November 5, 2012

What is the hardest thing about living abroad?

Girl getting knocked out by boxing glove.

Girl getting knocked out by boxing glove. Photo: B. Garrett / Flickr

To your friends and family back home, it might seem like you’re living an endless vacation. Especially if you only share cool photos on Facebook (I’ve been guilty of that). But long-term expats know better. The challenges of residing in a foreign country are very real. There was a discussion thread on Quora titled, What is the hardest thing about living abroad?

Looking back on that made me reflect. Here are some things from my list:

Career/Personal Stagnation — There’s nothing wrong with drifting for a while; I have friends who are still happily directionless up to now. But for me, at around the 5-year mark I felt like I’d hit the limit of living in Asia. My biggest fear was that I’d end up still being an ESL English teacher in Taiwan at age 50. At a certain point, that kind of expat life felt like less of an escape and more like a trap.

— Although I made loads of acquaintances among the locals in China and Taiwan, there were only a few I truly considered friends. I noticed that many locals would meet me separately from their same-race friends. This kind of segregation saddened me. Meanwhile, foreign friends I grew close to would leave, and it was hard to maintain the bond once they were gone. On the flip side, I felt disconnected from family and friends back home.

Immigration problems — There is not enough time or space for me to rant properly on how much I hated dealing with visas. Worrying about my legal status and getting deported was a humbling experience. Always the foreigner, never the citizen.

On a related note, there was an article in The Economist titled, Foreigners in China: To flee or not to flee? The burden is multiplied if you living in a country with murky legal environment and non-democratic government.

None of this should take away from the experience. Getting to live outside my own culture had an overall positive effect on my life.

What were your biggest obstacles when living abroad? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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Category: Expat Life, Notes from the collective travel mind

October 15, 2012

What to bring if you move to China (or anywhere in Asia)

“What do I bring?” is a vexing question that most first-time expats face. You don’t want to bring something and carry it when you could just buy it on the ground. On the flip side, you don’t want to be stuck without an item you really need.

Nick and Tim from The Elevator Life, a video blog for young Western expat entrepreneurs in China, made this video:

Some of the advice, especially dealing with banks and smartphones, were very useful. These are the kinds of things that can cause a lot of hassle if you don’t know about them ahead of time.

Have you lived in Asia? What did you wish you had brought when you first moved there?

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Category: Asia, Expat Life, Travel Video

August 2, 2012

Book review: Dancing in the fountain by Karen McCann

Dancing in the Fountain how to enjoy living abroad written by Karen McCann
Now available in print and on e-reader, August 2012

“Living abroad is an opportunity to reinvent yourself that rarely exists outside the witness protection program.” ~Karen McCann

From their first date, Karen and her husband-to-be, Rich talked about living abroad. Instead–after getting married–they moved to Cleveland, Ohio for two decades. Yet during a vacation en-route to Italy they stopped to visit a friend in Seville, Spain. One visit led to another and eventually Karen, Rich along with their dog, Pie went to live in Southern Spain for a year. But like many of us who have a notion our wanderlust will be curbed with one epic adventure—one year has turned into many. The couple splits their time between Spain and San Anselmo, California, USA.
Dancing in the Fountain gives a warm, humorous account of fitting together life’s puzzle pieces regardless of surface. Karen McCann slowly wiggles her way into a Spanish community where friendships are nurtured “since baptism” by befriending tapas owners (and attempting to understand what they are saying) along with reawakening her love for painting. She makes shopping for a screw driver sound like a grand adventure especially when language pronunciation happens to be slightly off; and adopts the local health care ways for lowering cholesterol —wine, chocolate and ham. Throughout the book you’ll not only come to know her expat town but also laugh at Cleveland snake wrangling and her dog getting drunk after sneaking a whole rum cake!
Karen encourages fitting-in by learning the local language and adorning the areas fashion—perhaps even down to a haircut. She also states that when you live in a destination city “people visit you” (though the trick might be getting them to leave). In her chapter “Culture Lag” she talks about the necessity of mentally unpacking when waltzing between homes splint by 9 time zones and a very different view on the beloved Spanish practice of a siestas.

So how did the title of the book come about you wonder…
“Late one blazing hot night, I was returning home from a club meeting and passed through Duck Plaza to find Rich and L-F sitting in folding chairs with their feet up on the rim of the duck fountain, sipping scotch from a little silver flask…After a while, we took off our shoes and began dipping our toes in the cool water. Then Rich planted his feet in the fountain and stood up…Rich, who can never resist a movie moment, swept me into his arms and began to waltz me around.”
Eventually a local “old curmudgeon” passed by and growled, “’You wouldn’t do that back where you come from!’”–which she found to be true. Traveling lends oneself to live out loud.

author & painter, Karen McCann

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Expat Life, Languages and Culture, Travel Writing

June 7, 2012

A travel destination can become home

Kek Lok Si temple @ Penang – Picture by Kit Chan 2010

Most people passing through Penang do so because of the UNESCO World Heritage status given to this Malaysian tropical island on July 7th, 2008. Few stay more than the couple days needed to breeze through the main sites and have a quick gastronomic tour. Even fewer do not complain about the higher beer prices not found in other neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.

“What do you like about this place? You have been here for so long!”

Once again, the tricky question kicks in. Let’s put it this way: after much vagabonding, a destination can become home. At least, for me it did.

I still remember the awe creeping into my own, cutting its way up from the cobbled tiles into my toes, and devouring me as I was strolling down Lebuh Chulia at sunset: a crimson sun playing hide and seek behind the Kapitan Keling Mosque’s dark domes. Across the street, a swarm of rainbow-colored Indian gods orchestrated the evening pujas of their devotees like master puppeteers, while the simmering noise of Chinese delicacies deep-fried at the back of the next alley was the increasing soundtrack to this fading black and white movie.

Day after day, this scenery was my malarial mosquito bite. I quickly forgot what was waiting back there, in my native country of Italy. Quite a destination for some… but nothing compared to this exotic assault to the senses, for me. All of the obligations, the family, friends and opportunities, they all slowly disappeared as watercolor dripping from a water-splashed canvas. Mine was ready to be painted with something new, a vision of brighter colors.

Building up a center around which my life could gravitate was quite a hard task: nevertheless, the process ignited a series of meetings, coincidences and situations that brought me to do what I love – writing and travelling – and calling a new, faraway place as my “home”.

Part of my decision to scratch my itchy travel feet may have been due to the lady I met close to those same fascinating dark domes, three years ago. On the other hand, at that moment I was ready to put down flags around a new comfort zone caved out of my travelling. A very exciting accomplishment I am still proud of up to this day. In a way, it is like marking places we can use as rest areas along the windy vagabonding highway: stop, have a sandwich, use the loo. Then start off again.

 In the end, I just lavishly answer: “Because it is beautiful, you just have to scratch the surface”

I try to bury all of the tumultuous emotions I recalled deep into a rapid gaze – and I am very cautious of keeping them to my own mental grave – before I point my interlocutor towards the cheapest beer stall in town. It is a rowdy place tucked away at the corner of a dusty lane, buzzing with swaying people, and looking like a not very secure place to sit and enjoy the locals’ company.

“But… do you think is it safe?” they ask.

“Yes, it is” becomes my final answer.

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Expat Life, Vagabonding Life

May 21, 2012

A fast way to calculate cost of living in different countries

A bill and a calculator.

A bill and a calculator. Photo: Dave Dugdale / Flickr

Considering costs is a vital part of planning your entry into expat life. Neglecting budgeting can abruptly cut short a stay. On the other hand, a little financial planning can pay off in a longer and more enriching lifestyle than you dreamed possible.

A great web-based tool for this is Numbeo. Just type in the name of a city or select a country from the drop-down list.  You get the standard information, like how much expensive it is to rent an apartment. You also get much more detailed figures, such as the cost of imported vs. domestic beer.  Near the bottom of the page there will be a colored pie chart, showing which expenses will take the most bite out of your budget.

Money isn’t everything, however. More expensive isn’t always better, and cheap isn’t always a bargain. You might want to drill down even deeper to determine quality of life. You could be torn between two countries that seem almost equally attractive to reside in. In that case, you can try using If It Were My Home. You can choose two countries and get a breakdown comparing them on life expectancy, health care, and other important factors.

Have you been an expat? What tools did you use to do research? Please share your tips and experiences in the comments.

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Category: Expat Life, Money Management

March 8, 2012

Budget travel: a view from long term vagabonding


picture by Kit Yeng Chan

There has been a recent debate about budget travel against cheap travel: the article draws some interesting comparisons between budgeting your trip, and actually being too much of a cheapo to make the best out of it. As much as I agree with many of the statements presented in the article, I had to stop and think hard to find a parallel with my own experience.  Because I did not.

For example, as my own travels in greater Asia testify, it is still very much possible to travel for less than 10$ a day, without being a cheapskate, and actually enjoying your time. It surely requires more work and preparation – like, many hours on Couchsurfing, reading guides, browsing message boards and blogs of other travelers who have been there before you -. To top it all, it probably would come more difficult if attempted in Europe or other Western countries for an obvious currency disparity. Nevertheless, you can trust me, it does work. (more…)

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Expat Life, On The Road, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life

February 24, 2012

Complete guide for American expats returning home

Activists in Seattle mocking Black Friday sales.

Activists in Seattle mocking Black Friday sales. Photo: John Henderson / Flickr

Have you ever returned home, only to feel like home was more foreign than any of the exotic locales you’ve visited?  You’re not alone.  Reverse culture shock has a way of ambushing people, despite how much you may have heard about it. When we travel, we have our awareness up.  We know we must learn and adapt.  But home?  We let our guard down.  We don’t have to think too hard, because we’re back on familiar ground.  Or so we think.

CNNGO published the Ultimate checklist for returning U.S. expats.  The article covers a wide range of topics, ranging from practical matters like money to more social niceties like pop culture.  The writer is mostly tongue-in-cheek in tone, particularly the section on what’s hot and what’s not these days.

More sobering is the final section on reverse culture shock. Every one of the points resonated with me.  Here’s one excerpt:

Nobody cares where you’ve been
People outside the U.S. often like to hear what life is like there. Americans, owing to either a sense of superiority or disinterest, aren’t all that curious about what’s going on in Mamalikibooboostan.

This is why our Rolf Potts in Vagabonding emphasized that travel should be a personal decision, not to prove something to others.  No one will care as much about your travels as you do.

I returned to the United States after five years of working and traveling in Asia.  Like many, I was blindsided by the process of re-adapting.  Here are some ways I’ve dealt with culture shock:

1) Use Skype.  I still regularly chat with some of the close friends I’ve made while on the road.  Talking to people with the same shared experiences has been a huge morale boost.

2) Make new friends.  I’ve been active on, joining groups that match my interests.

3) Attend travel meetups.  Events like Meet Plan Go and Couchsurfing meetups are great ways to meet travelers where you live.

Did you experience reverse culture shock when you returned home?  Where had you been living and traveling before then?  What did you do to cope?  Please share your stories in the comments.

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Category: Backpacking, Expat Life, Notes from the collective travel mind

November 25, 2011

The remote CEO who left his company to see the world

remote control for TV

A remote control. Photo: espensorvik / Flickr

Most career break literature out there is focused on the employee who requests a leave of absence from his boss.  Rarely is it about the boss who takes a sabbatical from his own business.  Inc. magazine had this story: Inside the mind of a runaway CEO.

While most office satire is about the workers being stuck in their jobs, this article illuminates that entrepreneurs can feel trapped by their companies as well. They may have started their business to escape the grind of working for someone else, only to realize they just created their own grind instead.

The social dynamics of a boss taking a sabbatical were interesting too.  Entrepreneurs often fancy themselves as being leaders who are essential to the company’s survival. It can jarring to discover your employees are much happier when you’re away.  Of course, it can be more humbling if the business actually does better when you’re not there.

One thing the article focused on is the complications of the CEO’s relationship with his No. 2 manager while he was gone. Initially, the deputy manager felt abandoned and afraid of not knowing what to do. As time passed, he became more comfortable with having that authority.  By the time the CEO returned, it had come full circle: now he was afraid the boss would take away his newfound sense of leadership.

The employees are also greatly affected.  Initially, they enjoyed the freedom of the boss being out of the office.  However, what does it do for their morale, to read a steady flow of Facebook and Twitter updates of all the fun the CEO is having while the staff are still busy with work?

Have you had a business you left behind to travel?  Or the opposite, you had a boss who did that?  Please share your experiences in the comments.

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Category: Expat Life, Lifestyle Design, Notes from the collective travel mind

August 19, 2011

The best passport for world travel

Man holds up a passport

Man holds up a passport. Photo: motograf / Flickr

Have you ever wished you had another country’s passport? For some nationals, they have the right to get working holiday visas all over the world.  They can pick up and move to a country, and have the right to live there.   Your passport has a big effect on how well received you’ll be in another country, in the eyes of their immigration officials.

The Economist had a chart called The Wanderers.  A law firm named Henley & Partners compiled a list of twenty countries, ranking them according to easily their nationals could enter foreign nations without needing a visa.  Makes you realize how much of that is beyond an individual’s control. If your government happens to be oppressive or unfriendly to immigrants, it’s the humble citizens who get punished with paperwork and exorbitant visa fees when they go abroad.

The first time I experienced this was when I taught English in China.  My boss, who was from Iceland, observed that Europeans paid much lower China visa fees than Americans.  That was when I learned about “reciprocity,” which basically translates as tit-for-tat.  If America charges high visa fees on foreigners, than those countries will return the favor when Americans visit.  Have any of you dealt with this?

The most extraordinary story I heard was from a Hong Kong girl.  She has passports for Hong Kong, China, the United Kingdom, and Canada!  That’s ultimate mobility, right there.

What are your experiences of dealing with passports and visas?  Please share your stories in the comments.

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Category: Expat Life, Notes from the collective travel mind, Working Abroad

August 5, 2011

Budget traveler interview: Marcus Sortijas

Marcus at Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

Marcus Sortijas at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan. Photo: Marcus Sortijas

Pop quiz, hotshot: what are the best travel tips you can share?  I’m more comfortable writing stories about other travelers. This time, I was on the other side.  Jessica Spiegel, a fellow vagablogger, put me in the hot seat in Budget Traveler Interview: Marcus Sortijas.

The piece was displayed on the website CheapTicketLinks, along with interviews of other vagabond luminaries such as Seth Kugel, who writes “The Frugal Traveler” column for The New York Times.  Nice to be positioned along such esteemed company.

You can see my top picks of the most affordable travel destinations, and the biggest way to save money in Japan.  As is human, I thought of some great tips after the interview was published.  Here are some of them:

–Go to airport websites to look up the cheapest route to get to the city center.  Usually there will be a page labeled “Transportation” or something similar that will break down all the ways to go into the city.  I once did this for the Hanoi airport in Vietnam, and found out about the minibuses that local people use.  They’re really shared vans, rather than “minibuses.” By taking a van instead of a taxi, I only spent US$3.  If I had been really cheap, I could have taken a public bus for US$0.30.  But I didn’t want to put up with all the stops.

–Read up on scams and common crimes in guidebooks before arrival.  In Beijing and Shanghai, sometimes “art students” approach tourists, claiming they want to practice their English.  Later, they try to divert their marks to art galleries or overpriced tea shops.  By doing some homework, you’ll not only protect your wallet, but also your pride.

–In certain countries where meters aren’t used, negotiate the fare before getting into a taxi.  Enough said.

I emphasized in the interview that going abroad on a budget forces you to be more resourceful and adaptable.  I’ve gone through Europe both on the backpacking circuit and on a package tour.  I can unequivocally say I learned more and had a lot more fun the first way.  Spending less was a pleasant bonus.

One challenging question was “What’s the most embarrassing thing you do to save money (travel or not)?  My answer involved “group buying” with other vagabonders at supermarkets, to take advantage of deals.

If you’re interested in reading more, you can visit my personal travel blog at Marcus Goes Global.  There’s a contact form if you want to send me a message.

What are some of your favorite or embarrassing ways of saving money?  Please share your stories in the comments.

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Category: Backpacking, Expat Life, Lifestyle Design, Notes from the collective travel mind












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