APRIL 10, 2009

It’s China, or the Job
Spouses face difficult decisions when their partners are offered an overseas assignment


My work life was one of the many areas in which I was extremely fortunate during my China venture. I was able to maintain relationships with the two magazines I primarily worked for before moving — Guitar World and Slam — while also greatly expanding the scope of my work, as evidenced by the column you are now reading.

None of this was certain when we decided to move to China. I had to take a leap of faith that things would work out, assuming that if they didn’t I would move on and find new things to do, hopefully enriched by my experiences abroad.
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Countless accompanying spouses face the same sort of decision when their partners are offered an overseas assignment. It can be a grueling crossroads, compounded by the fact that many countries have employment laws that make it virtually impossible for an accompanying spouse to work while on assignment.

Anxiety about a spouse’s ability to work in the new country is a growing cause for expat unhappiness and for turning down assignments, according to Siobhan Cummins, executive vice-president and European managing director for ORC, a company that advises organizations about workforce management and compensation.

“We’re seeing this becoming a bigger issue in each Dual Careers Survey we conduct with people concerned both with losing a second income and with falling off the career track,” says Ms. Cummins. “Removing that income can have quite an impact on a family — particularly now, when a lot of companies are very cost conscious and the expat compensation package is a lot leaner and meaner than it used to be.”

Ms. Cummins says she believes people are particularly loathe to take career risks in the current, uncertain economic environment. “It’s going to be particularly hard for people to get back in to work when they have been out of the job market for a while,” she says. “People really have to give serious consideration to taking a career risk right now.”

Nigel Haywood faced this excruciating decision last winter when his partner Karen was offered a great job in Beijing. Mr. Haywood was the chief executive of an organization that represents the interests of civil contractors in Western Australia and he had to decide whether to walk away from a well-paying, satisfying job in Perth to “throw everything up in the air and see what China would bring.”

He agonized briefly before deciding to make the leap, on the belief that opportunities to live and work abroad don’t come around often. “I didn’t want us to be saying ‘if only…’ in our old age,” he says. “Besides I figured that I would get a job in China easily, given my experience and CV.”

The global economic crisis has made finding work more difficult than anticipated and Mr. Haywood has had to deal with not having a job for the first time in his adult life. “My identity was gone and I was in a country where I knew no one and couldn’t understand anyone, making even the simplest task tremendously difficult,” he says. “It made me think about how I was going to reinvent myself, which has proved more challenging than I ever imagined. Getting off the treadmill and suddenly finding myself able to do or be whatever I wanted has been a euphoric mix of opportunity and loss — very hard emotions to deal with.”

He recently decided to enroll full time in school, studying Mandarin to help ease his transition and return some structure to his daily life.

“I don’t really have any regrets,” says Mr. Haywood. “I know this will take time and I am in the middle of a process. This whole experience has also really brought Karen and I closer.”

Donna Gorman faced a similar decision at an earlier stage, leaving behind a promising career in advertising and public relations in 1998 to move to Moscow when her husband got a foreign-service job there. She has been an expat for most of the ensuing years, living in Moscow, Armenia, Kazakhstan and now Beijing.

“We had just moved from L.A. to New York and I had a couple of great job offers when my husband got the offer to go to Moscow,” she says. “We both have graduate degrees in Russian and it was a dream come true, so I didn’t think twice about the initial decision.”

Ms. Gorman says that while her work choices have been limited at each posting, she has branched out, working part-time at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and in Armenia and eventually becoming a freelance writer, a career she never envisioned.

“When I moved overseas, I started writing as a way to hold on to everything that was happening around me,” she says. “One day I sent a personal essay to the Washington Post on a whim and they bought it. So I just sort of kept going.”

Had she stayed in the U.S, she says, she likely would have remained on a more conventional path. Living overseas has allowed her family to do fine on one steady income, which she says would have been impossible in Los Angeles or New York, and has given her time to chase her muse and explore her new surroundings, which she has found deeply fulfilling.

On the other hand… “Sometimes, when I see where my former colleagues have gotten to, I feel twinges of regret: if so-and-so’s a vice-president now, that means I should be … what? Sometimes I also wish I’d contributed more to the family bottom line rather than spending so much time learning how to cut vegetables into dinosaurs — but that’s a complaint of stay-at-home parents everywhere. It has forced me to define myself in terms of my experiences rather than in terms of a job. I’m not an advertising executive, but I have all of these other life experiences that add up to something better than that. It’s all in how I frame the question.”

Though she may not have realized it, Ms. Gorman stumbled into the very solution to the dual-career challenge promoted by Jo Parfitt, a popular writer about the expat experience. Her book Career in Your Suitcase is now in its third edition.

“The theory is that the solution to the dual career challenge is the portable career,” Ms. Parfitt says from her home in the Hague. “This is one that moves when you do, needs no cumbersome equipment or stock, has both local and global client bases, can grow and be sustained from country to country, can operate via the Internet and is based on what you most love to do.”

She says the three steps to a successful “CIYS” are identifying your own skills and motivations; identifying local needs and opportunities at your location; and executing a plan through networking, branding and teamwork.

Of course, employment restrictions work both ways, and in some cases international moves can provide a career boost. My friend Vivian Nazari, a dentist and a native of Iran who holds dual Canadian/British citizenship and is licensed in the U.K., has seen her career thrive in Beijing. It wasn’t easy to get licensed to practice: she had to find a job first, take a written and practical exam, surrender the diplomatic visa she had through her husband and go to Hong Kong to get a new work permit.

But at least she could do it. Since there is no licensing reciprocity in medicine or dentistry between the U.S. and Europe, she is unable to practice in the States without undergoing two years of school and taking exams — a fact that will weigh heavily when she and her husband, who works for the World Bank, decide where his next posting will be.

“John and I met in London and moved to Washington shortly after we got married,” she says. “Then we had three kids and decided I’d give up work and be a full-time mom. The posting to China meant I could do both, which I love. A posting in any country other than the U.S. and perhaps Canada would not have work restrictions for me so we’ll see where we go. It would be very difficult for me to give up the work at this point.”

Write to Alan Paul at

1 reply
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