Personal Reflections

Personal Reflections | Human Resource Executive Online In outtakes from the Q&A published in Human Resource Executive®, Erik Duerring speaks about how his time in China as an expat affected him personally.

Monday, March 2, 2009
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When an employee from Pittsburgh is offered a relocation assignment to Shanghai, what is his thought process? What personal issues did he have to work out before deciding to accept the transfer?

In a Q&A in the March 2 issue of Human Resource Executive, Erik Duerring, director of consulting services for Asia for Development Dimensions International Inc., offered advice for managing employees in China.

Now, the co-author of Leadership Success in China: An Expatriate's Guide, discusses the personal side of his journey.

When you were approached about taking an expat assignment to China, what were your initial thoughts?

I have come to appreciate this from an organization that provides career opportunities versus just a job. Over the years, DDI has offered numerous assignments and growth opportunities that have taken me from Mozambique to Moline, Ill., and many places in between.

My initial thought was how very fortunate I feel to work for a company that invests in people development and have leaders who passionately support such assignments.

Professionally, the China market offers a stimulating and engaging workplace like no other place. At that time, numerous articles referred to China as the last great frontier and I recall thinking that, professionally, why would I not want to take part in its history?

Personally, I have been intrigued with China ever since my great aunt shared stories and pictures of traveling to China in the late 1980s. So there was an immediate attraction to the thought of experiencing China's emerging world economy first-hand. Thankfully my wife was of a similar mind-set and we were committed to make it work [both professionally and personally] from that moment on.

Did you take your family to China with you?

Absolutely. Besides the professional growth and development an expatriate assignment had to offer, the benefit of the family's culture immersion was a major draw. A key reason why expatriate assignments fail is due to the expat's family situation.

Knowing this, it was essential to have a strong family foundation and ensure the whole family was onboard to make it work.

What did your family think about moving to China?

Missing our family and friends was certain but all were supportive -- which helped tremendously. My wife and I were aware that our daily life would be different but regardless of our pre-departure research, we had no real idea what this would mean.

We knew we would have to be flexible and view things with an open mind as we jumped into a new culture. We focused on how culture shock would impact us and our perceptions of the experience. This understanding became an instrumental beacon as we navigated our initial Shang "High" and Shang "Low" days. Thankfully for us, the Shang "High" days significantly outnumber the rest.

How are you dealing with the language and getting around in the country?

In my past studies, I concentrated on Spanish and Russian. With both languages, I have been able to stumble my way through past travels. Unfortunately the Chinese language has not been easy for me. I recall my first months in China as I attempted to communicate with others, my brain would automatically spit out Spanish. 

Here are some of the ways I traverse China without knowing enough Chinese:

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* Professionally, I welcome meetings to take place in Chinese as long as main points, action steps and timelines can be summarized to ensure we are all on the same page.

* [I] make an attempt to communicate in Chinese as this will go a long way and [is] guaranteed to arouse a smile or two.

* My charade skills have increased tenfold.

* My wife and two kids can speak Chinese much better than I can. When we travel throughout China, I do rely on them from time to time to provide color commentary to my limited Chinese and charades. Nothing is more humbling when your five-year-old corrects your tonal pronunciation, which is then followed by a crowd of laughter.

* Have a great sense of humor and patience.

* Remember that you are in their country and cannot speak the language. Not the other way around.

What do you do for recreation?

One of the most important things to do is keep a balance. Work can quickly become all consuming with days tackling fast-growth markets and evenings connecting with countries that are just waking up.

As a personal release, I enjoy going for bike rides through the city at night. On several occasions, we have taken our trusty maps and biked off into the rural countryside. I am still amazed that within 90 minutes, you can bike from the misty morning fields where families do not have indoor plumbing to the epicenter of China's financial district.  I just love the sights, sounds and smells of Shanghai.

As a family we enjoy getting out in Shanghai and the surrounding sites to ensure we are seeing as much of our adopted hometown as possible. In particular we take pleasure in the fast-fleeting "Old China" experiences of Shanghai. Give us an alleyway and we become entranced with it.

We also enjoy just spending quality family time in one of the many Shanghai parks. A less frequent recreation activity is for family trips throughout China and Asia. My wife and I have an ever-growing list of the places we would like to see before returning home. Only problem is picking the ones to see first.

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