Learning to live and work in a foreign country

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 6, 2011

Learning to live and work in a foreign country

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 6, 2011

Bob Moon: Sending an employee to live and work abroad is an expensive proposition for any company. The number of international assignments dropped during the downturn, but a recent survey predicts the number of jobs abroad will rise 50 percent in the next 10 years. Now it use to be that family, if there was one, tagged along and made the best of it without much help from the boss. But these days, there’s a good chance they may get some help up front.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Richard and Kim Choi knew life in China would require some adjustment. Richard works for a U.S. automaker. The company moved the couple and their three kids from Miami to Shanghai almost three years ago. But a trip to the grocery store can still bring surprises. Kim shows her eight-year-old son Hansen a tank of live turtles.

Hansen Choi: Why do they get them but put them in water?

Kim Choi: So they stay nice and fresh, because people like to eat them. Look, these ones are turtles in a bag for making turtle soup.

Hansen: Blech!

He and his sisters are also grossed out, and fascinated by, the hairy crabs, snakes, eels and jellyfish writhing nearby. Kim says local meat is also quite a change.

Kim: Here, you know, it’s the whole chicken, including the feet and the heads.

At least Kim and Richard knew what to expect. Richard’s company hired a consulting firm to prepare them for the cultural shift. The couple has already lived in Dubai, Israel and Germany. Still…

Kim: This time was the first time that we actually had someone come to the house and talk to us about what it would be like to live in a new country. You know, we learned about Chinese history and business practices.

Richard is leafing through a manual they got before they left. It covers everything from Chinese proverbs and how to address people properly to office life.

Richard: There was a very large section on the corporate culture and how to behave in the workplace.

He had to take a survey to see how well his work style would mesh with the Chinese one. He did pretty well. Kim, a stay-at-home mum, had her own cultural compatibility test.

Kim: I learned actually that my personal space is quite important to me, which was the one area that was of a concern to the consultants, simply because in China there is no such thing as personal space.

By now, as a white woman, she’s used to strangers coming right up to her and staring. Or demanding to know why one of her kids isn’t dressed warmly enough.

Jo Danehl is with Cartus, an international relocation company that provides cultural training services. She says there’s good reason companies spend anywhere from a thousand to several thousand dollars on this type of training for employees and their loved ones.

Jo Danehl: Family adjustment is far and away the biggest reason that assignments fail. And if you think that international assignments can be in excess of a million dollars for companies, they are going to need to mitigate that opportunity for failure.

It’s often the employee’s spouse — usually a wife — who has to deal with day-to-day problems. Some consulting firms devote themselves entirely to supporting the spouse.

Therese Gavin works for a company called REA. It helps the employee’s other half find a job or volunteer work.

Therese Gavin: If the spouse is happy, then the employee is gonna be more productive in their work.

Gavin speaks from experience. She’s accompanied her husband on two assignments, one in Germany, the other in China. The couple returned to Michigan last year. And that’s when another adjustment began: Being back home.

Gavin: Sometimes it’s just difficult in conversations, you know, it’s just… You can’t constantly be talking about your experience overseas. But you also, sometimes like, “I don’t really want to hear about everything right here any more either.” You know, you really kind of have a global eye.

She says they’re drawn to other people who’ve lived or at least traveled abroad.

Hansen: 10, nine, eight, seven, six…

Kim: Can you do that in Mandarin?

Hansen counts in Chinese

In Shanghai, the Chois are a couple of years away from returning to the U.S. Richard says they’ve pretty much adjusted to life here.

Richard: Once I stopped worrying about paying $8 for a bag of tortilla chips, it’s like “OK, well, we’re here now.”

Shanghai feels like home.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

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