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back to index backCHINAtalk December,  2004

Relocating to China: Meeting the Challenges Head On

Patience, persistence, flexibility, a sense of humor and an open mind are things all expatriates should bring with them to a new culture. And China is no exception. Expatriates should remain open to the fact that the process of adaptation means that things may not always go their way and the problem resolution process will probably be different and may take twice as long as they are used to.

It is also extremely important that the proper measures are taken to help ensure that family members are equally prepared for the assignment as the expatriate. By being open to new experiences in the Chinese culture, expatriates will be provided with the chance of a lifetime-to live and work overseas and see another part of the world.

One of the most significant ways to prepare an expatriate for an assignment in China is to provide a "look-see" or pre-assignment visit to the assignment location. The length of this trip should be a minimum of five days, not including travel time, in order to allow the expatriate sufficient time to accomplish certain objectives while visiting the host location. During this trip, the expatriate and spouse must be given the opportunity to not only preview host country housing options, but to receive a full area tour. It is helpful to provide additional information about life in the assignment location during this trip, such as pointing out local shopping venues, educational and medical facilities, and other local amenities. The pre-assignment visit should be an opportunity for the expatriate to affirm their decision to accept the assignment.

Medical care is a significant issue for expatriates in China, as it can be highly variable. Cities with large expatriate populations will typically have facilities providing Western medical care; however, the same may not be true for outlying areas with smaller expatriate populations. Expatriates should be advised to seek out medical facilities and identify a family physician immediately upon arrival. Additionally, it is beneficial to educate the expatriate and family regarding the absence of emergency services such as ambulances and in-transit emergency cars, as these services are often not readily available in many cities in China. The company should provide any assistance available to ensure that expatriates have all the resources they need with regards to medical care, both routine and emergency, in the assignment location. Additionally, the company will want to ensure that they provide a formal emergency evacuation program to all expatriates, in the event that an expatriate or family member must be transported to another location to receive medical care.

Language training is paramount when relocating to China given the level of difficulty of the Chinese language and its many dialects. In China, the miss-pronunciation of the simplest words or incorrect inflection of the voice can completely alter the meaning of what is said. This can cause great embarrassment for both the expatriate and the expatriate's audience. There is also importance in not only learning the language, but also in learning the language from an experiential perspective. Expatriates who are able to arm themselves with well-known Chinese quotes and commonly used phrases will be much more successful in both their professional and personal lives while on assignment in China. In order to ensure that both the expatriate and spouse obtain the required proficiency in the local language, the policy should cover language training both pre-departure and post-arrival.

There is tremendous variation among expatriate housing options in China, both with regards to availability and cost. Not only should the expatriate be provided with several different housing options, but also needs to be cognizant of the fact that price ranges for different types of housing with varying levels of amenities can be large. It may be difficult to find housing in China that mirrors the size and space of housing found in the expatriate's home country. In some Chinese cities, expatriates cannot live in the same housing compounds as local Chinese, as doing so would require a special police permit.

Expatriates, then must live in what some consider to be overpriced expatriate housing.

Expectations should be established up front, so that there are no surprises during the housing search. For example, one expatriate indicated that the manager of her housing complex "forgot" to tell her that the heat in the building would be turned off on a particular target date in the Spring.

What about when the assignment is over? A returning expatriate can be one of the most valuable assets and resources a company has.
Unfortunately, many expatriates believe that companies do not adequately value the wealth of knowledge and experience that are gained during an assignment in China. In reality, a successful repatriation program should begin before the expatriate and their family ever depart from the home location. The home company should maintain constant communication with the expatriate during the assignment, while reinforcing the importance of the skills acquired and knowledge gained by the expatriate during the assignment. It is imperative to clearly communicate a defined repatriation process and timeline, to ensure that expatriates are cognizant of both their responsibilities and the company's responsibilities regarding repatriation activities. All of these endeavors will aid in a more successful re-integration of the expatriate into the home organization, and will also help ensure that the expatriate's assignment experiences do not go unnoticed and unutilized.

An assignment in China is not an event; it is an on-going process. Moves such as these require adequate preparation for both the expatriate and their accompanying family to adjust to the psychological, physical and emotional changes of the new culture. Accurate, timely information and realistic expectations will go a long way toward the success of an expatriate assignment in China.

Source: Prudential Relocation International

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Other articles from the same issue (December,  2004).

China's intensified efforts to enforce transfer pricing rules
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Acquisitions in China: A View of the Field
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Practical tips for protecting intellectual property in China
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Tax break for Americans at work on Mainland China
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Trends in Leadership: Overseas Chinese hired to lead local companies
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Relocating to China: Meeting the Challenges Head On
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