In part one of this series I talked about international assignment failure rates and outlined the ‘Westerntown Trap’ that many new assignees fall into when they first arrive in China. I spoke of the ‘creeping complacency’ that leads to the trap and the insidious way that the trap seizes hold of some assignees such that most don’t even know they are in its grip until too late.
Part of the reason even experienced travellers who have travelled the globe don’t recognize the trap creeping up on them is that their first assignment overseas involves a host of new experiences couched in the excitement of what seems like an extended vacation at first. Thus those new experiences and the difficulties associated with them are overshadowed by the fascinating surroundings they find themselves in when they first arrive. When referring to the effects of culture shock, social scientists refer to this period as the ‘Honeymoon Period’ and as the name suggests it will eventually end.
The ‘Honeymoon Period’ typically lasts two to four months and it is during this period that daily discoveries of new food, culture, places and people are seen in a romantic light. Even such things as realising that foreigners are subject to strict laws regarding the exchange of foreign currency in China and that every time one wants to exchange money officially, they must stand in a line that never seems to move and present their passport in order to do so. Every foreigner eventually learns that there is a guy in plain clothes (probably employed by the bank) that hovers around the entrances to westerntown banks that will exchange your currency at bank rates in a fraction of the time it takes to be seen by a teller inside the bank – the problem is they are not always there, particularly in inclement weather.
I’ll do a separate piece on banking in this series, but the point is that situations like these are the straws that build on the camel’s back as time goes on. At first, it seems like nothing and therein lies the trap. Most of the tellers speak enough English that changing money after a 30 minute wait is tolerable. Imagine however that a host of other things you used to control independently with little or no effort now all require extra effort. In China there are almost always work arounds, like the plainclothes guy hovering at the door waiting to change your money in minutes.
However, getting things done outside of official channels (and sometimes in official channels) is near impossible without being able to communicate with the locals. In my personal experience, the most challenging aspect of moving to China was having to accept that, regardless of how gifted I thought I was in English, it meant nothing. The frustration for a person who considers themselves a good communicator reverting to a language and literacy level below that of a three year old is difficult effectively to describe. I was forced to ask for help from staff or friends who spoke Chinese and I came to be dependent on those people.
As I felt my schedule didn’t permit (my first mistake), I didn’t sign up for Mandarin classes upon my arrival in China. Looking back now 10 years on, the difference that would have made in my life is nearly incalculable. But as most things with me, I had to make the mistake myself and reflect back on it in order to see the error of my ways. I write this because I assume not everyone is as stubbornly pigheaded as me and may in fact take my advice and learn some Mandarin—preferably before you leave your home country. If you are a trailing spouse and have the time, dive in and take an intensive course before you leave. Doing so will have an enormously positive impact on your assignment abroad and is an excellent first step toward avoiding the Dependancy Trap.
Travis Murray is the founder and CEO of Expat Essentials