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Ways to Help Expat Families Adjust

by Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner

1. Identify networking resources. Before departure, with the help of a relocation service, put the trailing spouse in touch with nonprofit organizations such as the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas (FAWCO). This organization has 65 chapters in more than 30 countries and helps people meet other expatriates from the United States. Most chapters offer programs around the theme "Bloom Where You Are Planted." To identify the appropriate foreign country representative, contact FAWCO's Washington Liaison, Eleonor Fina, at fax number (703) 768-0920. Other local organizations can be identified by relocation services.

2. Help adjust expectations. Trailing partners who have the best experiences are those who are able to "let go" of their assumptions about what will make them and their children happy. Encourage expatriates and their families to keep an open mind and value the differences instead of focusing on them as negatives, especially when they first arrive. Warn them that the expatriate experience can either bring a family closer together or draw it apart.

Moreover, the attitude of the trailing spouse has much to do with how the children will feel about the experience. If viewed in terms of cultural adjustment models, enthusiasm has to be cultivated once a family moves out of the "honeymoon period" if they are to ever achieve full integration into the host country.

Provide them with a process model. Families need to be able to determine what stage they are in and how to move through to the next stage.

3. Discuss children and schools. According to Anne Belkind, a former officer for Mothers English-Speaking Support Group (MESSAGE) in Paris, parents can help their children adjust to the new culture by timing the move and the assignment so that children begin school at the beginning of the year when all the kids are "new." Timing can be very important for the entire family.

Encourage parents to find the right school for their children. Parents should not assume that their child will be happy or has the personality to be placed in an immersion school in which only the host country language is spoken. While it is true that children learn languages easier than adults, as Belkind says, "With all the other strains you are placing on a child, do you really want to add this unnecessary stress?" She recommends placing children initially in a bilingual program so that they have the best of both worlds--a cross-cultural experience and the security of being able to use their own language.

Often, in the "sink or swim" approach, many children sink! I witnessed one little girl who was supposedly having behavior problems in a French lycee where she had been placed. When she was moved to a bilingual school the problems disappeared.

Whenever possible, recommend moving children's' rooms intact so they have a familiar place to escape to in a sea of change. Belkind also suggests that expatriates should not select a home until they have decided what school their child(ren) will attend. Living close to the school(s) will ease the stress of transporting them there and make it easier for children to spend time with friends after school. Relocation services can be invaluable in providing information on host country school options.

4. Provide an action plan outline. Help the expatriate family outline key objectives they--individually and as a family--will strive to achieve in the first 10, 30, 60 and 90 days and so on. Action items might include taking language lessons, joining clubs or sports teams, returning to school, setting career objectives, taking lessons in an area of interest, scheduling trips, volunteering, listing books to be read and local areas to visit. Ideally, the objectives allow the family to focus on the positives of the host country.

5. Give details about setting up a household. Numerous details must be taken care of when moving a family's household abroad. Since Western Europe's electric service is 220 volt vs. 110 volt, most U.S.-made appliances will not work without large, cumbersome adapters and converters. Appliances available in Europe are at least twice as expensive and usually much smaller unless you want to pay a premium. (Our refrigerator was the size of the one I had in my college dorm!)

Before departure, astute expatriates purchase appliances that have been converted to 220 volts. Unfortunately, expatriates are unaware this option exists. The Institute for International Human Resources' International HRM Reference Guide ($75 for SHRM members, call 703-548-3440, ext. 2102) contains names of several vendors who provide this service. By chance I learned before our departure that U.S.-made lamps can be used on the continent with a 50-cent adapter and 220-volt light bulbs--saving lots of money in new lamps.

Sorting out the television is an adventure in itself. In the United States, the NTSC format is used, but in the United Kingdom it is PAL. In Western Europe, the format is usually SECAM. Expatriates often buy a multisystem TV and VCR in Europe that recognizes all three signals. The multisystem equipment allows them to watch U.S.-made videos and still pick up local TV signals.

Also, suggest that relocating expatriates and their families take favorite products that may not be available abroad. Though you may find most products in larger cities, the price is typically three times that in the States.

Some items coveted by expatriates include peanut butter, marshmallows, instant hot chocolate, cake mixes, baking powder, pudding, cleaning products, antibacterial soap, breakfast cereals, U.S.-made toilet tissue, candy bars and prescription and over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol and Benadryl (these drugs should always be kept in the original packages to avoid problems with customs). Families should also be reminded that international shipments are often delayed.

Evaluating relocation services

The most reputable relocation firms provide a menu of services with prices based on individual or package rates and the needs of specific expatriates and their families. According to Sylvie Rouanet, president of Entree Into Paris, a relocation firm should, ideally, request an opportunity to talk with expatriates and their families before they create a contract proposal.

Many relocation firms believe it is essential that a firm's staff include both former expatriates and local nationals, who can deal more effectively with local officials and impart more understanding of local culture and customs.

When considering a relocation firm, request complete documentation of all services the provides. Many agencies call themselves relocation firms, but are actually real estate agents that can only identify housing options, negotiate standard leases, and coordinate a pre-move walk-through (which in Western Europe often involves a government official).

Relocation services will perform all of the above and may also offer: pre-departure orientation, in-country orientation (including cross-cultural insight), help in establishing home utilities and obtaining residence and work permits as well as drivers' licenses, identification of and registration in schools, referral to local medical services, help in obtaining required insurance coverage, referral to appropriate language training, specialized partner assistance, and often repatriation/departure programs.

Some firms even provide a bilingual hotline for expatriates and their families to contact when they are faced with problems such as communicating with a plumber, establishing a bank account, identifying where to buy a particular product (e.g., in France, baking soda can be purchased only at a pharmacy), or understanding the public transit system. Even expatriates with some fluency in the local language may not have the vocabulary for every situation encountered. This type of service, which is often provided on a maintenance basis, provides a safety net that can help expatriates and their families feel much more at ease.

The key is to check references. Ask the agency to provide the names of client companies who are similar to yours in size and, if possible, are in the same industry and operating in the country where your expatriates will be located. Each country has its own set of rules, so you need to validate the expertise for each country. Confirming that the service has the necessary contacts in the local government, for example, can go a long way toward smoothly and quickly obtaining necessary permits and registrations.

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This article has been generously contributed by Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner, SPHR, president of Human Resources Strategies in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at BFTHRS@aol.com.