Come Home, Did You Say?
Some Expats Choose to Cut Ties with Their Employer and Stay Abroad
By ALAN PAUL
We went to China in 2005 with a three-year commitment. Like most traditional expats, we arrived for a job (in our case my wife Rebecca’s) and when the home office called us back, we packed our bags, said tearful good–byes and climbed on a plane. This is still probably the most common path taken by expats, but it is certainly not the only one.
Some expats have a vision of remaining abroad for long periods and use their initial job offer as a springboard; others find themselves so enamored of their new home that when the first posting ends they find a new way to make it work; some remain with their employer as a “local hire” — usually meaning open-ended and less cushy terms — while others seek new jobs or start their own businesses.
As I resettle and struggle to find my footing back home, I have spent a lot of time thinking about some friends who made these types of decisions, which were radically different than our own. They turned down new jobs, transfers or recalls to stake roots in their adopted home, sometimes with potential risk to their career or finances. Unlike those in the growing group of “halfpats” world-wide, many of whom are young, single, and comparatively nimble, these risk takers are older and have gone abroad with families and full-package assignments.
The first people that came to my mind were our friends Matt and Ellen Carberry. They arrived in Beijing from Cambridge, Mass., seven years ago, moving for her job with IBM, with two young children in tow. Unlike us — and most expats I know in Beijing — Ellen did not just happen to receive a job in China. Living there had been a long-time goal, hatched in 1983 when she worked nine months in a refugee camp in the Philippines filled with people fleeing chaos in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. She and Matt had discussed their mutual interest in raising children abroad on their very first date 18 years ago.
They and their children — Luke and Chloe, then ages five and six — quickly settled into life in Beijing after arriving in 2002. When her assignment ended three years later, none of them felt ready to leave, including the children who knew Beijing — their school, their neighborhood, their friends — as their home.
“Going back to the U.S. for a job with IBM was an option but not one we seriously considered,” she says. Instead, Ellen immediately began looking for another job, landing at Red Hat, where she worked for three years. With the end of that job in sight last year, Matt and Ellen were still not interested in returning to the U.S.
“The children are in one of the best international schools in the world and we live amidst a community of some of the most interesting, committed and down-to-earth families working for businesses, health organizations, embassies, the World Bank and the world’s best newspapers,” she says. “These leading organizations have sent their best and brightest to define their growth in China — so it is one of the most interesting, dynamic and enjoyable communities and lifestyles I could possibly imagine.”
Matt echoes this sentiment and adds, “Interestingly, I find the family units here very stable. Despite the fact that most are relatively well-off expats, everyone is working for a living. No one is skating through their work and sweeping up cash. There is a very healthy work ethic, which I like. It is the ‘third culture’ — neither home country nor pure China — and I am fine with that.”
After six years working for large companies in China, Ellen combined her belief in green technology with entrepreneurial interests (she had worked for several startups, including one which was bought by IBM, leading to her employment there) to co-found The China Greentech Initiative, which promotes investment in green-technology business opportunities in China. Matt is also involved in a large-scale start-up business, as a managing director at China Horizon Investment Group, which looks to open thousands of stores in rural China selling everything form rice to plastics. The type of ambitious work they are both doing seems difficult to come by in the U.S. right now.
There is another subset of expats, who move constantly from one assignment to another, making their way around the world. Matt Carberry told me that this never appealed to him; he likes to put down roots, and has become a pillar of the Beijing expat community, serving on the boards of his kids’ school, a sports recreation group and a kids’ charity.
Still, as much as they love life in Beijing, there are things that make them pause: Matt points to the pollution and lack of an outdoor life; Ellen feels guilty about living so far away from their families, especially separating kids from their grandparents.
Chris Buckley is another long-time Beijing expat who found a new calling — making and selling hand-made Tibetan rugs — since jumping off the corporate mother ship. The Englishman arrived in Guangzhou, China, working for Proctor & Gamble in 1995. Five years later, he and his wife, also working for P&G, changed their status from expats to local hires to relocate to Beijing rather than return to Kobe, Japan, where they were previously posted.
“It was an easy decision to localize, despite the reduction in benefits and salary, because I found China to be a much more interesting place to work than Japan,” says Mr. Buckley, who is 48 and has no children. “The former was (and still is) on an upward curve, whereas Japan seemed to be settling into a long decline. I also found the younger Chinese employees much more eager to learn and improve, which made working here more fun.”
Mr. Buckley says he got into selling Tibetan carpets by accident, taking over a small store as an intended hobby in 2001. “The business grew and I quit P&G a few years later. I don’t think I would have made that transition had I not localized first,” he says. “Expat deals are like living in a bubble, and if you quit from one of those you lose your house, car, etc. As a local you have an independent existence.”
Mr. Buckley eventually opened his own carpet worskshop in Lhasa and is currently working closely with the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund.
The current economic climate is making an extended expat stay more appealing to some. Bill Russo recently left Chrysler, where he worked for 15 years, most recently as the vice-president responsible for Chrysler’s business in Northeast Asia, to remain in Beijing.
“At least a year before my assignment ended I decided I wanted to stay here, but the problems back in Detroit made the decision fairly black and white,” says Mr. Russo 48, who wanted to allow his daughter to finish high school in Beijing as her two brothers did. He is considering channeling his experience with Chinese culture into a new consultancy for companies looking to enter the Chinese market, which he believes will continue to gain strength. A year or two ago, he would doubtlessly have clients lining up at his door, but with China’s changing economic picture such opportunity may be less certain.
While Mr. Russo is anxious to get a new job, he is currently enjoying a less harried existence and living without an expat package. “It has been nice to be here without the constant travel pressure associated with my job,” he says. “I’m studying Chinese daily, and get around town using taxis, buses and bicycles. The past few months have given me the experience of and appreciation for the Beijing local lifestyle.”
He says that while he will “certainly migrate back” to the U.S. some day, he is in no hurry and on no timetable. “I just felt that going back now, when there is so much more to experience here — both professionally and personally, would have been premature,” he says.
The Carberrys likewise have no concrete vision for when their time in China will end, and acknowledge that, just because they are no longer on an expat assignment, the decision isn’t entirely up to them. “Since we’ve been in China, I’ve grown to live by appreciating one day at a time, and always keeping an open mind about what will happen next,” says Ellen. “We’re living in Beijing at the invitation and sponsorship of the government and thus, while we try to control our lives, one realizes that you’re not in full control.”
Write to Alan Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org