Have you ever dreamed about waking up in a different place, in a different country, far away from home? If yes, tell me, was it a nice dream or was it a nightmare? It can be either, or anything in between.
There is something exotic, exhilarating, about being immersed into the unknown. It’s like being given a chance to experience a new life. On the other hand, it can be pretty scary. All of a sudden, you are surrounded by people you don’t know, people who may not look like you, people who may not understand what you are saying if they speak a different language. Everything around you, whether inside or outside, looks strange. You are lost. To make matters worse, there might not be a Starbucks anywhere close by. How much more terrifying can this be?
These emotions, to some degree, are felt by a lot of people every year. I am talking about top professionals in their field who are sent abroad on work assignments. The relocation challenges they are faced with are considerable and go well beyond the challenge of finding a home. The part which is exciting about traveling in a foreign place is that it’s fun living like a local, knowing that a couple of weeks later you will be back in the comfort of your own house, eating and drinking and doing whatever is “normal”. However, when you get to stay in a totally new environment for years, not days, you look at the adventure quite differently.
Diana McGrogan, head of Relocation at Intero had the good idea to send me the last issue of “Mobility”, a magazine for the professionals who make a living facilitating corporate employees’ moves around the globe. My eyes went straight to an article by Charlene Solomon. The title, “The Expatriate Family” caught my attention, probably because I too have jumped continents a few times in my life and lived some of the challenges associated with such moves.
Relocation, as many practitioners can attest, is a true family affair. The one person who usually adapts the best and the quickest is the transferred employee. After all, he or she has roughly the same job, with the same company, except in a different place. Since work is consuming 80% or so of a day, the other 20%, even if lived in a strange place, are easier to deal with. It’s a different story for the spouse and the kids. It can take months to get grounded and recognize the territory: where to live, where to go to school, where to shop, what to wear, what to say, where to eat, what to eat and a myriad of other cultural issues.
A recent survey by Brookfield Relocation Services showed the following:
- 68% of assignees are married and 80% of the spouses accompany their partners
- About half of these expats bring children with them
- The top challenges are partner resistance (47%), family adjustment (32%), children’s education (29%) and location difficulties (25%).
Indeed, as the “Mobility” write up mentions, everyone who embarks on an international assignment enters the cycle of cultural adjustment: preparation, honeymoon, culture shock and adaptation.
- The preparation stage is easy enough to understand. HR & the relocation firms are usually doing a terrific job briefing those concerned about what they are likely to experience and minimize the impact of a change of life. Particularly for the kids who need to find the right school, with the right programs. Housing, of course, is top of list and the most difficult challenge to deal with.
- The honeymoon stage is as nice as it sounds. The family gets to enjoy new things like tourists do. They do what they want without necessarily interacting with the locals directly. They do some homework to try to live as normally as possible. That may include signing up at a health club, joining a recreational group, locating community resources, etc.
- The culture shock, by definition, is the tough stage to live through. After a while, the reality sets in: it is a different place…What are we doing there? Can we cope? It produces fatigue, isolation and discomfort.
- Adaptation: it happens, given time, six to twelve months on average. The ups and downs diminish. Life goes on. It is a productive phase during which the family begins to reap rewards for navigating the previous stages.
There is, in fact, another stage of the cycle: Repatriation. It is the toughest one to deal with, in my opinion. You see, after a couple of years or so in a foreign country, you don’t come back as the same person who went in. You have changed. You may not recognize it but friends, family, business associates and neighbors will be quick to tell you. So here you are again, trying to adjust to a new life…In your own home town!