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Be Ready to Move On

May, 2011
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And the Boss said to Adam and Eve, “You are being relocated”.

Were Adam and Eve the first expats? I wonder how they fared when compared with Sue and Bill who decided to make a leap of faith and signed a contract to come to China. They rented their home, sold their car, shipped their two dogs and took their 5-year-old daughter Vicki, with them to Shanghai. They arrived at a rainy Pudong Airport and after the deplaning crowd walked through immigration and out through the lobby they were alone with no one to greet them. Two hours later a driver came, took them to a cheap hotel and Bill was supposed to start work the next day. On the advice of the employer they signed a lease on an apartment in a local neighborhood. Three months later they had to move out because there were no parks to walk the dogs, school for Vicki, neighborhood stores with products they were familiar with or potential for making friends. Two leases later, a rowel with the employer, problem with their visas and they and the dogs were back on a plane returning to their home country with no intention of returning to China…and Susan was born and raised in Harbin! (True story)

There is no doubt about it; moving can be a nightmare. Many expats know the falling feeling in the tummy when the breadwinner in the family comes home and say, “Honey, the boss wants me to move to China”. You have built up a life in your home country, you have friends and family, the children have their lives and are happy at school …and what to do with the dog? These are just the first thoughts that come into your head, and then there are the questions of what to do about the house, the movers, visas, vaccinations, finding a place to live and schools. Will the kids make friends? Will you make friends? And all the unknowns, the food, sanitation, the language and it just gets more complicated as you start working out the details. These are the times of transition, the interfaces of life between one comfortable known and an unknown. Of course there must be perceived advantages otherwise you wouldn’t accept to move but the risks of all the unknown involved in uprooting the family are daunting.

Hopefully, the employer is experienced in transferring its personnel and their families and provides adequate financial and advisory support for moving, insurance, income tax, real estate and schools. For the working spouse the change may be less traumatic than for the rest of the family. At least s/he will have an immediate group of colleagues with common business interests, a structure and daily routine. Plus, for most foreign hires the change comes with a promotion or at least perks and compensation that exceed what s/he had before the move.

For the spouse saddle with settling in the family there is often little support and where to buy milk is a mystery. They have to communicate with the real estate people, get the telephone and internet connected, understand the gas, electricity and water user system, schools and the kids transportations, lunches, uniforms, clubs, and the list goes on…and a lot of it is in a new language of which the house-spouse doesn’t have a clue! In addition, while the working spouse is off to the new job and the kids caught up in the excitement and fear of a new school the partner left at home has no one with who to share his/her burden. The emotional network of family and friends has been cut. How can you weave a new nest and network to help your family get the most out of your new life?

First of all don’t wait until you arrive to start making the connections. Thanks to books and the Internet a lot of the groundwork can be done before you get on the plane. Read novels that are set in China. There are lots of excellent titles based on facts that give a flavor of the country. Have your kids read them too. There are a lot of prejudices propagated in the west about China and we need to be aware of which ones we have unknowingly adopted and be open to forming our own opinions based on our own experiences.

From the Internet you can find any product or service you need including real estate agents with virtual tours of houses and apartments, schools, Google maps, travel agents, Chinese language tutors, quarantine regulations and kennels for the pets. Do your homework before hand! Most large cities in China have expat associations with useful websites for exchanging information and making contacts. The expats that have already gone through the experience upon which you are about to embark are the best source of reliable information and are happy to help. There are also a multitude of blogs with comments that offer a variety of opinions on every situation that you are likely to encounter. Some sources of blogs are www.chinabloglist.org, and www.chinablognetwork.com. Google “China Blogs” and many others will come up.

The Citizen Service Section of your home country embassy or consulate also has a lot of useful information for new arrivals but my experience is these public servants don’t seem to have much time or interest in discussing with you. Their attitude is pretty much “you are on your own”. It is very different however if you are a business person asking for advice from the commercial section.

There are international clubs such as the Toastmaster, Rotary, Hash House Harriers and the Masons are here (www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/chinese-masonic-society.html) but their website seems to be blocked. Cultural and social organizations from individual countries are a great source of moral and practical support. Here new arrivals can meet people who share a common language, values and social customs. The French, Dutch, German and Brazilian clubs are particularly dynamic.

Of course, there are the religious organizations that are always happy to receive new members. They offer spiritual as well as social opportunities for like-minded people to connect and celebrate. This too can be found on the Internet or in the monthly local “What’s Happening” magazines of which every metropolis with an international population has. These publications are usually free and available at restaurants and social venues frequented by expats. Many newcomers make their first friends in their Chinese language courses. Also volunteering in an orphanage project, migrant school tutoring or at your own children’s school is a great way to get closer to local people, meet those who share similar interests and contribute to a feeling of connectedness and self-worth.

For the children, of course, the school will be the place they spend most of their waking hours and the center for their growth and social life. Expats in China seem to find the atmosphere in the schools considerably better than in public schools in their home countries. Students are not so aggressive or socially exclusive. Due to prohibition of Chinese nationals attending international schools all students share the commonality that they are foreigners. There is a natural tendency for students to gravitate to same nation groups but on the soccer pitch, orchestra and stage they work together and learn about and from each other. These are where your children will find support and create the bonds that will sooth the rawness of separation from far away friends. If the relocation is for three years or more new friends will replace the old. If the children stay longer it seems they construct a new gestalt of the world and may have difficulty relating to their friends “back home”.

Age is a key factor in transition for children. The younger they are the easier. The most difficult ages seem to be in the early and middle adolescents. Of course, seventeen and 18 year olds may have entered into serious relationships that they are not keen on leaving but often the adventure and an awareness of the uniqueness of the opportunity helps to easy some of the pain.

One of the groups that often holds lots of sway and are often the most upset by a family moving to China are the families of the spouses and especially “grandma and grandpa”. They have a lifetime of experience perfecting guilt trips on their kids and indeed do have a legitimate gripe that you are taking their grandkids away. Promises of frequent use of Skype with video, trips home and their visits help. Basically they want to feel they are still a part of your lives and want to share all those special “Kodak” moments. But nothing replaces proximity.

The expat life is not for everyone. It offers opportunities and a lifestyle that most expats would never know at home. But, there are sacrifices to make also. For most expats it is the commonality of language, values, social norms, family and the sheer joy of driving down a beautiful country road that are missed the most. But the increasing numbers of expats indicates that the pluses of being an expat far outweigh the negatives, at least on a temporary basis.


By Patrick Donahue

You are invited to contact the author at: sebalex.x@gmail.com

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