Last week I had the privilege to interview eleven expats from different nationalities in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. These interviews were part of a study I am conducting together with three colleagues about the Host Country National Liaison Model. Our aim is to shift the focus from being solely on the expat to a more comprehensive view of the working relationship between expats and their local colleagues.
‘Can’ vs. ‘Can can’
So our questions focused on how local colleagues have been helpful to the expat. This can be as simple as having a local explain something about the culture. One expat told us how he asked the HR department at the beginning of his assignment to look out for an apartment he and his family could live in, yet nothing happened until he learned that he should persist in asking until he got ‘can can’ as an answer instead of the ‘can’ he had been getting so far.
Local colleagues can also be an important source of information, about the local market and its opportunities but also about the local subsidiary and its history. Many of the expats told us about key informants they used to get the information they needed to do their job well. In some cases it was the local HR or IT/services department who knew the ins and outs of the subsidiary, in other cases it was one particular person – sometimes this was an expat who had been around longer. Interestingly, some of the expats also told us how they would sometimes bypass their middle managers to talk directly to the local workforce, because that is the only way to get them to talk about problems that need to be solved.
The expat bubble in Malaysia
We also touched upon the topic of contact with locals outside of the workplace because this can have certain benefits (see also In Touch with the Dutch). It was interesting to hear how the expat bubble seems to be even stronger in Malaysia because many expats live with other expats in compounds and move in different spheres than many of the locals. The expat social network is ready made and very easy to access – even difficult to avoid. Although this was the reality for many of the expats we spoke to, a few did manage to get in touch with local Malaysians, emphasizing the importance of being open to another culture and to take initiative. One way to connect with local Malaysians is through choosing to live in a compound which has a higher percentage of locals vs. expats, or simply going to the park on a Sunday where the children play with local children and then connect with their parents.
These are some of my thoughts after this intensive week of interviewing. We have gathered a wealth of information in these interviews which we will carefully analyse in the future. Let us know if you would like to be kept posted on the results of this study. Of course you can also keep an eye on this blog!