DEBUNKING EXPATRIATE EXPERIENCES
By Sara Jarman
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.
Connecting and Reconnecting
Name: Cameron Jones
Countries: South Korea and Japan
Role: Foreign Service Officer, Seoul, South Korea
Grad Info: BA: international studies, 2004
Cameron Jones (left) has spent half of his life abroad. Jones recently finished his second overseas tour in Tokyo, Japan, and will spend his next tour in Seoul, South Korea. He also grew up in Seoul—his father was a corporate attorney in the area—and served an LDS mission there.
Given his experience abroad, Jones has noticed some common stumbling blocks among most expatriates, such as the lack of conveniences in other countries. “Americans’ expectations are usually set way too high, and they expect to have the same kind of lifestyle when they move abroad. When that does not happen, it is frustrating,” he said.
Each expatriate experience varies tremendously though, and Jones recognizes that because he is a Foreign Service officer, many of his family’s logistical needs are taken care of, which is not always the case for expats. “You do not have to find your own housing; the local embassy where you are assigned does that for you,” he said. “The State Department contracts moving companies to come into your home and pack it up.”
Because of his familiarity with Asia, Jones didn’t experience as great of a culture shock as most Americans when they first relocate there, but he said that taking time to come back and reconnect with one’s home country—especially for third-culture kids—is just as essential to the expatriate life as learning to live and adapt in a foreign place. “When I am on home leave, it is a chance to reconnect with family and America—for my kids too,” Jones commented. “We reestablish connections and make sure they have an American identity. It is important for us that our kids are Americans first, even though they are having an overseas experience.”
IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US THAT OUR KIDS ARE AMERICANS FIRST, EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE HAVING AN OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE.
Name: Jonathan Beutler
Country/Territory: Japan and Hong Kong
Role: Founder and Principal, Pacific Rim Global Advisory, Los Angeles, California
Grad Info: BA: linguistics, 2007
Previous to starting Pacific Rim Global Advisory, Jonathan Beutler worked as a public diplomacy officer in Tokyo, Japan, for the U.S. Department of State. Beutler also externed as an industrial analyst at the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong.
He advised potential expatriates to learn about the relationship between their expat country and their home country before moving. “If you understand the dynamics between Hong Kong and the United States, for example, it paints a nice background picture for you to operate from,” he explained. “Consume information about events, pop culture, and the history of the destination. This is all key to feeling prepared.”
He also underscored the need for expatriates to understand the culture and values of the country, which is especially helpful when conducting a business, government, or any other type of meeting. It opens an engaging and honest dialogue between parties, leaving less room for confusion and potential conflict.
Besides understanding the culture, recognizing the full impact expatriate life will have on one’s entire family is crucial. “In my experience overseas, the family moves to an overseas destination because of one spouse’s work assignment,” Beutler noted. “Often it becomes challenging for the other spouse to feel fulfilled and to contribute in a meaningful way. Sometimes the nonworking spouse can feel stuck in a foreign environment, and this creates a lot of strain in families. To mitigate this I would suggest that when [families] accept an overseas assignment, they tap into the expat community while engaging with the local host community.”
Beutler said that most expatriates have a difficult time adjusting to the population density of most Asian countries. “There are so many people around all the time. With a handful of exceptions, living spaces are much smaller,” Beutler commented. “For example, if you take a subway, you have to give up your personal space issue.”
To Russia with Love
Name: Paul M. Cox
Role: Executive Director and Private Wealth Advisor, Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management, Dallas, Texas
Grad Info: BA: international politics, 2003
Paul M. Cox began studying Russian when he was twelve. Cox was a big fan of the Tom Clancy spy novels that depicted the Soviet Union and wanted to learn more about the novels’ antagonists and the real Soviet Union. His first introduction to Russia came after being called to serve as an LDS missionary there in June 1997 and later spent many years working in Russia for the banking and finance industries.
He noted that learning the language of the country you are moving to is ideal, but developing other skills is essential. “Language skills are important, but most business around the world is conducted in English, including in Russia. Develop other skills in addition to linguistic proficiency,” Cox urged. “For example, networking is critical: reach out to people who are currently living in Russia to learn about the best places to live, what is currently available in the country, and what you should bring.”
He stressed that it is important to have up-to-date information from people who currently live in the expat country. “Things can change rapidly—Russia is in political influx constantly—so prepare for rapid and frequent change and be open-minded. This will make the expat transition easier,” he said.
Cox also emphasized that other cultures do things differently than in America. “The Russian culture is deep and filled with tradition,” he said, “and the language is a challenge. But initially some expats may assume Russia will be much more like the United States than it is.” For example, it took Cox time to get used to some of Russia’s edible “delicacies,” such as sala (raw pig fat), which originates from Ukraine and is still something he doesn’t enjoy.
Being away from family and dealing with difficult weather also called for adjustments, Cox said. “Our last winter [there] it never got above freezing for six months straight,” he remembered. “But it was the darkness that comes from living so far north during the winter that we had to adjust to more than the cold.”
A Dynamic Journey
Name: Patrick K. Belnap
Countries: Taiwan and Mainland China
Role: Program Manager, Greenpeace East Asia, Taipei, Taiwan
Grad Info: BA: Asian studies, 2009
Patrick K. Belnap has lived the majority of his time abroad in China—in Xi’an, Nanjing, Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, and various cities in the Henan, Shandong, Anhui, and Sichuan Provinces. But currently Belnap lives in Taipei, Taiwan.
Asia was never a place he thought about living or working in while growing up. In fact, he noted that the first Asian food he ate was on his LDS mission in Minnesota. However, serving among the Hmong people there ignited within him a desire to study Mandarin.
For expatriates moving to Mainland China, Belnap points out the need to have the energy and stamina to survive in such a varied and intense place. “The scale and speed of change that China is experiencing is unmatched in human history,” he stated. “The sleeping giant that even Napoleon did not want to disturb is now waking, and we don’t know what side of the bed it [is waking] up on. It is a country of stark contradictions and contrasts, and that also rings true for life as an expat in China; the ups and downs can be extreme. Luxurious expat packages aside, living in China takes a lot of energy, an agenda void of expectations, and an affinity toward adventure. If that sounds like you, then make the move, because the potential rewards are unbeatable.”
Pollution, healthcare, and sanitation became problems for Belnap after he had children, and he and his family still struggle to get used to these conditions. “These problems were major factors in our decision to relocate away from Mainland China for a time,” he said. “I think it’s important to remember that life evolves and changes, and the reasons for living in a certain location are also subject to change.”
Belnap moved his family back to Utah for a while and then found a happy medium in Taipei. “Being an expat is not a destination,” he said. “It’s a dynamic journey, and the definition of what it means to be an expat is really up to the individual and family.”
But if you are at all considering becoming an expatriate, he advised, “just do it,” and explained, “Living abroad offers a broadened perspective, foreign language-acquisition, and multicultural sensitivities; the chance to meet and grow close to unique people, experience new and creative ideas and solutions, and simplify, which naturally occurs when moving all your worldly goods to a new country; exposure to new and delicious foods; and, of course, adventures and experience unobtainable in any other way.”
THERE ARE SOME CRUCIAL DIFFERENCES AND OPPOSING BELIEF SYSTEMS AND IDEOLOGIES UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE BETWEEN EACH GROUP OF PEOPLE.
Embracing the Unexpected
Name: N. Kaitlyn Pieper
Countries: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey
Role: Interfaith Coordinator, BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Provo, Utah
Grad Info: BA: comparative literature, 2009
N. Kaitlyn Pieper has spent much of her life abroad, primarily within Central Asia and Turkey: she grew up in Kazakhstan, participated in a study abroad to Tajikistan, and was a research scholar with the British Institute at Ankara in Turkey. Pieper speaks Russian, Turkish, and Persian. In her current role, she works across time zones participating in worldwide conferences while also hosting a wide range of law and religion experts in Provo.
Pieper enjoyed living abroad and intends to return to that lifestyle someday, but she explained that it was lonelier than expected. “Expatriates at first go into it thinking that it is going to be a huge adventure, and they are going to save the world,” she said. “In general, though, life takes a lot more effort, and it is overall harder than expected.” Pieper spent most of her days haggling in a foreign language, buying items at the market, or waiting for the city to turn the water back on.
A lot of foreigners are shocked at how different native culture is from their own, Pieper noted. “We are all human, but sometimes people operate on radically different assumptions about the way the world works and the way life works,” she indicated. “There are some crucial differences and opposing belief systems and ideologies underneath the surface between each group of people.”
In Tajikistan, for example, in order to be a respectful guest the visitor is supposed to decline a favor or offering before accepting it, as a matter of courtesy. If a visitor answers too fast and says, “Yes, I’d love some,” without going through the appropriate colloquial dance, the visitor is seen as being grabby.
But the people Pieper encountered in Central Asia and Turkey were extremely hospitable—something Pieper said really helped make her international experience much more enjoyable and countered some of the effort required for daily living.
WHEN YOU ARE FRIENDS WITH A CIRCLE OF EXPATS, YOUR FRIENDS BECOME A LOT MORE TRANSIENT BECAUSE EVERYONE IS MOVING AROUND A LOT.
A Two-Edged Sword
Name: Channing H. Hancock
Role: Business Lead, Facebook, Asia Pacific, Singapore
Grad Info: BS: bioinformatics, 2012
Channing H. Hancock, who has lived in Singapore for the past three years, noted that while Singapore is a lot more Western than other parts of Asia, there are still adjustments that have to be made to live there.
“Being an expat is a double-edged sword,” Hancock said. “Being far away from your family is hard, but it also means you are closer to people at church and have more opportunities to travel to exciting places. Here people shop more frequently and have smaller fridges, and if you adapt to that you are fine. If you approach it with American expectations, you will be disappointed.”
The ability to adapt to local culture and to have a sense of independence is imperative, Hancock cautioned. Asian companies have a different work culture and sense of morality. “Even if you served a mission in an Asian country, it is a very different experience to work there,” she noted. “For example, in China the concept of IP theft isn’t really there. Your manager might ask you to do things that you consider wrong, but your manager won’t see it that way. They just have different concepts of integrity and morality.”
And as business becomes more international, there is less “padding,” such as money provided by the company for housing and other expenses. “Expat packages are becoming increasingly less common. Gone are the days where you would expect to have an expat package, unless you are someone senior in the company,” she said.
Establishing roots with other expats can also be difficult because the majority of them live in the country for only six-month to two-year stays, Hancock said. “When you are friends with a circle of expats, your friends become a lot more transient because everyone is moving around a lot.”
Is Russia Part of Asia?
Geographically Russia is part of both Asia and Europe—extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Paul Cox said, “I vividly remember being in Khabarovsk, Russia, for meetings way out in Siberia and looking across the border into China and thinking, ‘Northern China is Southern Siberia and just as cold!’”
Demographically, almost 80 percent of the Russian population lives west of the Ural Mountains, which are sometimes used as a proxy between Europe and Asia. “There is definitely an Asian influence in Moscow,” Cox said, “but the influence goes back at least to the days of Genghis Khan and the time when almost all of Russia was ruled by Mongolians and Tartars.”
About the Author
Sara Jarman received a BA in political science and a minor in Russian in 2013 from BYU. Jarman also participated in BYU Model United Nations in 2009 and 2010. She is a contributor to KSL.com, a content marketer for several companies, and the author of Elephants on the Rampage: The Eclipse of Conservatism in America. She is currently a student at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.