Expatriate memoirs have glamorized international living since the days of sailing ships and far-flung empires. More recently, social media has brought a filter-tinted perspective that makes these lifestyles appear even more alluring. As with most truths, pictures only tell part of the story: expat life is quite different from the Rick Steves version of traveling like a local. Yes, becoming an expatriate is an exciting, eye-opening, and life-defining adventure, but the challenge is often in accomplishing the day-to-day tasks of life in cultural circumstances that vary dramatically from what is familiar and comfortable.
To get a more accurate view of the expat life, Bridges alumni magazine chatted with BYU and Kennedy Center alumni who have lived and worked in Asia. They offered valuable insights into the engaging and exotic aspects of international living as well as perspectives on being adaptable to new—and at times difficult—circumstances.
When in Tokyo
Name: Takuya Hirano
Role: CEO, Microsoft, Tokyo, Japan
Grad Info: BA: international relations, 1995
Takuya Hirano is half Japanese and half American. Hirano spent three years abroad as an expatriate in Munich, Germany, before moving to Tokyo, Japan, with his family. Regardless of where they are living, all expatriates need to take important universal approaches if they want to be successful, he said.
First, having an open mindset is essential. “Understanding that the standards your native country has are not going to be the normal standard when you go abroad is key,” noted Hirano. “Your point of reference eventually will be quite different from the one you started with. Be willing to explore and accept the differences. You will form your own opinion later on.”
Expatriates who are willing to engage more with the local community and not be afraid to make mistakes also have more success personally and professionally in the long term. “When I see people who are more uptight and only interact with the expat community, they do fine, but they are not taking advantage of the full immersion experience,” Hirano said. “Contrast this with the expats who try to enjoy native culture, and eventually the local employees feel much closer to them and become more productive. At the end of the day, it is all about people.”
In observing expatriates in Japan and how they manage and adapt to their circumstances, Hirano related that communication style is one area in which Japanese and Americans vastly differ—and some Americans struggle to both understand and adapt. “English is a very explicit language, whereas Japanese is a highly contextual language,” he said. “Each sentence or word has ten times or more meaning, but at the same time, you do not speak as much as an American would. This triggers a series of differences.”
Hirano also noted that Japan is a very process- and quality-conscious country where customer satisfaction is very important; America is more of an impact-based society. This difference can make it difficult for Americans to adapt.
Dealing with Elephants
Name: Jeff D. Smith
Role: Director of Digital and Corporate Development, Nu Skin, Provo, Utah
Grad Info: BA: international studies, 1999
On average, Jeff D. Smith spends two weeks out of each month in a different country. Smith became a frequent international traveler as his career progressed and his company expanded across the globe. He has always enjoyed traveling but didn’t start traveling extensively until recently. Throughout his journeys he has had an assortment of misadventures: he has almost been blown up—more than once—been accused of being in the CIA, was stranded in Kuala Lumpur during 9/11, and has encountered various other dangerous scenarios.
“The primary thing to consider with any travel is to be prepared for anything and not to get fazed when you run into challenges—whether you are traveling or living there,” Smith commented. “I think embracing the differences helps with the stress; not trying to force something into an American paradigm is essential.”
Out of all the Asian countries he has visited, Smith said that India usually takes the longest for Americans to get used to, noting that elephants are regular staples in busy street traffic. For those planning to travel heavily in Asia, he recommended visiting Singapore first to ease into it. “I love Singapore, because a lot of the people there are English speaking,” he said. “Some people find it sterile; however, if you are looking for a beginner’s approach to Asia, Singapore is a safer place to start.”
Smith also offered some time-earned traveling advice for the prospective globe-trotter:
- Keep everything you need in a backpack, and put your items in the same place so that you don’t have to unpack and repack.
- Keep your things as grab and go as possible.
- Stick with one airline or hotel to get loyalty benefits.
- Get Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check—anything to minimize time at the airport.
- Reset as quickly as you can to a new time zone by waiting until nighttime to go to sleep once you arrive. If needed, take melatonin to help you adjust.
- Be sure to bring all your charging devices.
Embracing the differences helps with the stress; not trying to force something into an American paradigm is essential.
—Jeff D. Smith