The life of an expatriate is difficult. Getting used to a strange culture, new business styles and a different way of life is always hard, but what is it really like for Southeast Asians working in Britain?
The main source of anxiety for Asian expats working within the British business community is its lack of structure and unpredictability. Coming from a country where meetings are typically over in five minutes and 'asking questions is regarded as a threat', the debating chamber mentality of the British meeting room requires a huge mental adjustment, says one long-term Japanese expatriate in London.
As a result, the biggest lesson that Japanese business people have to learn in Britain is endurance, suggests Noriko Hama, chief representative and resident economist at the Mitsubishi Research Institute in London. 'In the Japanese context, the consumer is god and everything is done to satisfy their needs,' she says. This mentality is often applied sideways to the business environment and, working in the UK, Japanese expats therefore need high tolerance levels. Hama quotes an example of this 'painful process' in the office. If Japanese managers ask for something to be done, they expect it to be done without any additional explanation or follow-up, she says. 'There is no question of putting it into writing and that is a huge mental leap.' Professor Cary Cooper, an organisational psychologist with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says: 'We reward or punish when appropriate and we express our feelings. Asians are obedient to authority and do not question what someone in a more senior position may say. If they do, they do so subtly and in a culturally specific way.' Expats can find this change in mind-set difficult. 'In Britain, you are only as credible and respected as your management style,' he adds.
The rigidity of system, behaviour and attitude points to a hierarchical culture that contrasts with British fluidity. Daniel Loh, the Malaysian marketing manager of the London Golf Club studied in the UK and has remained here ever since. He explains that, as a result, he switches between two modes of behaviour, depending on whether he is with British or Malaysian friends.
It is easy to see the British culture as rather materialistic, he says, because the Asian tradition to which he was raised made much of 'respecting his elders'.
What this means in meetings is that he had to accommodate mentally the idea of being 'faster on the draw' as well as put aside the idea of 'saving face' - an essential part of Asian business life.
As for tips for newly arrived Asians, Hama is quite clear that there are three pieces of advice that she would give to those trying to orientate themselves in British working culture. First, speak up in meetings, 'say whatever comes into your mind'. Second, 'ask questions', and third 'be very, very Japanese'. The Japanese are swift to understand what is needed and will try and conform as quickly as possible. 'Make a nuisance of yourself,' Hama adds.