression of one legal boundary or another; leading to pressure to coerce, bribe or worse, and again to heightened stress levels for the already confused expat.

The same companies referred to earlier (perhaps those with major shareholdings in international relocation firms) are also those that then spend nothing on training these relocatees. Perhaps part of the problem is that such an issue is often handled in the same way as if someone were relocating from east coast to west coast USA, i.e. as a relatively minor Human Resources project handed down to a junior employee. Realistically, as China becomes more important to the global economy and in particular to the companies moving people here, should they not be discussing the potential loss of up to half a million dollars at board level?

A major US company planning to send a large number of expats to this part of China (anonymously) told The Nanjinger that despite a rigorous process that hones out those that may have difficulty adapting culturally, they still have an extremely tough time in convincing people to come. Perhaps they should focus on those of their employees who have an inbuilt sense of optimism; those who believe we can work through the difficulties and misunderstandings that exist between us, and that tomorrow shall be better for all. Massive salaries, villas, drivers, international schooling, incredible additional paragraphs on the resumé and opportunities for semi-frequent holidays to nearby exotic destinations surely offset some of the difficulties faced in the workplace. If that suit does not fit, why try to wear it?

Those who can seek to understand before reacting

Great leaps have been made in more recent years in studies that include ideas such as Emotional Intelligence (EI); that in our pre-selection of folks most suitable to fill these demanding positions abroad, it is qualities such as self awareness and regulation as well as empathy and social etiquette awareness that should moreover champion traditional baseline IQ measurements. Those best able to admit to initial difficulties in adjusting to new found cultural norms, those who can accept cross cultural conflicts as a method of self learning and those who can seek to understand before reacting; are ultimately those who will deliver on a Promise of Performance to their employer in China.

For all the money and time that is at stake, preparatory efforts made by many major international firms for the sake of their relocatees remain staggeringly primitive. A list of facts and figures for China and the city in question, beginner’s phrases in Mandarin and an English language map plus magazine as part of a "welcome pack" serve only to further disillusion the arriving ex- pat. Here in the second decade of the 21st Century with China on the brink of becoming the world’s most in influential country, why do there remain very few employers who are able to provide guidance in advance as to what to do in situations that defy solution in questions of ethics or morality?

Once here, for better or worse, expats are never far from the advice of those who have been here (and survived) longer. Go native, is oft their cry. Any effort at acquiring the Chinese language shall always be appreciated and greatly respected by co-workers. While it can be argued (most probably accurately) that a foreigner’s Chinese can never be good enough to be truly reliable in the interpretation of a complex business (plus cultural and likely political) issue, the acquisition of sufficient "survival" Chinese enormously helps the expat to overcome the loss of identity they may experience, and can hugely add to the confidence they have in dealing with everyday situations.

When she (the spouse) moved to China too, a lot of the world she had simply disappeared

Away from the main family breadwinner (assuming it is the male), it is the spouses of executives who have been assigned to China that can have the hardest time adjusting. Many may feel that coming to China was not something over which they had full control or say. Some had very strong professional lives that they were almost forced into giving up for the sake of the “once in a lifetime opportunity” that China supposedly represents. Most likely there was also a strong circle of friends, and so when she moved to China too, a lot of the world she had simply disappeared.

So what of the consequences? An issue not unique to China is the frequent incidence of alcoholism within expat women. Depression abounds, and often for entirely justifiable reasons.There can be long empty days, the loss of a former identity to deal with, how to cope with a completely incomprehensible cultural setting; if there are children along for the ride then there are concerns for their welfare in a place that seems brimming with hostility. And then... there are the marital issues that come with straying husbands.

That said, the so-called trailing spouses are the ones who have the most to gain from a new assignment.They have the time to properly explore their new home, to make friends with local people, to join clubs and societies full of those in the same predicament, or even embark on a new career.The modern entrepreneurial expat housewife in China has a world of resources at her disposal; she can open an online cake shop to serve her compatriots who miss the taste of home, or an Internet outlet specialising in quality pearls, for a fraction of the price in the West. After all, the greatest ever reward for anyone is perhaps the satisfaction gained from building something out of nothing.

As the woes of the expat’s adaption to mysterious lands garner more attention, so help is also at hand, such as advice handed down by Marcia De Wolf in her new book Practical Guide to a Successful Expat Assignment. Away from the obvious, she stresses that families should take time in choosing the right school, do more research in advance, expect difficulties and do not keep going home during the holidays. Instead, jet off to somewhere else in China, or another nearby exotic location.

For all the money wasted by big business, for all their lack of foresight, for all the cultural walls put up by some before they even step foot in China and for all the Emotional Intelligence that one cares to examine, it would seem obvious that the families who make a successful transition to China are the ones who made the decision... together.

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