Dumbest research project ever?

I think we have a very strong contender here.

Karen, formerly a Hong Kong-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, seeks your input and is traveling around Asia for the next few weeks looking for people to interview.

Give your ideas below or shoot over an email. Here is Karen’s pitch:

Last month I wrote a two-part series for the Post called “Continental Divide” about the problems divorcing when you live outside your own country. I’m now in the region developing this series into a bigger project–both for the paper and as a possible book/film– on expat lives.

Expats live in a parallel universe. While they are culturally fish-out-of-water they can also live glamorous lifestyles. And while it can be a great experience for some, there is also a dark side to expat life. I’d like to further explore the issue by asking the simple question: Can marriages survive the expat life?

I’m looking for both men and women who are willing to share their experiences and willing to talk about the unique challenges they face. Men work long hours, are more stressed at work, and encounter greater temptation in the region. Women often quit good jobs at home, and while they find themselves nicely pampered at home, they often seen their identity slowly slip away as they face long days without husbands, and long months without family members or support systems.

So if you have something to say on the issue you an contact me at karen at mazurkewich dot com

I hope some people do write her with their opinions on this piece of Orientalist fantasy tripe. And this lady wrote for the WSJ? I take back everything I ever said about hoping the big newspapers survive.

31 thoughts on “Dumbest research project ever?”

  1. Geez it’s not THAT bad… dont we talk a fair bit about expat experience here? Sure, we haven’t used the term “predatory Asian women” but does that make it the stupidest thing ever?

  2. Actually, she’s referring specifically to the investment banker and lawyer experience, in which this happens more often than you would think.

  3. Oh no! We encounter GREATER TEMPTATION IN THE REGION. Help us!

    “I take back everything I ever said about hoping the big newspapers survive.”

    Hey, the WSJ is different….

    In any case, aside from the temptation line (and of course, Japanese wives would worry that their husbands would be tempted abroad by all those blonde strippers), given her Hong Kong experience, I got the idea that she is talking about rich white couples making the transition to super high-paying expat jobs (although couldn’t it just as easily be the wife who gets the super job? she sets up the problem in a very strange way) with lots of perks, but “dying inside”. This was likely inspired by that really high profile Hong Kong candlestick expat killing a few years back when we found out that one of the “Masters of the Universe” was really living in his own private hell.

    She COULD ask a decent question – does following your career where the $$$ take you necessarily make you happy (and of course, this is a silly project because we all know what the answer will be)? However, the whole thing is awfully confusing – she doesn’t seem to be talking about, say, Japanese couples that would move as “expats” to Singapore or Shanghai. It seems very “whiteycentric” – the average expat in Asia at this point is an Asian from another country.

  4. What’s wrong with this? This looks to be fascinating.

    It’s taboo to talk about with the “natives,” but in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore there are a whole tribe of westerners who have been plucked out of their home environment and sent abroad to a country they may have no experience with. Their employer has done this to send head office influence into subsidiaries that may be independent, uncontrolled, or undisciplined. The compensation and benefits for this “hardship posting” is often huge and absurd, but this is a regular occurance and worth the cost.

    Karen has it right — life can be glamorous, but it is a bizarre world, and isolated. Expats are rarely integrated. The locals are expected to confirm to their foreign tendancies. They live, work, shop, and school in a bubble. Some families thrive. But if you have to leave this protected bubble, the support system is almost non-existent, and many families any are torn apart by the experience. While the money may be great as an “expat,” marriage counselors are unavailable, social support is limited, and there is enormous isolation from society. And imagine how a rich yet culturally illiterate family tries to go to the local shiyakusho or court or embassy to try and work out how to get a divorce. Or handle family problems. Or a host of other potential issues.

    Of course marriages can survive the expat life — that is the wrong way to state the question — but dumbest research ever? Not by a long shot. I’d love to read her reports.

  5. “The compensation and benefits for this “hardship posting” is often huge and absurd, but this is a regular occurance and PERCEIVED TO BE worth the cost.”

  6. I dunno.Being a son of former Japanese expat I understand what she’s talking about.While this may not be the dumbest research project ever.it is pretty much a predictable one.Anyway,I smell Rupert Murdoch all over on this project.

  7. The main problem I see is that she is assuming that it is solely the husband who gets posted abroad, and the wife follows him. Looking at the effect on husbands who follow their wives over would add a lot of interest.

    But her premise isn’t absurd.

    (1) The accompanying partner is unlikely to land any job other than English teacher unless they have local language skills. If they are used to a busy life outside the home, but end up stuck at home, then of course that will be a big strain.

    This forced inactivity could productively be compared with the effects of unemployment on marriages.

    (2) Temptation is much greater – but not because of ‘predatory Asian women’. It is greater because the expat is exotic in their new location, and as such likely to be more attractive. Asian women are not predatory – it is simply that people in general are attracted by the exotic.

    But this difference – the increase in temptation – may be combined with a lack of other friendships. If the only people trying to talk to you are doing it because you’re exotic and therefore attractive, that can skew how you look at things. With few common interests and shared cultural references to discuss, the expat may find it difficult to make platonic friendships. Add in the fact that people in general are unlike to invest in friendships with someone who could be gone in a years time.

    But I think that examining the effect of enforced idleness would be much more interesting.

  8. I think Cosmo had a study that proved terminal illness was detrimental to long-term relationships.

    I really dislike her assumptions about bored Western housewife, Asian seductress and dumb rich expat man, but I do agree that living abroad has its own set of relationship challenges. (I think our adventures abroad strengthened my own relationship, but I do see how it could make a couple break up) Is that WSJ-worthy news, though?

  9. Come to think of it, for me, it would be very interesting to look at “poor expats” (ie. English teachers… although both are likely to work) VS. “rich expats” (ie. finance) and to examine the relationship strains faced by both groups.

    Also, there is something completely nuts about her methodology – in soliciting interview subjects online, she is likely to attract people who are searching online for stuff about problems in expat relationships, “predatory Asian women”, etc. meaning that it pretty much guarantees her extreme cases.

    Chris, see we AGREE in this thread and you are being ANTI-essentialist above. Take it discussion by discussion.

  10. Yeah, this is a very real phenomenon. I work with a number of married expats and this is a major issue for every last one of them (that I know, anyway).

    Just as an aside, it’s an easy trap to assume that “expats” are all lawyers or bankers. Actually, there are tons of professions for expats: journalists (yes, they still exist), specialized engineers, researchers and consultants of all stripes, managers of subs/branches of foreign companies in every industry, high-yield academics, and (of course) the diplomatic corps all fit into the mold. Although not so much in Tokyo, if you go to a place like Hong Kong or Dubai you’ll run across a huge expat community employed by the local airline (Cathay Pacific and Emirates are mostly staffed with foreign flight crews). On the occasions when I hang out in expat circles in Tokyo, I am more likely to meet someone from one of these categories than to meet a fellow lawyer or finance person, unless I go to some shady financier-frequented establishment in Roppongi or something.

    English teachers aren’t really in this analysis so much, I think. It just isn’t common for people to relocate to Tokyo as English teachers *with* their spouse, much less with a whole family. It’s simply too much of a pain for the family to adjust, not to mention too difficult to support the family on a small teacher’s salary. The justification for the insane “expat packages” in the business world is largely to make the family’s transition as easy as possible (American/British club membership, international school tuition, etc), but even all that money often isn’t enough to buy a really comfortable life for the spouse who’s stuck at home.

  11. It is funny how things work out differently for different types of expats. For academics (and yes, the pay is excellent in Japan) many end up in Japan because of connections established in the Japanese academic community, usually through an earlier period of study in Japan. As a result, many of these individuals already like Japan and / or have Japanese spouses, which makes the transition more or less painless. This is surprisingly common in math and science as well as “Japan” subjects.

    I also think that married couples who go together for English teaching are also surprisingly common – maybe it is just me (with mostly experience outside of Tokyo where it may be easier to do) and the people I meet.

    I think that a big difference is that many of these people, if they take a drastic step like moving to Japan so that one or both partners can teach English, are used to “just getting by” anyway. This may bring a lot more realism to the transition than the expats with their heads in the clouds of huge pay packages.

  12. I’m currently working on the Brazillian migrant community in Toyota City,Aichi.
    (And have to meet with local activist in half an hour)
    Boy,how things can be different…..

  13. I’m a lot more interested in hearing about them than the poor suffering ex-pat executives. But I think you would have guessed that…

  14. The Japanese press has been doing a very, very good job of covering the plight of the Brazilian migrant community. So good, in fact, that I regret not being on the ball with it and turning it into a media research project.

    I think that the really interesing expat story is probably in Dubai – the city seems to be falling apart and much of their hyper-expat community has been left in the wind.

  15. Somewhere, I’ve got a report from eighties, written by a human resources consultant like Mercer, which looked at the problems companies had in retaining their senior expat staff. It was often difficult, for instance, for an executive to fit back into the head office hierarchy after experiencing the freedom of running a fiefdom on the other side of the world. One section reported the much higher incidence of divorce among this group and suggested it was a contributing factor. Without digging it out, I can’t say what data the study used but I’ve seen so many expat marriages break up that I suspect it was true then and may still be true today. Of course, that doesn’t tell us much about causes. A consultant might look at the marriages I’ve seen collapse and conclude that the problem for the couple wasn’t “being expats” or “being in Japan” but rather “being acquainted with Mulboyne” and advise people to avoid me like the plague.

    As M-Bone says, unless Mazurkewich is careful, her methodology means she will pretty much find the story she wants to write but I don’t agree that the project is fundamentally “orientalist”.

  16. Chris says: “(1) The accompanying partner is unlikely to land any job other than English teacher unless they have local language skills.”

    Actually, more likely, at least in Tokyo, is that they go on to manage dinner parties at the American Club, the American Chamber of Commerce, their local church, or other similar quasi-charitable NPO group.

  17. Karen’s future article sounds about as reality-based as “Cause and effect in the Japanese office”, if you ask me.

  18. Yeah but she seems to think it’s worthy of funding. There’s the essential difference.

  19. There’s a tendency among the Brazillian”Dekasegis(foreign workers)”that because women get paid as good as men in factory work in Japan,wives get financial independence which is rare in Brazillian blue collar class,thus choose to leave their husbands during their times in Japan.

    This isn’t just Brazillian/Japanese phenomenon.My wife who is Mongoliian and was once a foreign worker working in rural Shikoku,broke up with her ex-husband.
    I also know lots of in-laws and friends back in Ulaanbaatar who goes to places like Germany and South Korea and coming back home with broken marriages,usually for the benefit of the women.

    So there could be a difference in the dynamics of relationship between the white collar expat couples and the blue collar expat couples….

  20. This all gives me 80s nostalgia. Time to listen to David Bowie’s “China Girl” and Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy”. I haven’t yet figured out what song about bored housewives Ms. Mazurkewich has on her iPod, though.

  21. Roy Berman, if it was him who posted this senseless rant, is an idiot. If he considers this research to be ‘dumb’ then, by extension, we must consider almost all of social science research to be dumb, as social science research is, principally, focused upon understanding – empirically and existentially – the relationship between social structure and social relations. I wonder what he would consider to be a legitimate research project worthy of funding? Probably a study called: “how does Roy Berman think of the world”, or “How can Roy Berman have the world made in his own image”. I assume he would consider these projects to be worthy of funding. I also assume that he does not read any social science based literature since almost none of it, according to his interpretation, would be considered legitimate. But one then wonders how has come to understand the world and his place in it?

  22. I briefly swore off taking blog comment issue with the way that people organize academic evidence / ideas, but I can’t let this one slide.

    First up, I have reviewed social science grant applications for government agencies and peer reviewed social science articles for academic journals (all positively, come to think of it). I don’t think that this is the dumbest research project ever, but it is neither a quality social science project, nor is it even passable as a fluff piece, given that the author expects to get outside funding.

    The most important point to consider is this: the author lays out what she will find –
    “Men work long hours, are more stressed at work, and encounter greater temptation in the region. Women often quit good jobs at home, and while they find themselves nicely pampered at home, they often seen their identity slowly slip away as they face long days without husbands, and long months without family members or support systems.”

    in the process of soliciting evidence for her “study”. This is no more social science than holding a wine and cheese and asking your friends why they like cheese.

    The proposal is also loaded with unverified assumptions – “While they are culturally fish-out-of-water”, are they always? Is this referring to rich European and American expats only? Mazurkewich never seems to ask what an expat is, and this lack of clear definition of terms is something that would sink any social science project.

    I’m not even convinced that Mazurkewich would share Boobman’s (ha) assertion that this is even a social science project to begin with. She is pitching it like an anecdotal fluff piece, not as cultural anthropology.

  23. 33% of Mutantfrog’s bloggers admit to liking cheese. I will apply for funding to study the origins of this cheese liking. Could it have something to do with living in Japan?

  24. Yes, I think that my chances of getting funding have increased dramatically. And, as I recall, you like cheese but not Philly Cheesesteaks? The Japan expat experence is clearly pushing people toward a whole new world of cheese. Like fish out of water!

  25. No, that’s Adamu you’re thinking of. I love the cheesesteak. But I never went to Pat’s or Geno’s, despite living a few blocks away from both of them for something like a year.

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