While digging through hundreds of articles, both academic and otherwise, while doing background research for a book on expatriates in Asia, I found most writers and researchers made four key assumptions about expatriates.
First: Expatriates were from developed countries going to manage overseas operations
Second: Expatriates were attached to organizations originating from their home countries
Third: Cultural training was a key component in preparation for a successful overseas assignment
Four: Working overseas was a series of challenges
It is true there are many expatriates these assumptions apply to, what about the rest of us?
These assumptions and the host of academic literature on expatriation seem to ignore the reality of tens of thousands of individuals who have gone off to foreign lands to teach English, run small businesses or otherwise live off the local economy. I thought back to when I first came to Southeast Asia to live over a decade ago and reflected on how these first two assumptions didn't apply to me at all. I was not connected to any organization in my home country, in fact I arrived in Bangkok without a job. My first job was at one of the famous three letter language schools (AUA) ,teaching English, where I had no managerial duties at all.
It is believed English teachers and others who don't fit with these first two assumptions should also be classified as expatriates. I used the term independent expatriates to distinguish this group from the more classical view of an expatriate. It is felt studying the experiences of independent expatiates could help companies design policies for their overseas workforce.
Hopefully, I will be able to address the first assumption in more detail in a future article, but this month I want to concentrate on assumptions three and four.
Most English teachers and other independent expatriates arrive in a foreign destination without having had any formal cultural training as preparation. Does this imply independent expatriates are ill-prepared to begin working in a new cultural environment? Although it is almost universally advocated to send future expatriates to extensive cultural training programs before deploying, the empirical research does not appear to strongly support the idea these training programs significantly improve the performance of the expatriate and currently many companies are scaling back their pre-departure training programs for staff going overseas.
It is felt one should not equate attending a formal cultural training program with pre-deployment preparation. Very few independent expatriates attend formal cultural training programs, although many English teachers do attend various teacher preparation courses. But the emphasis of these courses is on the technical aspects of teaching and not necessarily on preparation to work and live in a foreign culture. However, most independent expatriates do spend considerable time reading about their new homes and exchanging information with others who have experience working abroad, both in person and more and more these days through the internet. This informal and individualized preparation could in some ways be more effective that a one-size-fits-all approach one is more likely to find in a formal program.
Successfully working in a different cultural environment is a skill that can be learned, but it is questioned if it is a skill that can be effectively taught. Culture is an abstract and intangible construct which each of us perceives differently. Brick laying, for example, is concerned with tangible pieces of equipment and tools that leave little room for differing interpretations, and therefore the techniques of brick laying can fairly easily be transferred for one person to another. However, a case could be made the intangible nature of culture and the differing perceptions of culture require some level of personal experience to become proficient in engaging in inter-cultural professional interactions.
As there has been almost no research done on the professional lives of English teachers and other independent expatriates, it is impossible to do a statistical comparison, but from personal observation it does not appear independent expatriate have a harder time adapting to living abroad than do expatriates that have gone through formal training programs. It could be, the relatively lower salaries of English teachers and other independent expatriates do not allow individuals to spend all of their time in the company of other expatriates sealed off from the local population This forced connection may result in deeper understanding of the local culture As a former co-worker once said, there is nothing like riding the Bangkok buses to work everyday to get to know the Thais and help learn the language.
The fourth assumption is that working abroad is difficult and challenging. While this may be true, it is the glass is half empty viewpoint. Working abroad with people from different cultural backgrounds is also a tremendous opportunity for personal growth and can be a great adventure if one wants it to be. If one only focuses on the challenges and problems of working in an international environment, one misses the excitement and learning opportunities that can take place everyday. Although wealth has steadily eluded me, I have never regretted choosing to become an independent expatriate.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm
The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective
Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries
and numerous articles in academic journals, academic conference papers and contributions in other books.