On a business trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula during the summer of 2007, I was approached in the parlor of the company cottage after hours by our then Executive VP - Technical. "Mike," he said between sips of beer, "tell me what makes an exploration geologist tick." Though I was squarely involved in establishing our mine operation's reconciliation and resource technology standards at the time, I recall conveying the philosophy of searching for subtle patterns where none was previously recognized, whether it be in volumes of data or rocks, and methodically assessing the potential for value. Most of all I remember stressing a passion for discovery that I still applied to my distinctly different job.
I thought nothing if it at the time, but I must have made an impression. A couple weeks later I called home from my office in Cleveland, Ohio. "Are you sitting down?" I asked my wife. "What do you think about spending three years in Perth, Western Australia?" The company needed someone to bring its brand and some additional experience to the exploration team of a recent acquisition.
An expatriate assignment includes all manner of preparations, and we only had a few months to wrap up affairs on the domestic end, including the sale of our house on the west side of Cleveland, in Avon Lake. Soon our home was listed by the same Realtor who had helped us find the house only a year before.
One of the benefits of the international assignment orientation was in-home cultural awareness training for my wife and me. I didn't think the Aussie culture could be too dissimilar--how wrong I was in some ways--but we welcomed any opportunity to learn a little more about our destination together. This was our first step in the adventure. We scheduled a weekday meeting with a global relocation specialist from Michigan for mid-October.
Our consultant arrived on a beautiful autumn day, armed with lots of literature for us and the children and a giant map of Australia mounted on poster-board. Just as the session began, the phone rang. It was our Realtor. A prospective buyer wanted to come by for a second showing, always promising news for a home seller. "They have a very tight schedule," she said. "They need to come over right away. Can you leave the house for the viewing?" It's always best to disappear for a showing, but we were hosting a consultant who'd traveled a long way with a firm schedule, and we asked our Realtor to plead the situation and ask if the prospective buyers would be okay with us confining our meeting to the kitchen while they toured the house. Our real estate agent shortly called back to say they agreed. We hoped that was a good sign.
The orientation eroded my confidence in a seamless transition. Were Australians really that different? How would I remember not to give an insulting "thumbs up" after a lifetime of conditioning? I'd heard of "tall poppy syndrome", but was it so prevalent that I shouldn't be too successful at work? Our consultant's credentials mentioned several years living in East Asia, but only that she had "researched, conducted business and spent a substantial amount of time in Australia." I hoped that some asian sensibilities were mistakenly juxtaposed with Australian customs in the orientation, and the lifestyle wouldn't be as alien as it sounded.
About an hour into our meeting the doorbell rang, and from back in the kitchen we heard the home-viewing party enter through the front door, instantly greeted by barks of warning from our dog. "Don't worry, he's crated!" I shouted over the din. That silenced the dog.
"No worries!" came a reply from the front of the house. That idiomatic expression is not in the typical American lexicon, and the pronunciation--"nowwarries"--was distinctly down under. Eyebrows raised between me, my wife and our cultural consultant.
We went back to our meeting. A few minutes later a couple came into the kitchen with their real estate agent after visiting other parts of our house. They saw the poster-sized map of Australia around which we were clustered, and it was their turn for eyebrows to raise. An inquisitive "G'day" immediately led to a flood of conversation.
We exchanged stories. Jon and Leanne Whitby were from Melbourne. Jon had been offered a work assignment at the PPG Industries office in Cleveland; he and Leanne were on the tail end of a home search before returning to Australia to collect their teenage daughter and complete preparations for a move to the US.
So there we were, surrounding a poster-sized map of Australia, simultaneously undergoing an Australian inter-cultural awareness orientation while fielding the questions of potential home buyers from Australia. Such a juxtaposition could only make for a memorable first meeting. We were able to answer a lot of their questions about the house; in turn Jon and Leanne spent several minutes proceeding to pick apart some of our cultural training that was not quite accurate. I was particularly relieved to see my favorite hand gesture resuscitated when Jon gave me an enthusiastic two thumbs-up partnered with "good on you, mate." We couldn't have paid for a better orientation. I wondered if our consultant was taking notes.
On their way out, we introduced the Whitbys to our dog Shiloh, ironically an Australian cattle dog, or blue heeler. "Why, it's a real bluey!" Jon exclaimed. That probably sealed the deal. Shortly after the showing, our Realtor called to tell us there was an offer on the house.
In the couple short months following the home sale, we spent a lot of time getting to know the Whitbys and their beautiful daughter Sarah. We learned a lot about our destination--particularly its fine wine and their opinion of the "must see" places--and we gained a much deeper understanding of what was to come. Together, we determined that Outback Steakhouse in no way reflects Australia. I hope we were able to similarly ease their transition to Ohio. The Whitbys were the other honored guests at a welcome/goodbye party hosted by our neighbors. By that time they were like old friends. Our mutual orientation culminated in a New Year's Eve celebrated together in their new house, just before we set off on our own Australian adventure.
Leanne, Jon and Sarah have since moved back to Melbourne, and we are back in North America. We keep in touch via Facebook and Leanne's "A Little Bit of Shabby" blog. But we'll always remember meeting our first friends from Australia at our mutual home in Ohio.
|Leanne, Sarah and Jon Whitby|