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What is it like working in Asia?
December 31, 2012 2:50 PM   Subscribe

What is it like working in Asia?

I'm thinking about going to work and travel in Asia after I finish my degree and was wondering if anybody has any advice or tips about working there. I feel really depressed and hopeless with my life, I find it hard to make friends, and sitting in front of a computer for the next 50 years is not much of a future to me. I hate where I live (the UK) and have wanted to travel to some part of Asia for a long, long time, specifically Taiwan, but I have always been a little too scared and arrogant to go for it, plus finding a payable salary job may become extremely hard in the future with too many jobs/career changes.

So my plan is to sell my things and travel overseas, but I'm really worried about the culture clash. What tips could you give someone planning to do this? My skills are mostly in digital marketing, but I can not speak another language. Would it be best to do EFL so I have more experience with the language? And is it going to be possible to find a job once I get back?
posted by inaisa to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just to clarify, are you looking at East Asia specifically?
posted by atrazine at 2:59 PM on December 31, 2012


It is a little bit like living in Disney land. No kidding.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:17 PM on December 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, Taiwan or Hong Kong preferably. I also want to visit Japan but I'm not sure about working there.
posted by inaisa at 3:17 PM on December 31, 2012


It is a little bit like living in Disney land. No kidding.
How so? I thought the same about here in England or America. It is a kind of disneyland here in the sense that our culture is very artificial.
posted by inaisa at 3:30 PM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, my experience living abroad is not in East Asia but in the Middle East. I've only visited East Asia, so take this with a dab of soy sauce.
My advice is to make preparations to sell or store your stuff (probably a combination, sell big items and rent a small storage container for items with sentimental value) and start networking and looking for a digital marketing job out there. I'm biased in favour of learning languages, but you will not be able to rapidly learn enough for it to matter for your career so take that into account in your planning.

I have no idea whether you will be able to get a job when you get back, but the reason I recommend finding a job in your own field is that it will make it easier.

You say that you're finishing your degree, are you currently in full time work? If you aren't then it's not like you're giving up a steady job, right? What are your post-graduation alternatives, can you take a job with a company in your field that has operations in Asia? That could let you network and travel there on business before making the jump to full-on living there.

How old are you? Can you store your things with your parents / count on being able to move back in with them for your first few months in the UK when you return? These things can really lower the barriers to entry.

It is a little bit like living in Disney land. No kidding.

Singapore *maybe*. The rest of East Asia not at all.
posted by atrazine at 3:44 PM on December 31, 2012


I feel really depressed and hopeless with my life, I find it hard to make friends, and sitting in front of a computer for the next 50 years is not much of a future to me.

Oh, and deal with this as a first step. Moving to another country will not fix your problems nor will it make it easier to make friends.
posted by atrazine at 3:46 PM on December 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


How old are you? Can you store your things with your parents / count on being able to move back in with them for your first few months in the UK when you return? These things can really lower the barriers to entry.
I'm 28, haven't seen my parents in years unfortunately but I have a friend who could store a small amount of things and might be able to put me up if SHTF. I've been living in cheap accomodation all my adult life anyway, as long as I have access to the internet then finding a place to live won't be that hard.

I'm biased in favour of learning languages, but you will not be able to rapidly learn enough for it to matter for your career so take that into account in your planning.
Alright, noted. This is why teaching EFL comes to mind as a first step - they are probably more used to english-only speakers who want to learn a foreign language. I don't plan to ignore the need to learn though.

You say that you're finishing your degree, are you currently in full time work? If you aren't then it's not like you're giving up a steady job, right? What are your post-graduation alternatives, can you take a job with a company in your field that has operations in Asia? That could let you network and travel there on business before making the jump to full-on living there.
I have a great many post grad options, many of them involve staying and working from home. I want to try to avoid this if I can and one of my solid options is to apply for a junior position in a multi national company. Alternatively teaching English or how to use software for a training organisation. An extreme alternative would be self-employment and freelancing but that is pretty much like begging for money.

Moving to another country will not fix your problems nor will it make it easier to make friends.
Everyone is always going to have their problems, but the wisest people I know have long since sailed off to countries on the other side of the planet. But I know what you're saying.
posted by inaisa at 4:28 PM on December 31, 2012


Oh and thanks for your advice btw.
posted by inaisa at 4:29 PM on December 31, 2012


My experience living and teaching in Japan was that unless you made *extra* *extra* effort, all your friends and associates are other expats, and you pretty much spend all your free time drinking.
posted by colin_l at 5:01 PM on December 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Working in Asia is a wonderful life-altering experience, but Asia is not a monoculture, far from it. Living and working in Japan is about as far from living and working in Taiwan as can be. (The culture shock for me between Tokyo and Taipei is by far the most between any two places I've lived.)

I'd pick one and stick with it. Learning one culture and language is hard enough obstacle. And once you're there, especially if your home base is Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, the rest of Asia is a short trip away.

But don't go to any Asian country if you're depressed. You will be isolated and always thought of as an outsider. You'll really have to work hard, every day, to make real friends. ("Real" vs "token foreign friend".) This is on top of working hard to simply read and speak, all the time, every day. This will wear you down and destroy you. Being horribly depressed and isolated and in a country where you don't speak the language or no anyone is beyond awful.

What kind of job do you think you'll get in another country? If you're looking for work in the field you've studied in them honestly, once you've got the work culture down and the language, is probably going to be exactly the same as it would be in any other country - sitting in front of a computer all day.

ESL is certainly possible, and it has its advantages that there's a built-in peer group of other teachers. But 90% of the time ESL teachers never venture out of the expat community. It gets pretty depressing there after a while.
posted by Ookseer at 6:19 PM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is Disneyland because it is like living in another world. First, because everything is foreign to you, second, because you don't "fit" in there. Few rules will apply to you. You could probably take a piss in public in the center of the town and the natives with patiently ignore you and either think "strange foreigners" or "stupid Americans". I don't say it's no fun living there, but it is like living in Disneyland. Depending on the place, as a Caucasian, you have a "Carte blanche".
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:01 PM on December 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hong Kong is super fast-paced. There's so much people everywhere, at all times. Hong Kong is probably more accessible to English-speakers than Taiwan is because it was a former colony. Hong Kong still maintains English as a second language and in my experience, a lot of people speak decent English.

Hong Kong is a cool place to go. You'll always have something to do and there's definitely a decent expat community for you to join. You really have to enjoy the city lifestyle though.
posted by cyml at 11:19 PM on December 31, 2012


You could probably take a piss in public in the center of the town and the natives with patiently ignore you and either think "strange foreigners" or "stupid Americans".

If you do that in HK the natives will think, "How strange, a white guy who grew up on the mainland"
posted by atrazine at 5:26 AM on January 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm an American who has lived and worked in a couple of spots in East Asia before. I've studied in Japan, and am currently working in Hong Kong. My circumstances are a bit different than yours (I am familiar with the local languages and am of East Asian descent, so I don't stick out in a crowd either), but here's some general info that might be useful for you.

Teaching English as a foreign language is possible, circumstances will be different depending on each country. Also realize that you're working against a contradiction here, the easier it is for you to get along in a country without the local language, the more difficult it will be for you to find a job teaching English (ie places that are already okay with English with have higher requirements for English instruction, meaning they may require certifications and prior EFL education experience).

From what my friends tell me, teaching English can be a fun experience, but it may be difficult to use it as a foothold for a more permanent position in your desired country. It will depend on your previous work industry and experience. You say you worked in digital marketing? This strikes me as being a difficult industry to break into if you don't have relevant local experience. Right now unemployment in East Asia is generally pretty low for people with a couple of years of experience, but local knowledge or language abilities have become a stronger prerequisite. There's been a lot of employment driven immigration here in the past few years, and it's become harder to differentiate yourself from the rest of the job seekers.

For lifestyle, you'll probably be hanging out with other expats if you don't speak the local language. Expat life is probably going to be pretty similar no matter where you go, a mix of drinking and a couple of activities that will vary depending on the country you choose. Is there a reason in particular you choose Taiwan? It's an interesting choice, most people seem to opt for Korea, Japan, or Mainland China.

MeMail if you'd like any more info, would be happy to answer any specific questions that you have. If you wind up in Hong Kong, feel free to get in touch! There are a handful of Mefites out here already and we do get together once in a while.
posted by C^3 at 5:28 AM on January 1, 2013


First, allow me a peeve. As others have said, ‘working in Asia’ or even the more specific ‘teaching English in East Asia’ is so broad as to be unhelpful. It encompasses teenage backpackers recruited out of Wùyuán youth hostels, JET programme participants in Nagano Prefecture and old-timer business English teachers in Hong Kong’s Central District. I say that partially because I’m grumpy about generalisations in general, but also because you’re not going to make good decisions unless you do plenty of research about the specific options available to you.

It’s not impossible to imagine someone teaching English in Taiwan, learning Mandarin on the side and then transitioning to a local digital marketing job, but there are a lot of hurdles along the way. Learning Mandarin well enough to use it in a marketing job would take most people several years of full-time study. Learning it alongside getting the hang of a full-time job in a new profession ups the difficulty level considerably. Then there’s the question of why an employer would hire someone with probably weak language skills and a complex work visa situation.

Certainly EFL is a great way to work for someone who doesn’t speak the local language, but you are less likely to learn it as an English teacher than working in an office where English is not the main language. As for returning to the UK, it’s not easy for EFL teachers, unless you pick their specialisation carefully. You can make a decent career outside the UK, but you have to put in the legwork. The junior position in a multinational sounds like a much better option!

I've been in the EFL business for over a decade and worked in East Asia for five of those years. I’ve recruited and managed dozens of teachers in that time, which develops an awareness of who will thrive and who will flounder. I’m afraid your question rings a load of alarm bells for me, despite the fact that I began with a lot of similarities to you: depressed, not making friends and sick of staring at a computer screen in the UK. The alarm bells are that:
  • You imply that moving will allow you to leave behind your problems. You’re not alone; almost every EFL teacher suffers from this fallacy to some extent, at least when they start out. When they arrive in a new country and discover in short order that some or all of their problems have accompanied them, they either face up to them, go into denial or sink into depression. Facing up to problems can be facilitated by a fresh start, but it’s not a free ride - there will be new problems caused by the new environment.
  • You don’t appear to be managing your depression. I wasn’t in perfect mental health when I left the UK, but I knew how to contain my problems. As others have written, the isolation and culture shock of living abroad can strike the cheeriest down. Additionally, there are a lot of places in East Asia where mental health is not taken seriously by employers and language issues will get in the way of treatment, so you will need to be resilient.
  • You don’t like where you live now. British and American culture is ‘artificial’? If you’re hoping to find a deeper, more authentic culture in East Asia, you’re setting yourself up for a big letdown. Not that their cultures aren’t ancient and amazing, but there is no lack of shallow, surface consumer lifestyle in pretty much any country. But the important point is that the people who get into EFL because they hate where they live tend to be the ones who end up hating their new home just as much.
…the wisest people I know have long since sailed off to countries on the other side of the planet.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc, I’m afraid. In my experience, some of the least wise people do exactly the same.

So, advice? Do lots of research, have realistic expectations about how your life will and won’t change and, make the most of your advantages at every stage. Re-read Ookseer’s excellent answer.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:48 PM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I've lived in South Korea teaching English for almost five years and I love it. I blog about it fwiw. I taught in America before coming here, so some of the difficulties of being a first-time teacher didn't apply.

Do you like kids? Do you like people? Seriously, these are obvious questions but a lot of people come here to teach thinking that they can do the job without answering "yes" to both of these.

That said, living abroad post-internet is very different than it was pre-internet. I've managed to learn some Korean but even if I didn't I have access to Western media. There are expat bars and restaurants. There are English teachers everywhere here. If you want to make Korean friends, great, if you don't, fine. There are expat ice hockey clubs, expat bands, expat theater and improv groups, expat photography clubs. (By "expat" I mean predominantly foreign, but open to Koreans who are interested as well.)

So I think it's worth a shot, but do your homework. Don't sign a contract unless you've spoken over the phone to a foreign teacher who actually works there.

Also, what Busy Old Fool said here: "You imply that moving will allow you to leave behind your problems. You’re not alone; almost every EFL teacher suffers from this fallacy to some extent, at least when they start out."

Bingo. TEFL is a job, not an escape. Plenty of people treat it as the latter and they're probably less happy/more disgruntled than the other expats I meet here who manage to balance their work and social lives. You have to do this anywhere in the world, of course.
posted by bardic at 10:29 PM on January 1, 2013


I've been in the EFL business for over a decade and worked in East Asia for five of those years. I’ve recruited and managed dozens of teachers in that time, which develops an awareness of who will thrive and who will flounder. I’m afraid your question rings a load of alarm bells for me, despite the fact that I began with a lot of similarities to you: depressed, not making friends and sick of staring at a computer screen in the UK.
...Do as I say, not as I do! I'll be sure to do the research, a lot of these courses and placements seem far too good to be true anyway, so it seems common sense to investigate beyond the gloss. I don't recall asking your opinion of me either but thanks for making me read several paragraphs of it though. Many thanks for everyones' kind answers.
posted by inaisa at 11:12 AM on January 5, 2013


I'm sorry you found that section of my answer to be an imposition. Your question was "What is it like working in Asia?" and one valid answer to that is that, based on the information you volunteered in the description, it can be miserable.

I sincerely hope my instincts are wrong on this; living in another country can be a great, life-enhancing experience that I think more people should consider. However, I have seen so many miserable expats down the years that I started noting common factors and I'm fairly good at spotting warning signs. This is not any sort of rare talent; most long-term expats would agree that the newcomer who complains about how bad things are back home is usually going to be complaining about how awful things are in their new home fairly soon.

I want to be clear that I'm not saying that people who are depressed or don't like where they live should always stay where they are. The point is to have accurate expectations of what a new environment can and can't do.

Of course, I know next to nothing about you from your question and all the things I am ignorant of in your life might outweigh the aspects which worried me. I hope so and I hope whatever path you choose leads to fulfillment.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:17 PM on October 5, 2013


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