Having now passed the decade milestone as an expatriate in China, I’ve recently taken the time to reflect on why it is I came to China in the first place and why I continue to call China my home. Thus I have chosen to pick up the 21st century pen again—so to speak—and offer what I can in terms of my experiences in the hopes that they may benefit others embarking on a similar journey.
I did not come here as a student, an assignee or a refugee. Having completed my Masters Degree, I simply wanted to go where the opportunities were most abundant. Life in Canada, while pleasant to the extreme for the most part, moves at a glacial pace. China does not. It is as industrious, mercantile and dynamic as any place on earth. Ever-changing at a rate unfathomable by most from the developed world.
It’s one thing to dip your toes into the fast flowing river that is life in China, but when you commit and decide to get in your canoe and try to navigate life as an expat, things change. Ironically however it is not the frenetic pace, the crowds or the distance from home that prematurely ends a newly minted expat’s honeymoon with China. Those can all be mitigated by compound living, Skype calls with friends and families and vacations back to the homeland. And it is precisely the counter-intuitive nature of what really matters that prompt many newly arrived assignees to overcommit to the expat lifestyle upon arrival in China.
That over commitment can be best characterized by the desire of some assignees to recreate the lifestyle they lived at home during their stay in China. To a large degree, this can be accomplished in major centers like Shanghai and Beijing and to a somewhat lesser degree in China’s second tier cities. In China’s major urban centers, expatriate enclaves have developed that are segregated to some degree from average Chinese. In some cases, it is only a street or two where western restaurants and other expatriate service providers have clustered, in others, it is an entire suburb, complete with international schools, western-calibre hospitals and walled compounds full of luxury villas. In any case, there is an interesting comparison to be made to the Chinatowns that major western centers have, only in reverse —Westerntowns, if you will.
Westerntowns are attractive for many reasons to the new China initiate—and rightly so. The convenience of a community geared toward the proclivities of a western lifestyle should make life easier and they do for all—at least in the short term. What is not readily apparent and not well explained to assignees prior to moving to China is that choosing a Westerntown lifestyle is both a blessing and a trap.
Globally, the rate of international assignment failure is about 1/3. Failure in this case meaning failure of the assignee to complete the average three-year term of an overseas assignment. So you can imagine sitting for a presentation with 100 new assignees and the presenter telling everyone, “Look at the person to your left and the person to your right. One of these people will fail and return home in some state of disgrace having cost their company dearly in the process.” The Hollywood depiction of new wartime recruits heading to the front lines is apt in this case, at least from a numbers perspective.
So how does choosing a Westerntown expatriate lifestyle contribute to assignment failure? It is perhaps best defined as a creeping complacency fostered by life in a gated, semi self-contained compound that offers an initial sense of security, convenience and familiarity. For many assignees however, Westerntown slowly becomes an island and as the honeymoon phase of the assignment ends about one year in, starts to feel like a prison. In the worst cases, the longing for home becomes too much to bear and the failure of the assignment has begun.
This is not to say all assignees who choose to live a Westerntown lifestyle while on assignement in China inevitably fail—far from it. The difference between those who succeed on assignment in China and those who fail is not rocket science. Those who endeavor to avoid the complacency and dependence trap of Westerntown will inevitably succeed. They key to success in this regard is avoiding the Disadvantage of Dependence.
The vast majority of international assignees fail to understand that unless measures are implemented either prior to departure or on arrival, they will have sacrificed a great deal of their independence immediately. Ironically, and as stated at the outset of this article, it is not the obvious hurdles to overseas assignments that cause assignments to fail for the most part. It’s a combination of a hundred little things—all of which chip away at an individual’s sense of independence. The effect is insidious because no one factor can be blamed. Expatriate often talk about having a ‘Bad China Day’, that’s a day when they came close to snapping. Ask them why and they will often say they don’t know, because they truly don’t or are too embarrassed to say that their taxi driver didn’t understand them and took them to the wrong address and it made them so angry that their head was vibrating.
Western culture is defined by individuality and independence. Failing to identify this and the potential sacrifice of those core characteristics that will happen during a move to China can lead to disastrous results. This I have learned the hard way, both in terms of seeing people’s lives ruined during what should be the experience of a lifetime on assignment in China, and having a plethora of my own ‘Bad China Days’. Combined with some very good luck I found myself in a position where I could endeavor to bring to the market a product aimed specifically at the relocation experience and thus Expat Essentials was born. So while it was economic opportunity that brought me to China, it’s the opportunity to do some good that is keeping me here.
In subsequent articles in this series, I will relate some of my own and others experiences and failures as well as propose some solutions in an effort to help others experience the wonders of China that should become cherished memories rather than ones that require ongoing therapy.
Travis Murray is the founder and CEO of Expat Essentials.