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Business Across Cultures: Home, Again

Many of the readers of these articles may have just returned from spending holidays overseas. For many long-time, Indonesia residents, going abroad for a few weeks highlights the differences found between most western countries and Indonesia. It gives people a time to reflect on how they have lived in other countries and how that may starkly contrast with how they are living now.

Expatriate executives and their families expend a large amount of time and effort adapting to life in Indonesia. For the executive, this usually means adapting to the new job while learning the new communication skills and management techniques to be an effective manager in the Indonesian business context. On the family front, an effort is needed to get children settled into school life, find which stores carry their favorite foods, and start building a new social network. As the weeks turn into months in this new posting, memories of life in the home country may seem to fade. Homesickness may get easier to bear and, with luck, the expatiate family assimilates into the Indonesian culture and takes advantage of the many benefits of living in Indonesia.

We strongly encourage this assimilation. To function as an effective part of the corporate office or as an effective family unit, expatriates should understand both the broad outlines of the culture in which they live and the nuances involved in inter-personal contact.

However, this assimilation does raise issues concerning a return to the home country. The two main aspects involve a permanent return and the type of home leave that many families have recently experienced.

A permanent return to the home country is a complex topic that usually involves many of the same issues that one faced moving overseas in the first place. The primary issues are usually reintegration into the home office corporate structure and a reorganization and rebuilding of the prior social network.

However, going on home leave should not produce such extreme situations. After all, you are supposed to be on vacation, visiting family and friends, or traveling to new and interesting places.

There are, however, a couple of areas that can be difficult for families on leave. One of the basic ones is “Where's home?”. The prior family home is often sold or rented. Families may stay with friends and relatives, or in hotels and apartments, for a number of weeks. Even though you are “home”, you may still feel like a visitor.

If you have been in Indonesia for a year or longer, you can be sure that your perspective on events has changed to a large extent. The issues that concern you on a daily basis here are probably not going to be of enduring interest to your friends and family back home.

One of the oft-told traveler's tales is about having dinner with old friends. While they may appear interested in all of the new things that you have seen and experienced in the last few months, they really cannot relate to them. After a courteous period of attention, many expatriates report that friends appear to become bored with the conversation.

This often goes both ways. Your friends' heated discussion about why the municipal recycling trucks are not coming on schedule and what they are going to do about it, may no longer strike you with the importance that it might have before you lived in Indonesia.

You and your family may not understand what should be popular references to sports, television and movies, music, and current domestic news items. Family and friends may have heard of the political and social changes occurring here, but you may well be explaining again that 'Indonesia is no where near Iraq' and 'the foreign press is a for-profit entity.”

There are several steps that a family can take to mitigate most reverse culture shock experienced during a visit to the home country. First and foremost, use the same approach that you used before your move to Indonesia originally: planning and knowledge. Many people may think that little planning is needed; they are going home after all. However, the more organization and thought put into the planning stage, the easier the transition will be.

Modern telecommunications and the Internet make the transition easier that it was a few years ago. Families can mostly keep track of their interests in music, sports, or whatever else even when overseas. But there are a million and one factors that affect culture without being obvious. Factors that will not be apparent until you actually get back in the home country.

Be sure to explain to the children what challenges they may face when back home. Make lists of movies to see and books to buy.

If there is no family home to return to, make sure that you arrange for some sort of safe haven, be it a hotel or rented apartment, to give the family someplace alone where they can escape from the more hectic pace of the West. Once again, being a “guest” in a relative's or friend's home can become very stressful after a couple of weeks.

Be sure to bring pictures or scrapbooks of the family experiences while overseas. Pictures tell a thousand words and most family and friends will appreciate the visual rather than aural input.

Finally, don't force people to listen to you if they do not appear interested. Many Westerners, Americans and Australians in particular, do not understand or have little interest in foreign affairs. Remember that living overseas is your family's personal experience and is supposed to enrich your lives, not other people's lives.

Adaptation to culture is a slow creeping process. It tends to work its way into one's outlook without the person even realizing it. During even a few weeks overseas, families can begin to readapt to the home country. Spouses, children and maybe even the executive normally have mixed feelings about returning to Indonesia for another several month stint.

After a trip back home, it always takes me a few days to re-adapt to living in Indonesia. During those days, the city seems dirtier, the roadside more squalid, and the humidity higher that I remembered. However, once I get back to work and reestablish my routine, it begins again to feel like home once again.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.