Working in Asia: Trailing Spouses and Other Dependants
If you want to know how the international assignment is really going, ask the spouse. It is well known that the success or failure of a stint abroad can depend almost entirely on the level of contentedness of the trailing family members. We offer some personal insights gathered from our candidates regarding the practicalities of a move abroad and what we find helps dependants make the adjustment to a new life. They may not work for everybody but they might be helpful to some.
Find out as much as possible about life and daily living before you leave
If possible, go on a fact-finding trip before you make the move. You may be fortunate enough to find a home on that visit but, if not, at least you will have an idea of what is available and therefore what to pack and what to leave behind. Take lots of pictures on this trip if you have children who are unable to visit. It can help with pre-trip nerves to know what to expect, be that where you might live, where they might go to school or what the shops and streets look like. Language lessons can also help and don't sneer at any offer of cross-cultural training - it can really help.
Share the burden of the move
It is inevitable that you will have pressures from and obligations to your existing and/or new employers but recognise that there is a huge amount of work involved in an international move. The packing up and leaving of one country is a huge task in itself, particularly if you have a house to rent out or sell and/or children to consider; the settling in and unpacking in a new and strange environment is quite another. Most employers will recognise the need to allow you to support your spouse in this process.
Work out what traditions are important to you as a family and stick to them
You have moved to a foreign country and you may feel a need to adopt all the local practices. You will certainly get more from your assignment if you learn about local traditions and respect them. It can be fun to participate in unfamiliar festivals and to eat exotic food at times and in places that are not the norm in your hometown but you don't need to feel that your own traditions are valueless in your new environment. Observing the practices that are important to you, however small, can assist in feeling a sense of belonging. Understanding your own culture and looking at it objectively can also help you view the practices of others more sympathetically.
Don't make judgements until you have unpacked your belongings
Before you leave, you may have preconceived ideas that your life in a foreign country will be similar to life at home. Yes, you accept that the general population of the country in question may come from a different cultural background and the shops and way of life may be alien, but you may be clinging to the thought that you personally will find like-minded friends within the ex pat community and continue to live your life pretty much as you know it, sourcing familiar products from international shops and sticking to your usual routines. Alternatively, you may have decided that the only way to be accepted and to learn from the experience is to try to assimilate yourself into the local community. The reality will be a combination of the two. You will find your own way to match up what you know with the opportunities for cultural exchange but don't expect to find the right balance immediately. Don't feel like a failure if your ideals of integration fall instantly flat because you (or your spouse) wants to burst into tears in the supermarket when frustrated by an inability to buy a recognisable vegetable. Don't give up because the first ex pat you meet doesn't instantly invite you for a home-cooked meal in their apartment. Treat the time it takes for your furniture to arrive (which can be a couple of months) as a working holiday and don't expect to feel at home until you are surrounded by your personal effects. If you spend your early weekends exploring together and enjoying the experience rather than working at establishing friendships and getting frustrated when the chance meeting at the playground doesn't instantly turn into a meaningful relationship, you will find you are settled before you know it. There will inevitably be several dull administrative tasks to be accomplished but a bit of sightseeing and the occasional long lunch can do wonders for morale. Also, consider renting furniture or living in a serviced apartment until your furniture arrives; a long stint in a hotel can be very wearing if you are not working.
Find something to enable your spouse to feel their life isn't on hold
Many trailing spouses have careers in their own right that may at times feel like they are being sacrificed for the experience. Take some time to work out with your spouse what they want to get out of the international assignment. He or she may want to sign up for a language course, learn a new skill or further their career at home by undertaking a distance learning course. They may want to look for a job in your destination country if the relevant visa regime allows it or to do some voluntary work. They may want recognition that the opportunity to spend time with your children is just that - an opportunity. Don't let them just be the trailing spouse or they will resent the move in the inevitable moments of homesickness. Remember that as you are instantly swept up into the excitement of the new job, with the new contacts that you make and the corporate entertaining that it involves, your spouse may be bereft of their support network from home and more reliant on you for their social life than previously. You may not be able to think of anything worse than spending the weekend with your work colleagues but it may be the best way for your spouse to make friends in the early stages.
Allow for reminiscences about home
Children can be reluctant to embrace the new. This is, we think, the way some young children cope with change. They cling to the familiar until the new has ceased to be threatening. In my experience, it is easier to allow for a small amount of quasi-mourning, provided it doesn't become obsessional, rather than forcing the issue of adapting to their new life. Once they are busy and fulfilled, the reminiscences grow less desperate and increasingly fond. But obviously each child will adapt in their own way depending on their personality and their age.
Enjoy the challenges and the experience together
Most of all, make the most of your time abroad. Whatever the contract says, you don't know how long your assignment will last and where you will be headed to next so make sure you visit as many places as possible and enjoy the discoveries together.