When Julie Colston first told me she and her family were moving to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I thought it was a joke. Was she actually considering taking her family of five nearly 10,000 miles away from her happy life in Frisco, where her daughters could walk to school and SuperTarget was only five minutes away? And how would her 2-year-old son who lived in his Tony Romo jersey and American flag swim trunks transition into a foreign county?
Once I realized this was for real, she explained that her husband had been given a great job opportunity as an engineer and they would only be gone two years, living as expatriates. Expat … what? I learned that it meant they were living abroad for a limited time working in a different country and culture from their own.
The decision wasn’t an easy one, but as a family they figured it would be an experience of a lifetime. “We told the kids we had an exciting adventure and wanted them to be open-minded. It would not always be easy, and Mommy and Daddy were scared and excited too,” Julie says. The girls began asking very important kid questions: where would they go to school, what would they eat, would they have a car, what about TV – while Julie worried about the major changes her family would experience in a different culture.
With the help of her husband’s company, Julie got in contact with a relocation counselor who helped navigate the multitude of paperwork and details of the move, but there was still much to learn. Enter Dallas-based Cultural Awareness International, Inc. (CAI, culturalawarerness.com), a cross-cultural management and training firm that equips families and business professionals with cultural understanding and knowledge to make their experience successful. A consultant familiar with Malaysian culture came to their home to lead them through a “living and working” program to discuss what culture is, define culture shock and how it can affect you emotionally (feelings of disconnectedness and uncertainty). They reflected on differences and similarities in values, protocol and etiquette so as not to offend someone (but don’t be surprised if someone belches after a tasty meal, they discovered – in Malaysia it’s almost expected!). The girls were able to ask questions and learned in Malaysia it’s not polite to point or shake hands with your left hand. “When you are relocated to a different country, you are really going as their guest. Being culturally aware allows you to be sensitive so that you can have a better understanding to live a daily life and relay your interest for that culture without having to offend,” says Priscila A.C. Montana, president and founder of CAI.
Making the Move
Relocating to a different country can be exciting, but it is also a stressful event for the entire family. Montana explains to parents that children may show aggressive behaviors such as anxiousness, acting out or even wetting the bed because of stressors they’re experiencing with the move. “There is a cycle for relocation that has its ups and downs for as long as six to nine months after you arrive in another location, but it will get better,” Montana says. Age is also a factor for some families making the move abroad. “Children get a tremendous benefit out of the experience, but if they are adolescents or teenagers there may be more of a struggle convincing them to go. Inevitably when they do go, they meet children from all over the world,” Montana says.
The Expat Experience
Visiting ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples, traveling to magical beaches and exploring the tallest twin buildings in the world are just a few things they’ve experienced while living in Malaysia, but it’s the simple moments that she cherishes. “The best part of the experience is how close our family has become. In Texas we were around each other but didn’t live together like we do here. We have really developed a great bond,” Julie says. Though this opportunity is unconventional for most families, it highlights the impact of exposing children to different cultures and experiences, says Gene Edgerton, senior research and development specialist and facilitator at CAI. “In so many ways they grow and learn skills that can be used in work environments and relationships, because early on these kids learn to be flexible, adaptable and open-minded.”