“I’ve applied for two jobs in China and one in Singapore. I think Shanghai could be good,” says my friend on the phone. Neither she nor her husband or kids have ever been to China or Singapore. They have no particular interest in the language, history or culture of either place. But they are intelligent, reasonably curious and well-travelled folks, not given to rash decisions.
When I ask her what about Shanghai seems like it would be good, her reasons are typical of every American or European friend, relative or colleague who asks my advice about living and working in an emerging market. I know they shouldn’t go. Here’s why:
Generally, they are dissatisfied with their present circumstances, bored at work, scared by depressing headlines about shrinking Western market economies. They think they will find a better lifestyle, a bit of adventure, and maybe some bragging rights later on, if they move to another market now. They are on the run from their lives or from themselves. And this is the worst frame of mind to be in when making big decisions.
So if you’re thinking about moving to another part of the world for work, consider this:
1. Don’t move for money. You can expect a degree of financial gain from working on an expat contract, especially in a developing country where general cost of living is lower than Western economies. But if you think you can live an austere life and save like a squirrel while you are abroad, you are delusional. We all quickly get used to all the things our extra money can buy and adapt accordingly. Every single person who’s worked abroad on expat contract, myself included, says they saved less than they’d expected.
You will be able to enjoy a few more luxuries in Beijing or Mumbai than you would in London, and you will want to do that because you’ll be looking for comfort in a strange place. But will that bring you real satisfaction? Studies show that increased income has very little effect on overall life satisfaction.
2. Don’t expect friendships with expats. When you land on new shores and find out that the reality of the job is totally different to how it was described (and it almost always is) you are stuck for a while. Whether you love your job or you hate it, you’ll need to build a social life.
The expat scene in developing countries creates its own separate and contrived world in which few, if any, have genuine friendships with anyone who is born and raised in the country where they are presently living. It’s also a very transient group of people, coming and going on short-term contracts, so it’s hard to forge a community of meaningful friendships. Spending time with people who really know and understand you is what brings us the deepest sense of satisfaction. So consider how valuable and hard-won your network at home already is before you walk away for a while.
3. Don’t move to prove you’re independent. You might enjoy the challenge of navigating the vagaries of daily life in a completely foreign place and need to demonstrate your bravery to yourself or your family. This is an OK thing to do when you’re in your 20s. After that, it’s a sign of immaturity.
4. Don’t move because you’re bored and looking for an adventure. Yes, it’s exciting to be in a new place, but companies move you because you have a specific skill set they need, and you have to deliver. If you want an adventure, go on vacation. And if you think you will enjoy travelling in the region where your new job is, think again. Your job will leave you with time to do a fraction of the travelling you are dreaming about while reading about your new potential destination.
5. Don’t move to prove you are important. Few people will admit that this motivates them, but many like knowing that they are senior enough and special enough that a company wants to pay to relocate them to another country to do a big job. THere are hundreds of other ways you can get a pat on the back without such disruption.
There are only two reasons you should move country for work. First is because you have an undeniable career opportunity in that market that you wouldn’t have if you stayed at home. Follow a few basic tips on how to research and prepare. The second, and most important is, because you absolutely love the culture and the people who live in your destined country. If you pack an unquenchable curiosity, you will stay motivated to keep discovering.
Know that you’ll learn a lot more about life from hanging out with locals and you’ll have a richer experience that will make you able to empathise with people more readily in the future. That will make you better in any job in the future because anyone who wants to make any kind of difference in the world has to learn how to relate to people who are totally different to them.
Go, sit, be quiet, watch, and listen. You’ll be delighted at how welcomed a humble and curious foreigner is in most places. But first you have to get honest with yourself and steer clear of the expat bubble.