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US Companies Help Families Adjust to Life Overseas

Culture shock can have a profound impact on spouses and children during assignments abroad

The Choi family on an outing in China.
The Choi family on an outing in China.

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Ashley Milne-Tyte

Richard and Kim Choi knew life in China would require some adjustment. Richard works for an American automaker which transferred the couple and their three children from Miami to Shanghai almost three years ago.

Culture shock

A trip to the grocery store can still bring surprises. Kim shows son Hansen, 8, a tank of live turtles.

"Why do they get them but put them in water?" he asks.

"So they stay nice and fresh because people like to eat them," his mother answers, while also pointing out bagged turtles which are used for turtle soup.

Hanson and his sisters are both grossed out and fascinated by the turtles, hairy crabs, snakes, eels and jellyfish writhing nearby. A visit to the meat counter is also quite a change for them.

“That was quite alarming to the kids, to see live produce, things not pre-packaged in a plastic wrap, like you would at the grocery store in the U.S," Kim says.

Making adjustments

At least the Chois 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.

“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," says Kim. "We learned about Chinese history and business practices.”

They also received a manual covering everything from Chinese proverbs and how to address people properly to office life.

“There was a very large section on the corporate culture and how to behave in the workplace,” says Richard, who had to take a survey to see how well his work style would mesh with the Chinese one. He did pretty well.

Compatibility issues

Kim, a stay-at-home mom, had her own cultural compatibility test. "I learned actually that my personal space is quite important to me which was the only area of concern to the consultants 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 which provides cultural training services. She says there’s a good reason companies spend anywhere from a thousand to several thousand dollars on this type of training for employees and their loved ones.

“Family adjustment is far and away the biggest reason that assignments fail," Danehl says. "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.

“If the spouse is happy, the employee is gonna be more productive in their work,” says Therese Gavin, who works for a company called REA, which helps the employee’s spouse find a job or volunteer work.

Gaining a world view

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.

“Sometimes it’s just difficult in conversations," she says. "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 anymore, either.’ You know, you really kind of like have a global eye.”

The Chois will be in China for a few more years before returning to the U.S. Richard says they’ve pretty much adjusted to life there, especially now that he's stopped worrying about paying $8 for a bag of tortilla chips - something that costs about $3 in the United States.

Now, he says, Shanghai feels like home.

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