Living and working overseas. Is it for you?

Tower Bridge, London (photo by me)
I was pursuing Linkekin the other day and saw this post by Elliot Scott HR on should you take your career abroad? I have written previously about the things I have learnt by moving to Singapore and another post I wrote shortly after moving to Singapore on how we approached the change because living and working overseas was something I always wanted to do. 

A bit of history. Most of my career has been in Sydney, Australia. The roles and companies I liked the best were the ones that gave me the opportunity to travel overseas and also apply my work to different situations and cultures. I have had some amazing experiences travelling for work, including going to Mundra, a remote part of India to complete a Human Resource audit (and I have a coffee mug to prove it), helping support a company in-house development program at the US Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island (New York), going to the Philippines for a Global HR meeting and running a Development program in Atyrau, Kazakhstan. Yes, I did eat Horse. No, I didn’t wear a Mankini.

I have been overseas for two and a half years now, with the last 6 months being in the UK and thought I would share my perspective on the experience so far. Here is my take on the good, the bad and the downright ugly of living and working overseas. So big breath, here we go….

The good

It’s fun to live in a place where everything is a bit different and new. I like different and new, and different. I think most people do. It’s why fashion designers have new collections about every two months and why Apple brings out new iPhones. New can be fun.

You get to learn new ways of doing things, have new food to eat and new places to visit. The things I have loved the best about moving to Singapore and Harrogate, UK are:

  • Checking out all the different food and products in the supermarket, even if on numerous occasions you can’t find the item you really want/need to find.
  • Trying out new restaurants. One of the things I learnt early on about Singaporeans is that they love are obsessed with food. There is an incredible amount of different cultures living in Singapore and therefore an amazing variety of food along with delicious local fare. For such a small country the restaurant scene in Singapore really punches above its weight. The UK has also given us the opportunity to try the famous British cuisine, which from all accounts seems to consist of fish and chips, roasts, and sausages and mash. 
  • Being in much closer vicinity to visit and/or holiday in other places. Australia really is very remote.
  • Being able to work with people from different backgrounds, experiences and cultures
  • Meeting other Expats and locals and learning about their experiences  
  • Working out if your skills, knowledge and experience translate into a different context and realising that when it doesn’t, you are smart enough to work it out!
  • There are lots of things that are so much better than your home country. For example, Singapore is generally a very efficient place to live, and the tax rate is low. In Yorkshire, UK where we are living at the moment, the people are very friendly and helpful. There is also lots of old stuff, if you like that kind of thing.
Old Stuff: Leadenhall Market, London (photo by me)
The bad

It’s just hard
There are days when you are just over everything being different and foreign and hard. We all have hard days and bad weeks but when you are away from everything that is familiar and comforting, it's much worse. I shared an office with another Expat in Singapore and there were days when we would rest our head on our hands and just sigh at each other, wishing we were in a Mad Men scene so we saunter over to the drinks trolley in the corner and and add two fingers of whisky to a crystal tumbler. Instead we went to McDonalds for lunch. It wasn’t the same.

Making friends
Making friends in a new land is a little like dating again except that I’m not as hot as I used to be, even with access to better fashion.  The fear of rejection is real people. You have to put yourself out there! What if I ask that Mum at school drop off out for a drink and she doesn’t like wine?  What if we invite people over for a BBQ dinner and they stand us up because they got too drunk at the 5-star hotel Sunday brunch? And don’t get me started on helping your kids make friends.  I once tried to organise a play-date for Aiden in Singapore with a Tiger Mommy. She looked at me like I was an Alien, though perhaps being an Australian with pink hair is close. Apparently her son’s schedule of piano, violin, maths tutoring, swimming, mandarin and Master Chef cooking lessons for 5-year-old’s, meant that a Saturday playdate was not possible until summer break, and even then she was considering an educational tour of China for her precious progeny to be fully immersed in mandarin language and culture. Felt a bit gun shy after that.

In the office
It was a surprise when I moved to Singapore that none of the Singaporean employees wanted to talk to me. On work trips to Singapore I had been looked after like a star! But alas I was now a foreigner in the office and a suspicious one at that! No one likes Human Resources.  I’m friendly and I don’t think that scary but it took 3 months for the other employees to speak to me, and then it was like a switch had been flicked. Everyone wanted to talk to me! In the toilet, in the kitchen, generally hanging out in the office. It was fine though, and gave me good insight into the Singaporean culture.

There are times of high stress. Seeing all your belongings packed in boxes and then a container and not seeing then for 6 weeks at least, is one thing but it’s not as easy as that. There is living out of a suitcase, trying to find somewhere new to put your container of household stuff, marketing and selling a house in four weeks, selling your car, working out how to get about your new place and trying to get a bank account. There is a massive opportunity for banks to help expats open new bank accounts. Some banks have a specialised service for this but having recently used HSBC’s I can tell you it was the most stressful and ridiculous part about moving to the UK.

The money
It’s an expensive process to move overseas, even if your company provides some financial assistance. There is a period when you literally have no money. On one end this comes about through paying cancelation fees, losing money on selling cars, paying out loans, selling a house, using temporary housing and transport and eating out a lot because there may be a period when you have no kitchen. On the other end it comes about through paying deposits, paying for stuff in advance, purchasing new appliances, eating out, transport, new school uniforms (if you have kids) and sometimes psychological help so you don’t go insane.

The ugly

How things are done
A lot of things are hard because you have assumptions in your head about how you go about things and also how things should be done. This creates all sorts of issues, particularly if you are an easily frustrated, outspoken Australian. For example, getting a prescription filled in the UK is not for the faint hearted. The process requires a PhD level of understanding of NHS (National Health Service) bureaucracy along with a flow chart detailing the convoluted process that happens between the Doctors Surgery and the pharmacy. Countries have been colonised in less time.

Any challenge to such ridiculousness results in a snooty “that’s how it’s done here” response. Which it is. Part of the expatriate process is accepting all the things that make no sense to you and just getting on with things.

Depending on how you end up working and living in a different country, sometimes your security is not what it is in your home country. For both my moves, my right to reside in each country was reliant on my employer sponsored work visa. This means that if you lose your job for whatever reason there is a very high likelihood you have to leave the country pretty quickly. I may have some fairly recent experience of this and I can tell you the anxiety levels are high. No easy feat when you have to pack up a house as a minimum! At least if you lose your job in your home country you can just hang on the lounge for a bit and peruse daytime television. You don’t have to wrap said lounge and television in export standard wrapping, put it in a container, insure it, and ship it across the ocean.

So what do you think? Is this for you?

Lisa xx