Will living abroad be a rewarding experience?
May 9, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I've been offered a job overseas, but I'm on the fence about it. What have your ex-pat experiences been like?

I'm a graduating senior and have been offered a job (yay job!!) doing education consulting in Hong Kong. The pay's great, I will have some benefits, and I'm excited about living and working abroad, but at the same time I have some reservations. For the first time, I feel like I've found a place to call home in Chicago with a great network of friends that I'm rather loathe to leave so soon. Most of them are planning to stay in Chicago, but even the few who are leaving are going to New York, which isn't too far away and could visit on a weekend if I wanted to. For the most part, my parents and brother are supportive of me if I do choose to move across the Pacific. I'm planning on staying no more than a few years abroad.

I haven't had much experience living abroad, except for a a few months studying abroad in Beijing last year, so I'm not sure what to expect if I do take this job.

What have your experiences as an ex-pat been like? Do you regret it? Are there things you would've done differently? What did you find most rewarding?
posted by astapasta24 to Work & Money (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I spent about a year living overseas in Bali, Indonesia in 2010/2011. My experience was very different than yours would be; mainly because I didn't have a job there. (I was working on a novel and assisting my cousin on a documentary.)

For me, it was a wonderful experience to live overseas, but I was really happy to go home when I did. My mother had a hysterectomy right before I moved abroad, and it was hard to watch her recovery from a distance. It was also difficult to make/keep friends. Bali is a very transient community, and we would make great friends and they would be gone a few weeks or months later. Dealing with the cultural differences were difficult at times (but because you've lived in China before, you probably have a better sense of how to deal with that than I did.)

I don't regret going, and I don't think there would be anything I would do differently. Like I said up comment, I was happy to be there, but by the time I left, I was ready to go home. I would say the best advice I can give is this: a lot of people (without realizing it) romanticize the idea of living and working abroad. It can be a wonderful and life-changing experience. But you will have bad days. You will have days when you want to go home. You may feel isolated. You may have difficulty finding new friends. You may feel cut off from friends and family back home. As long as you go in this eyes wide open, you should be fine.

Also: consider starting a blog! I did one, and it was a great way for me to keep in touch with friends and family, without telling the same story over and over again.
posted by emilynoa at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2012

If they're really your friends, they'll be there when you get back. Hong Kong is a fabulous place to live, and you're young. There's time later to move back home.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 11:19 AM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: There is a huge expat community in Hong Kong. You won't have any problems making new friends, and they obviously have Internet over there, so keeping in touch with the old friends won't be difficult at all. Timeshifting will grow to be second nature, but you might want to get a couple of cheap clocks to keep on Chicago and New York times.

Make sure you have information about the vacation periods and any travel reimbursement -- in writing, preferably as part of the official offer letter.

See if your company has anyone who's worked in Hong Kong recently but is in Chicago now. Take that person out to dinner and ask for advice.

Take copies of your medical records (and scan them and email them to yourself so you always have them relatively on hand). Keep copies of your pay stubs the same way. Find an accountant/tax preparer in the U.S. who has experience with expat issues (if you can't do that locally before you leave, ask your co-workers). Set aside a little extra money for taxes even so.

Don't keep a calendar of when you get to go back. It doesn't help any until you get real close to vacation/return times, and by then, you will be internally acutely aware of exactly how much time is left.

Don't be that person who stays in the hermetically sealed expat community (if you have one), but don't be that person who goes overly native, either.

Most of all, remember that everyone who gets there after you is going through the same issues you had when you first got there. Be kind and helpful, and you will acquire an eternally grateful network of peers and friends.
posted by Etrigan at 11:21 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm afraid that my only overseas experience has been as part of the military, but since you're sitting on the fence, please let me implore you to GET THE HECK OUT OF HERE.

Have fun!
Have adventures!
Meet new people!
Take TONS of photos!
Start an online blog through blogger or live journal or wordpress.com to share your adventures (happy, sad, weird, etc) with friends and family and random strangers on the internet.

You're young, go for it.
You will NOT regret it. EVER.
posted by THAT William Mize at 11:24 AM on May 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Living abroad right after uni was great for me. I missed my uni housemates and friends, but for the most part, we've kept in touch really well via Facebook and so on. Hong Kong would be a great place to have a friend with a couch, so I bet at least one of your friends will drop by for a visit, if any of them are the travelling type. Even if most of your college friends are planning to stay in the area where you live now, their lives won't necessarily stay the same, and they may not necessarily be there for long. It's a chaotic time of life, so don't bank on your friends being around and available--make your own way.

I was away for about 2-3 years after uni, and I absolutely don't regret it, even though my career has probably suffered as a result. Among the most rewarding things was the great group of new friends I got to meet overseas--several of whom I hope and plan to stay in touch with for life. The internet is a great thing; your friends don't have to live next door to be your friends! Hong Kong is in an area where you'll have lots of opportunities for local travel, if your work schedule allows, and that was a big highlight for me, too.

On preview, I agree with the other comments--your experiences will be mixed, and you will have bad days. I find it takes at least 6 months to settle into a new city, and that time can be tough. But it's still so, so worth it. Plus, you are so. lucky. to have a well-paid job with benefits lined up straight out of uni. Don't take that for granted!
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:24 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was an expat in Singapore, Indonesia and Canada.

Having expat work experience on your resume will open doors that otherwise may stay shut. Think of an expat assignment as a downpayment on your future career.
posted by lstanley at 11:28 AM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of my great regrets so far in life is that I have never lived and worked overseas. (Though I lived abroad as a kid.)

You will always make new friends--I completely uprooted and moved to a new city a few years ago, and made more friends than I ever had before.

Plus, having HK / PRC work experience will be an incredible asset in the future.

Do it. Do it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:31 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm an expat. I moved from the UK to the US for a job. It was a great career move in my case, so I don't regret it at all. I did leave behind a close-knit group of friends, but within a couple of years they had all moved around and become fragmented anyway, so to stay with them would have been fruitless in the long term. We still keep in touch on our own mailing list, and facebook, and visit each other. Your friends can come and visit you in HK! Yes, I had some lonely times at first without a circle of friends, but that heals over time.

Overall, I think it on a personal level, it is a really, really great experience to live and work in another country for a while. Aside from learning more about that country, I feel that it really has changed me for the better. It sounds cheesy to say somethign about broadens horizons etc, but for me getting acclimated to another culture and befriending people from another culture made me re-evaluate certain beliefs and social mores I had, that I thought were just my own core beliefs. I realised how much they were based on the culture of my home country, rather than things I had individually evaluated and found truth in. I feel more aware of myself and my beliefs, and the world from a slightly more removed perspective.

Jump at the chance!
posted by Joh at 11:36 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: About leaving a place you finally call home: I moved away from a community and group of friends that I was with for 9 years starting as a wee frosh, so I think I was in a similar place you are except the city was Boston and the country I moved to was Japan. There were a number of ways I think I was very lucky to have done this, and don't regret having left it behind:
- I was socially in a similar place at Year 1 and Year 9 in Boston, whereas moving overseas changed my comfort zone, social group, expectations and activities
- I moved before people started leaving one by one as they coupled, went to the suburbs, started having kids, and disappeared; it was better to be the one who left for something awesome than be there as tight-knit groups petered out of existence
- Those who were really my friends are still in close contact (and none of us are on FB!); we have met up in two new continents and I get to welcome old friends who happen to be moving to my adopted countries
- When I went back to visit the group that never left, in many ways, things had not changed. It was wonderful to revisit that, but at the same time, I think I would have gone a little stir-crazy if at Year 15 I were socially in the same place I was when I left home after high school.

Everything everyone said above is true as well, about possibly slowing your career initially; about your luck in having a promising position on offer right now; and about having bad days even if things are going well overall. My mother used to ask me if I wanted to come home because I complained so much about where I was living. The truth was that things were great, but the things that sucked, well, I couldn't tell just anyone!

If you ever want to live abroad, this is the best time to do it: before you have a bigger family of your own, before you bought a home, before you have timelines for this that and the other thing, before you are set in your habits and ways and afraid to take the leap.
posted by whatzit at 11:38 AM on May 9, 2012

I've lived overseas before (Poland) and am about to move to Vanuatu. Adjusting to a new culture is trying at first but so, so worth it. No regrets about Poland and I'm really looking forward to my new adventure. You're at the perfect time of life to do this and you'll always regret it if you don't go. And hey, we won't be that far away from each other; want to be pen pals?
posted by orrnyereg at 11:44 AM on May 9, 2012

yeah ... do it! Bestest experience ever.
posted by jannw at 11:51 AM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: I was an expat for about 5 years, living in various parts of Japan. I too moved overseas shortly after graduating from university. It's an experience I wouldn't trade for anything, but it was definitely a mixed bag and some of the consequences of spending that much time abroad have been less than optimal. Coming back home, if you do, will likely be difficult. Friends here will have moved on to different stages of life, friends from abroad will now be far away and you'll likely lose contact with many of them when you come back. You'll have accumulated some valuable career experience, but it may not be directly, or even remotely relevant to any career you're able to find here. So essentially, at some point, everything (or most of what) you do while you've lived abroad will become a thing of the past when you come back, and you're likely going to have to start over mostly from scratch when you get back, and that can be very difficult. The longer you stay abroad, the more connections you make there, the more experience you accumulate there, and the more of a life you build for yourself there, the more difficult coming home will be.

I don't say this to discourage you from going, I think you should seriously consider going. Living and working abroad is an awesome, life enriching experience. But I just think it's important to keep these things in mind while you're there. I'd say 2 or 3 years is probably the longest you'd want to stay abroad if you'd like to come back to the states and start a life here without much difficulty. If you stay longer, and you have some decent career/life prospects over there, then I'd say seriously consider staying for a long time, like 10 years or so.

But, yeah, you should go, just have a plan for when and how you're going to come back, if that's what you decide to do.
posted by farce majeure at 11:54 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know so, so many people who went to school or stayed in one place or whatever because that's where all their friends were and they couldn't imagine being without their friends, so on and so forth. Only all their friends eventually moved away for life reasons or they wound up growing apart or, you know, all the things that can happen in life, and they found they'd passed up on great opportunities and such for a group of people that weren't there anymore. Will you miss your friends? Probably. How much will you regret passing on this in, say, 5 years when half of them have kids or have moved on or have fallen out of touch? Probably a lot more.

I went overseas for a year and we gave up a lot to do it, sold or tossed out most everything and stored the rest at my mom's house. And it didn't work out great in the end, but you know what? As personal development, it was amazing and well worth doing. You learn a lot about yourself when you plop down in a whole new country with a couple suitcases and a dream.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:10 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went to Brussels for 6 months. I guess my case was a little different since my time abroad wasn't open ended. With that said, it was fantastic and you will certainly meet lots of new people. Much like Metafilter has lots of characters from different backgrounds, you will meet people from all over the place. In addition to learning about a new place, its people and its culture it is also a great opportunity to use your new home as a jumping off point for travel. When I was in Brussels, Paris and London were only a few hours away by train for example.

Good luck and have fun.
posted by mmascolino at 12:34 PM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: Do it. Absolutely do it. You get one life to accumulate interesting experiences in, you know? There will be some hard days and you may get homesick, but so what? You'd have hard days at home too. And by going you will have a set of experiences that you simply cannot get here; and since you're going to be working and earning rather than just vacationing and exhausting resources, you'll be in control of how long you want to stay. You're very lucky!
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:09 PM on May 9, 2012

I'm an expat for a little over a year. Go for it if you have the desire. Your circle of friends should still be there. I really really really didn't want to leave my friends, family and support network. Social media helps stay in touch and keep up with each other's lives. They'll be there when you get back.
posted by melt away at 2:28 PM on May 9, 2012

Do it! I lived abroad (Korea) for about 6 months, I'm state-side now but I plan to move abroad again next year (for longer this time, probably at least 2-3 years). As for friends, I've found that being in a new place actually makes me more outgoing and social - and I tend to make friends much more quickly than I do at home. My only suggestion is to avoid the "expat bubble". Get out and meet the locals, try to learn a little of the language (less of an issue in HK, but still), see the sights, and enjoy the time you have there - you'll be much happier.

And FWIW, Hong Kong is probably one of my favorite cities in Asia (large, diverse expat population, plenty to do, warm weather year-round, etc). If you enjoyed Beijing at all, you'll love it. Give it a try - if you don't like it, you can always move back.
posted by photo guy at 2:51 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

From a different perspective: doing time as an expat early in your career will have amazing benefits for you later on. In most industried today, people without international experience hit a wall in their career that you can avoid..
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:51 PM on May 9, 2012

First of all, congratulations on landing a job!!

I'm doing an expat assignment now in China, and will likely go on another expat assignment in 6 months. It has been a great experience, and is definitely an asset to my career!

On top of what others have said: Consider how you will be getting back. How long does this company want you in Hong Kong? If they say they will pay for your moving expenses back, get it in writing. For example, my company policy says it will not pay if I quit before my 2 years is up.
posted by xmts at 3:23 PM on May 9, 2012

It hasn't been all sunshine and roses, but I've lived in China and Japan, straight from university. I still keep in touch with friends back home, and with facebook and skype, it's easier now than ever to maintain friendships.

You will meet so many new people, though, that you will have no worries about friendships. It will take time, though, and you may, until you develop a circle of friends, be a bit lonely. It will happen. Be active, not passive. If you find yourself alone in your apartment, moping, get out of there, and explore your new home.

Home isn't where you grew up, it's where you find yourself, and say, hey, I'm pretty comfortable. Visiting the States in recent years has given me the startling realization that America doesn't feel like home anymore, and I feel a palpable sense of 'coming home' when I get back to Japan.

One thing, though. If you're going overseas, and you find yourself staying for a long time, realize that trying to go back home after a long time overseas can have a lot of downsides. Depending on what you do in H.K., you might find yourself needing to start from scratch when you get home. Getting started in a new career while in your twenties is a very different beast from doing the same in your mid-thirties or later. I've had a good number of friends who've left Japan to go back home later in life. Many of them ended up back in Japan, having been unable to get going in the States. Coming back meant they had to deal with the start-up costs, both monetary and professional (entry-level jobs in teaching, etc.). Other friends who were university professors in Japan are still in the U.S., Canada, or Australia, but are working in retail, sales, or similar positions, because that's all that was available to them. If you're going to make it permanent, do so, and don't look back. If you'd like to go home at some point, make a plan, devise an exit strategy, and stick to it.

Even with all of that, the fact is, living overseas will open your mind beyond anything you can imagine living in Chicago. There is a huge world out here, it's just waiting for you. H.K. is one of the world's great cities, and the life you lead there will change you. Don't stay home and wonder what might have been. Take the job, find out, and have an amazing adventure.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:26 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do it do it do it. That's all I can say, after spending 5 years in China.

Definitely agree with whoever said above that working abroad is like a down payment on your future.

But just one thing: just how good is the pay? HK is not exactly a cheap place to live. And if they don't have a place for you to stay, rent is going to be a huge part of money spent.

Boy do I wish I had this opportunity when I graduated.
posted by ditto75 at 6:40 PM on May 9, 2012

I've been an expat in China for close to 10 years (yikes!). I say you should go for it!

For one thing, it sounds like you have a great job offer, and that's a valuable thing in and of itself. Yes, staying in another country for several years does make it a bit more difficult to go back to your home country, and friendships can change (however, friendships change anyway). Also, if you stay in Hong Kong for a year or two, I don't think your friendships at home will be affected too much. You also might make some great friends there and really enjoy your job and lifestyle, and decide to stay longer.

Remember, you can always go back home....but you might not always have the opportunity to get a great job in Hong Kong. Even if you wind up hating it there (doubtful) you will broadened your horizons. However, if you decide you really just don't want to go, that's fine too, and you don't need to feel guilty about it.
posted by bearette at 7:16 PM on May 9, 2012

Living overseas for three years was one of the best things that I have ever done - both personally and professionally. You will meet people you would have never met under any other circumstances, you will have access to cheap flights to most of Southeast Asia, your resume will look awesome, and you will experience things that will serve as the basis for your best stories for the rest of your life.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:40 PM on May 9, 2012

I lived overseas for two years and agree with many others that it was one of the very best decisions I ever made. I'm so glad to be back in the US, but I have never regretted moving overseas. And I don't know anyone who does.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:55 PM on May 9, 2012

I'm an American who has spent over two years in Australia, after nine years in Los Angeles where I had a lovely group of friends. Since I left the country, a few of those friends moved out of LA and just about everyone else had major life changes (demanding new jobs, wives, kids, grad school, etc.) so it's not like we'd even hang out much if I was still there.

Best decision of my life. Do it.
posted by adamk at 12:29 AM on May 10, 2012

I went abroard in my early twenties.
I am now in my sixties and I am still "abroard" whatever that now means.
Do It. Opportunity only comes around occasionally and you should grasp it with both hands vigourously. You might think you have a broad outlook now but not until you have experianced other cultures close up can you possibly imagine how narrow your present world view probably is. You will meet and interact with people you would never have the chance to do so with where you are now. The Career opportunities are immense. It is something of great value to have on your CV; the possibilities of further opportunity will also be enhanced. I think that if you don't do this it will be a decision you come to regret for he rest of your life and that would be very sad.
posted by adamvasco at 1:16 AM on May 10, 2012

I've been an expat for 10 years now and I wouldn't change any of it. You learn so much about the world and, of course, yourself.
posted by toerinishuman at 2:26 AM on May 10, 2012

I moved abroad to South Korea three years ago. It takes some flexibility and patience at first, but my sister doesn't realize I'm not joking when I say that I'll probably live here forever.

Also, learning Chinese couldn't hurt for almost any career you can imagine.

However, do try and talk to another foreigner currently working at this company. The worst horror stories always come from people who take jobs where the employer lies to them. There's only one way to do this -- communicate with somebody who is doing your future job now (over the phone, preferably).
posted by bardic at 3:01 AM on May 10, 2012

I've been an expat for 23 years. Twenty of those have been in Hong Kong, which I consider to be home.

Hong Kong is fast paced, and you will make friends here from all over the world. Because it is a transitory city, you will make friends quickly.

There are career opportunities here that you won't find anywhere else. Taxes are low, so you can accumulate some savings, if you don't have to replicate life in Chicago.

The downsides are that the air pollution can be problematic (although as China's manufacturers abandon the Pearl River Delta, that will gradually improve) and the cost of living. Rents and property prices here are among the highest in the world.

Shoot me an email if you have other questions.
posted by quidividi at 5:53 AM on May 10, 2012

I can't personally comment on the ex-pat experience (although I have friends who loved it in Hong Kong and in Singapore and made awesome friends there), but I can comment on the friends and life experience. If you truly made good friends in Chicago, they will still be your good friends when you get back in 2-3 years. If you think NY is close enough to visit on a weekend from Chicago and that is the reason you are not going, think again. It is close, but once real-life starts and you and your friends are busy with new careers and new friends, you might only get to make the weekend NY trip once or twice a year at most, so you might as well go to Hong Kong. And as others said, a lot of your friends will move away after college, so don't stay in Chicago thinking that your life will be the same if you stay.

When else will you have an opportunity to live abroad?? To travel cheaply and quickly to all the Asian countries, instead of having to take a ~20 hour flight from Chicago? Take advantage of this opportunity and explore that side of the world!
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 9:12 AM on May 10, 2012

I agree with all the comments above having lived in London for two years and then moved many many times within the US - its a challenge and growth experience and very soul building to change your life. Friends are the easy part- people are the same all over is whatnot find and everyone is friendly if you are.
And yes the close friends remain and the superficial ones float off and with technology today it's not a big deal to not be seeing each other.
But I will say coming back for me was rough after a year of traveling all,over the world. I didn't like returning to the US and now think of moving overseas again.
The world is so fascinating and it's your one and only life. Go live it!
posted by privatechef at 5:30 AM on February 28, 2013

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