Saturday, October 24, 2009

Guides to expatriate work

I've read a lot over the last two years that relates to the history, culture, religion, and politics of the Arabian Gulf and Middle East. My motivation for this reading has been out of curiosity and wanting to know more about where I live and the places I've explored in my travels. Two recent books have been more for those who are working, or doing regular business, abroad.

Don't they know it's Friday (Williams, 1998) is a great little book about the Arabian Gulf. The advice offered in it duplicates much of what I've read elsewhere but the advantage of this book is its great practicality. Someone who wishes to be well-informed when visiting the Gulf will pick up many helpful hints and those preparing for expatriate assignments will find even deeper value to the respectful descriptions of culture, religion, custom, and successfully negotiating the transition to life in the Gulf. There's even a section on hosting Gulf guests in western countries which conveys many tips that educators will find helpful as they seek to understand Arabian Gulf, Muslim, and other Arab students on their campuses.

The adventure of working abroad: Hero tales from the global frontier (Osland, 1995) is directed at western (primarily U.S.A.) expatriates who are considering and/or making sense of work abroad. I picked this book up because I thought it might be helpful for educators on expatriate assignments but found that the content is quite narrowly focused on business, and not even on business in general but just foreign assignments from western companies. The book approached the topic through the metaphor of hero journeys. The hero metaphor may reflect the experience of some expatriates but I found it a little trite and oddly demeaning of how I've experienced working abroad. I've corresponded with the author and know that she is conducting research to update the book and I assume the subsequent issue will have much to offer. There are some very important points in the 1995 release including the importance of finding a cultural informant, welcoming paradox, being enriched by the expatriate experience, and dealing with repatriation once the assignment abroad is over. The enrichment that is possible through expatriate work is summarized in a wonderful table (Table 6.1, p. 141) that describes letting go (death to the old and limited perspective before work abroad) to taking on (being transformed into a more cultural aware and engaged global citizen).
Letting go --- Taking on
1. Cultural certainty --- Internalized perceptions of the other culture; increased patriotism
2. Unquestioned acceptance of basic assumptions --- Internalized values of the other
3. Personal frames of reference --- New or broader schemas so that differences are accepted without a need to compare
4. Unexamined life --- Constructed life
5. Accustomed role or status --- Role assigned by the other culture or one’s job
6. Social reinforcement knowledge --- Accepting and learning the other culture’s social norms and behavior
7. Accustomed habits and activities --- Substituting functional equivalents
8. Known routines --- Addiction to novelty and learning

The point made by Osland time and time again is the critical importance of fully engaging with the local culture and being patient and responsive to what the expatriate experiences. Realistically, not all expatriates are right for such an assignment, thus the selection, placement, and transition experience are key to increasing the chances of success.

One of the most salient points made by Osland is that expatriates need to be careful to whom they listen. There are almost invariably a few expatriates who stand in judgment of the host culture, perpetuate negative stereotypes, and never really give the locals a chance. This is a very sad reality that, at least in my experience, tends to occur in settings where there a large numbers of expatriates, especially those who take expatriate assignments primarily for the economic benefit of the assignment. A book I've just begun, Power (Greene, 1998) captures the impact of negativity as it undermines power in a chapter titled, "Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky." It advises that negative people are to be avoided as "a virus. Unseen, it enters your pores without warning, spreading silently and slowly. Before you are aware of the infection, it is deep inside you." (p. 80) I can't think of a more apt description of the dynamic that I see sometimes spoiling and unraveling the effectiveness of a positive expatriate experience.

1 comment:

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