After eleven years and a brief summer stint in Japan, I returned to my status as a sojourning English language teacher. The difference between my previous years and this year is that I brought my whole family with me. The purpose of coming to China was not to use my own family as a case study to participate and observe in the adjustment process, but it was one of the few things I could salvage. My family returned home after two months here.
Incidentally, I reviewed an article on this blog that touched upon the socio-cultural adaptation of sojourners and their families exactly a year before we made the decision that it would be best for them to return home. Here’s the paragraph I wrote concerning that article, which was a meta-analysis:
The last row [in the figure of variables of target populations] concerns family and [the findings are] the least surprising finding to me perhaps because I lived and taught abroad with my wife. The literature found that a spouse’s “maladjustment” to living overseas resulted in a premature departure from the host country. Yes, speaking from direct observation, the spouse needs as many if not more resources to cope with living in a new environment. However, thinking about others, I find that many married ELTs have spouses from a different culture. That can make adaptation easier if the spouse is living in his or her host country, but it can make it worst if it’s the opposite case.
Revisiting that meta-analysis, I’d like to summarize the studied variables of expat families. There are seven of these variables, divided into two categories: adaptation outcomes and adaptation antecedents. According to the meta-analysis, both adaptation outcomes (psychology and socio-cultural) of expat families were investigated equally across studies more so than any other studied group.
The variable most investigated in expat families was family, which makes sense obviously. Following family, the variables studied in descending order of the number of papers investigating that variable are as follows: 2) social resources, 3) cultural distance, 4) stressors, and 5) interaction. The following paragraphs explain each variable, using my family’s experience as examples.
These variables include family support; family cohesion, adaptability, and communication; family-work and work-family conflict; justice in the relationship; and conflict in the relationship. The meta-analysis does not share the results of each of these variables but makes a point that families in our situation have been studied a great deal more than families of international students, incidentally my wife’s area of practical and research interest.
Coming to China, I had the support from my wife and daughter to come here but that support depending on the support they got from me and my employer once they arrived here. In terms of cohesion, our family came to China after one our family’s roughest years, which included graduate school stressors and financial stressors due to a period of unemployment. The decision to come to China for my career added to the family-work and work-family conflict because it added to the narrative that I put my career over family, which I was working hard to counteract. All of this added up to more conflict in our relationship than usual, and my wife deserved justice after sacrificing a lot coming to China.
With all those variables trending toward the negative, our family was coming here not in the best condition for adjusting well. However, we did have a few variables in our favor, such as adaptability and communication. My daughter adapted to living in China better than we expected, and my wife and I were able to communicate well with many people here despite the language barrier.
Two types of social resources were reported from four studies: social support and organizational support from the expatriate’s employing company. Two studies reported on satisfaction with social interactions, and one study on closeness of relationships with host nationals.
For this variable, our family was split. Our social support grew and grew during the two months the whole family was here. Unfortunately, the organizational support we were expecting did not come, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were satisfied with social interactions and the closeness of relationships with our new Chinese friends, but they were so far from where we lived on campus. Almost all of my family’s social resources were about an hour’s commute away from campus. That was not sustainable.
There was not much data on this, except that cultural distance is a variable that gets more attention in expat or sojourner studies than those on international students. I don’t have much to say here except that we expected some cultural distance. It wasn’t too different from our previous experiences in Japan, Korea, and Russia. The only new “distance” was the greater role government bureaucracy plays in everyday life here, even compared to our Russian experiences.
No studies reported prejudice-related variable on families or acculturative stressors. For spouses, stressors were either categorized as “general” or status-related. There was a little bit of status-related stressors for me because of my salary. Other than that, I’d say the biggest stressors in the two months of family life here were my wife’s physical health, which wasn’t completely addressed before we left the States, and establishing my daughter’s homeschooling routine. My wife’s health issue was stress-related, so the added stress of being in a new country with limited organizational support put her in a negative loop of accumulating more and more stress.
Only two studies mentioned the effects of social interaction for expatriate spouses and none for their children. This variable is investigated mainly for international students, particularly the quantity and frequency of contact. As I wrote above, my wife and daughter had a lot of social interaction whenever they made plans off campus, which was about 1/3 of the time they were here. Nearly all of these social interactions improved my wife’s adjustment to living in China. Unfortunately 2/3 of the time, she was on campus in our faculty dormitory apartment, getting stressed about establishing a routine for both her and our daughter while dealing with physical health issues that added to the stress. With no support on campus, she felt trapped and isolated.
This last point brings me to a key sentence from the article: “Spousal maladjustment is considered one of the main reasons of premature endings of overseas assignments, and the negative symptoms that spouses manifest may be seen as a stimulus that pushes expatriates to withdraw from their assignments and return home.”
Coming here did add to the narrative that I put my career first and family second. However, because of these conditions, I focused a lot of my energy on the wellbeing of my family. This caused me to withdraw from some of the roles and responsibilities of my work. It didn’t affect the way I interacted with students, but it impacted the quality of my class preparation and my interaction with colleagues. Compared to other new jobs, I could not dedicate as much time to learning the institutional culture. I sacrificed that for my dedication to the wellbeing of my family.
This withdrawal has mostly ended now that my family has returned to the United States. I have been able to prepare my coursework much better, and it shows in the quality of my lessons. Unfortunately, it has impacted my social interactions with my colleagues as I was not able to establish a regular social routine with them when my family was here. Perhaps in the next semester, I will be able to establish a regular social routine.
Of course, I cannot continue working beyond the first year. Although I have fantastic students and I find the work (teaching and curriculum development) stimulating, I cannot continue to live apart from my family indefinitely. So I will return home, but it won’t be prematurely. I will finish my contract because I am a man of my word. Does this mean I have failed to adjust as a sojourning English language teacher? I don’t think so. It means I have adjusted as much as any spouse and father can when teaching apart from his family. Adjusting successfully to a new country or a new job does not mean abandoning the ones you love. That is failing life.