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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Asia Expats Before and After the Great Recession

The first time our little Franco-American family headed off for Asia back in 2006 the French multinational my spouse worked for built us a golden bridge.  We were seduced with a package that included a job for me in Tokyo, Japanese language lessons, a great international school for the Frenchlings, and business class plane tickets "home" so when we returned to France on vacation we did so in style.

As we settled in that first year in Tokyo we learned that our package was not unique at all.  The office were we both worked was filled with other French expatriates and those higher on the food chain had even better packages.  The Grand Poobah himself, a product of France's finest schools, travelled in a car with a driver, lived in a huge apartment, and was given a French tri-lingual secretary whom he treated with great respect.  She was a necessity because even after 10 years in Japan, he spoke very little Japanese and preferred to conduct business in French or English.

Sounds positively colonial, doesn't it?

In 2015 all that is gone, gone, gone.  Most of the French expatriates who worked with us years ago went home.  It was simply too costly, we heard, to support so many in the style to which they had happily become accustomed.  And so the French company  gave them two choices:  repatriation or local contracts.  Most left.

As for the company (a different one) that sent us to Osaka earlier this year, this package is nothing compared to what we had the last time.  During the negotiations prior to leaving France, the company did everything they could to keep the costs down.  They succeeded;  it is only costing the company slightly more to have us in Osaka, Japan as opposed to France, my spouse's home country.

Personal experience is not proof of a trend.  And yet a recent Wall Street Journal article analyzing the state of the traditional business expat in Asia argues that, yes, post-financial crisis. the business expat experience in this part of the world is very different.

In Singapore, China and Hong Kong, says writes Rashmi Dalai, the packages are slimmer, the salaries are lower, and the profiles are different:  more expats from other parts of Asia and fewer from Europe and North America.  Younger, too, and willing to stay long-term even if it means less money and living in less desirable locations.

Very interesting article and well worth the read.  If you are a Flophouse reader in any of these Asian countries, I would to have your take on what she says.  Dalai was based in Shanghai, a city I worked in temporarily a few times, but don't know it well.  All I can offer here is my perspective from Japan, and I have a few questions about her argument.

Writing about three countries on this vast continent and implying that this is representative of Asia is a bit hard to swallow.  Yes, over the years the action (so to speak) is centered on Asian countries with growing power and influence, and strong economies.   I am old enough to remember when Japan was booming and was the place to be.  Some of the expatriates I've met here who stayed through the busts and the natural disasters have a certain nostalgia for that period when even a foreign language teacher could make decent money.  

Last time I looked Japan was still part of Asia as is Korea or Thailand or Vietnam or Cambodia.  There are business expats in those places, too.  So I would argue that she would have to look at a more diverse selection of places before she can dub this an Asian trend. For that matter it would be interesting to know if the trend was not regional at all, but international in scope with business expatriates in South America, Africa or Europe having similar experiences. 

I was also a bit dubious of this assertion:  "Five years ago, the majority of expats in Asia were Westerners on short-term assignments with multinational corporations that offered generous housing, schooling and travel packages."

I really doubt that is true.  Yes, there are cities in Asia with a high number of business expats like Tokyo and probably Hong Kong or Shanghai.  But however large that population, there is almost always a greater population of  Western foreign language teachers, academics, translators, small business owners, spouses, students and missionaries.

They are far less sexy (and probably of little interest to WSJ readers) than the entrepreneurs or company transfers and reflect a much wider socio-economic spectrum than the businessmen and women.  These Westerners are not drawn to Asia by the expat packages because they don't have them and never did.  For that matter, some arrived without any job at all and did what was necessary to get one.

Whatever is going on with the traditional business expats in Asia or elsewhere, a far more interesting question (to me at least) is the relationship between the foreign company transfers, the floating group of short to medium-term expats with more mundane jobs, and the more or less permanent Western communities in Asian countries.  If what Dalai says is true about their being fewer Western expats with money to burn and the power to hire, and there are more local people who have the qualifications and the profiles to take over those positions, what is the impact on all the other Western expatriates or permanent residents?

Will there be fewer opportunities for Westerners overall?  Will it be harder for the permanent foreign residents to survive even with their language and culture skills?  What happens to the infrastructure (schools, churches, societies) if there are no longer enough well-heeled foreign nationals to support them?  Or the small businesses built around "translating" the local culture and language for short to medium-term expats?

Last word.  It is a real pity that we have such a loose definition of expat and that so much energy is expended avoiding the word migrant for people from Western countries.  Why?  Because the surface interpretation of this article would be that one type of expat is simply being replaced by another type of expat.  Another, and I think a truer interpretation, would be that the expats are being replaced by economic or opportunity migrants who just happen to be from Western countries like Europe or North America.  And once we've opened our minds to that, we can look to migration experts for theories and answers.

12 comments:

Inaka Nezumi said...

Interesting to hear about the decline of the "expat package." In retrospect, I suppose it does not be too surprising; it seems like the kind of system that is bound to have a limited lifespan, as foreign companies grow local roots and figure out how to operate in the local markets.

"If what Dalai says is true about their being fewer Western expats with money to burn and the power to hire, and there are more local people who have the qualifications and the profiles to take over those positions, what is the impact on all the other Western expatriates or permanent residents?

Will there be fewer opportunities for Westerners overall? Will it be harder for the permanent foreign residents to survive even with their language and culture skills? What happens to the infrastructure (schools, churches, societies) if there are no longer enough well-heeled foreign nationals to support them? Or the small businesses built around "translating" the local culture and language for short to medium-term expats?"

My first guess would be that permanent foreign residents would not be affected much, because most do not make a living providing services to the foreign companies or their expat-package employees. (Though presumably some do, and would be affected.) Most permanent residents are also probably not making use of any of the infrastructure built for the expat-package hires. (Again, with some limited exceptions.)

In general, I expect most ordinary immigrants probably have little contact with (or, to be brutally honest, sympathy for) the expat-package crowd.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I think that absolutely correct, Nezumi-san.

In fact I've been rather ashamed of my own behaviour in France. There was a time when I stayed as far away as I could from short-term American residents in France. I wouldn't even help tourists. I was pretty awful (and very arrogant). I think I was also afraid to make friends with people who would be leaving.

But over the years I've seen some pretty bad stuff happen to permanent residents or situations where the infrastructure and societies became important to them and they chose to reconnect. I know people, for example, who needed counseling and tried French psychologists and found that didn't work for them. So they reached out for a qualified compatriot. I know that in my own case I ended up in English speaking AA and not the French one.

The most common situation in my experience where long-term residents reach out is when they have children. And this is usually the foreign spouse looking for support. There is nothing like having a child, trying to raise that child according to your standards of a "good" parent and realizing that you are outnumbered. And that the native citizen spouse and his or her family has some very strong opinions about childraising that conflict with yours. I don't know about Japanese culture but I can say that generally the French have a pretty low opinion of American parenting. :-)

To be honest, I lost most of the battles with the French family and was reduced to passive resistance over the things that made my stomach hurt - like shaming, for example, and public punishment. As a woman and a foreigner I felt I had no power and could not even get to a place where I could have a discussion with the French family and come up with compromises that we all could live with.

Other American women I met later did better. By talking to other American women both short and long-term residents they found comfort, someone to talk to, and even helpful advice. So I regret that I didn't have that and didn't want it. It might have changed a lot of things - one of which is the Frenchlings strong dislike for some of the French family, deep resentment over the way they were treated as children and disappoitnment with me for not having more of a backbone.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I agree there is a tendency to reject possible alliances unnecessarily, out of jealousy, pridefulness ("I should be able to handle this myself"), just plain orneriness, or other reasons that are best grown out of.

Like you I have had some head-butting over child-rearing issues, and likewise have often lost out to the "this is Japan, so Japanese rules win" argument. I have at times compared notes with a couple of friends of mine who are also Western fathers, but I think in the end the larger environment exerts a more powerful force, just out of sheer numerical superiority. So my role tends to become limited to tweaking things in what I consider appropriate directions. (And of course, not all issues are clash-of-the-cultures in nature, at least not as often as that trump card gets pulled, in my opinion.)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh yes, it can be very hard to sort out what is culture issue or a personality issue. It's awfully easy for someone to say, "You're American and you can't possibly understand" and this is just the way it is here. Frankly, sometimes that is just plain crap. :-)

I agree that environment plays an enormous role and culture is an incredible force but what "culture" is being invoked here?

My French family is military, Right wing, Catholic and very conservative. Are all French people like that and share those values? Not at all. Lot of atheists in France, the political spectrum includes socialists and communists. And ever since France dropped the draft the younger generation knows nothing of military service, culture or tradition. So my family isn't really representative of France, just one part of it. I would suspect that this of true of your Japanese family as well.

Something I would like to check out with while I have you. I was talking to an acquaintance who is an American married to a Japanese and he's been here about 30 years. His contention was that Japanese women pre Western men because they believe in equality, are more romantic, and that they treat women much better than Japanese men do.

That's a pretty serious statement to make and it set me back on my heels. Because that's not what I see when I walk the streets of Osaka and observe young couples out on walks or dates. The young Japanese men are charming and attentive (and quite handsome too). Couples hold hands, they hug, they kiss. I've even seen Japanese men buying flowers for their ladies. Where is this supposed lack of romance? Where is this ill-treatment? Not to mention that the Japanese women I know are pretty tough cookies and I just don't see any of them putting up with crap from anyone.

All respect to this long-term resident of Japan and it is certainly not for me, the short-timer, to disrespect that experience but I just don't see what he sees. Could you give me some insight into his perspective? Cause I don't get it.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I'm going to weasel out and not claim to have any answers, but will admit that I have heard that stereotype before, though perhaps not as often recently.

There may be generational differences at work -- young Japanese men of today are often claimed to be quite different from those of 30 years ago. (Softer, less aggressive and more "herbivorous," as opposed to the ruthless, carnivorous corporate warriors of the Bubble Era.)

There may also be life-cycle differences -- by the time one is old enough to be paying close attention to one's own parents relationship, they are likely past the romantic stage and well into the middle-aged grump stage. So to the extent that one's own parents provide the first template of what being married would be like, it might naturally encourage a predisposition towards something different.

Inconclusive enough? :)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Fair enough and thank you.

I think you are on to something with "generational differences". In my American family the older American men (most dead now thank God) included wife beaters and drunks. One gentlemen in my direct line refused to allow his wife to drive a car - she was not even allowed to get a driver's license. I kid you not.

But in spite of all of that my brothers are wonderful men and don't have a mysogonist bone or jerk gene in their bodies. :-)

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

I wonder if the difference is that the "first" company was much bigger. I am surprised that company number #1 didn't have the grand poo bah fly back and forth to Paris via private jet as the sister company of company number #1 is the largest maker in the world of long range ultra luxury jets. (The type of private jets that can easily fly Tokyo to Paris non stop).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU_DGKNBdIY

The grand poo bah of company number #1 in the United States lives quite close to me but I don't know if he gets a car and driver.

Tim said...

One group that still gets "traditional" expat packages are pilots and flight attendants especially in the Middle East but also some airlines in Asia like Cathay Pacific.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxI-ttAAwPY
(I believe the flight attendant in the video is Canadian)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mp88MrLZFkc

They are in fact significant pilot shortages so Expat packages are getting richer not poorer at Asian and Middle Eastern Airlines. As you can see in the videos the expat airlines crews at Cathay live quite lavishly.

Some US domestic airline pilots though think US citizen expat airline pilots are traitors and stealing jobs from the domestic US airlines.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Tim, that is certainly part of it. The conpany my spouse works for now is smaller - very well-known in its niche market but not a name most people would recognize even in France. Their HQ is actually in Osaka with Tokyo being a branch office. I doubt that Osaka is as attractive a destination for expats as Tokyo. It certainly has much less infrastructure for the French living here. I have not found (and I don't think it exists) a French international school in this city like the one my Frenchlings went to in Tokyo. In fact we haven't met a single French family since we've moved here. The only other French my spouse has met came through the French Chamber of Commerce which is very active in the Kansai. I suspect we would have to move to Kyoto or Kobe to find a French community.

Another issue with Tokyo was the earthquake/tsunami. The embassies encouraged expats to leave saying that it wasn't safe. Many did. I'm hearing a lot of resentment about that from those who stayed.

Today the story is that Hong Kong has become THE destination in Asia for the French abroad. WSJ expat has an article about it.

Nick said...

Well, that's WSJ for you... :) They get their information on expats from Mercer, Hewitt, and other similar outfits advising multinationals on executive relocations.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Here's the article

http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/08/05/the-hottest-spot-for-french-expats-these-days-is-hong-kong/