Living abroad isn’t easy, but nobody ever said it would be. If done right, it can be immensely rewarding, fulfilling, and enlightening. I’ve lived in Asia for almost seven years now, and I’ve spent that time living and working in three different countries – China, Thailand, and Japan – and I don’t plan on stopping this journey anytime soon. I’m certainly no expert, but I like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about how to live a life overseas successfully, and I’d like to share this knowledge with you.
I’ve seen a lot of people come and go during these years, and I’ve also seen a lot of people who are miserable living overseas, though most of them would never admit it. It usually doesn’t take long for me to pinpoint what they’re doing wrong, though of course I have to keep my mouth shut, as often the truth is too painful for them to hear. So I’m here to let you know what you should be doing to happily live a life overseas long-term or permanently. Let’s get started.
1. It Has to Be about More than Just Money or Women
I’ve met seemingly hundreds of fellow expats during my time here in Asia, and I bet at least 90% of them were primarily in Asia for one (or both) of the above reasons. These are also the same people who usually crack the fastest. I like money and women just as much as the next guy, but they were never my primary draw for coming to Asia. If either of these are your primary reason for expatriation, chances are you’re going to get burnt out sooner or later.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing romance or wealth when overseas, but if you’re wanting to live overseas long-term, they should only be the icing on the cake. They should never be your primary focus. I’ve stayed in Asia as long as I have mostly because I actually enjoy learning this side of the world works, and I never grow tired of exploring the new and unknown. Eventually I’ll leave Asia for another continent, and the cycle will continue to repeat itself. I’ve met a lot of good (and bad) women during this time, including my Chinese wife, and I’ve also made a fair chunk of change, but those are merely side notes in the grand scheme of it all.
Would you go to the gym and put in hours of hard work just look good to the opposite sex? Or would you work in a field you hate just to make some cash? Maybe you would, but chances are you’re going to get burnt out sooner rather than later if those are your primary motivating factors. Exercise and your career should both be about something deeper than superficialities, and this is even truer for living a life overseas.
2. Visit at Least One Foreign Country Per Year
It didn’t matter if I was in China, Thailand, or Japan, I always got bored with my locale and a new trip overseas once or twice a year always helped put things into perspective, and helped me to stay sane with the current locale. Whether I’m in bustling Bangkok or dull Kamisu, seeing the same thing day after day is inevitably going to grow stale, so leaving for another country and then coming back again can help make things fresh again.
And notice that the heading says “foreign country.” I mean exactly that. You need to leave your host country entirely. While I do think it’s important to see more of your host country beyond your specific city, I think it’s even more important to see something totally different, i.e. an entirely different country, from time to time. I sometimes meet expats who haven’t left their host country in years, and some have never even left since their first arrival. I just don’t see how they can do it. These are usually the least interesting expats, as they don’t really understand what separates their host country from the rest of Asia, seeing as they have nothing to compare it to. I can appreciate each country I travel to even more, as I know exactly what it is that makes that specific country unique, because I have a large spectrum of countries to compare it against.
3. Take Extra Good Care of Your Health
Taking care of your health is important no matter where you live, but it becomes exponentially more important when abroad, particularly in developing countries with sub-par health care facilities. When you live away from your home country away from your family, you don’t have nearly as much of a safety net to fall back on in the event of an emergency or serious illness. One trip to the hospital can wipe out all of your funds and force you to return back to your home country. Trying to express to the local doctor about how you’re feeling or what’s wrong with you can also be very tricky without a translator or being able to speak the local language fluently. Ideally, you want to keep visits to the doctor to an absolute minimum.
I advise expats to keep their drinking and smoking to a minimum, eat healthily, stay on a consistent exercise plan, lift weights, keep ultra-high risk activities to a minimum, and always have a nest egg ready for the worst. I’ve done all of the above, and luckily I have only been to the emergency room once in all these years (knock on wood). I had a minor stitch-requiring accident in the kitchen. Luckily I was in Bangkok, where health care is generally quite good, and I also had accident insurance to cover the medical costs. Other than that, I’ve never had to visit a doctor in all these years. Going to a hospital is rarely any fun in any country in the world, but it can be significantly worse in a foreign country. For example, many of the public hospitals in China are like something out of a psychological thriller. You want to stay far, far away from them, so maintaining your health is of utmost importance.
4. Develop a Marketable Skill
One thing I rarely see my fellow ESL teachers doing here in Asia is simultaneously developing a marketable skill while they’re living their life overseas. They put all of their eggs in the English-teaching basket, but if they were to go back home, chances are they’ll have no other skills to market themselves with to future potential employers. Sure, some might go back home to continue teaching English to ESL learners, but chances are most of them won’t. And seeing as most employers in English-speaking countries couldn’t care less about one’s experience teaching English overseas, these expats are now unmarketable and back to square one when they return home. And besides, chances are you’re not going to want to teach English for your entire career, no matter how much you initially think it sounds like a good idea.
That’s why it’s wise to always be developing a non-English-teaching related skill during your time overseas. I came to Asia shortly after I graduated from college, but I’ve spent many of my years here in Asia doing photography, writing, and learning Mandarin Chinese, so it’s good to know I’m not 100% dependent upon my ESL teaching experience in the small chance that I were to permanently or temporarily relocate back home. It’s also nice to know that if I wanted to move somewhere with a non-existent or unreliable ESL industry, I have other options. Or even more ideally, work as a digital nomad.
5. Make at Least One Local and One Foreign Friend
Making a local friend in your adopted country gives you an up-close look at how local people live their lives. You learn things that would be simply wouldn’t learn otherwise. A local friend can also help you empathize more with your host country and avoid becoming too bitter. And you’re in a new country, so why pass up a great opportunity to learn more about the country from the inside?
But it’s just as important to make at least one foreign friend. This friend doesn’t necessarily have to be from the same country as you, but they need to at least be from a different country than the one you’re both are living in. Ideally this friend would be someone who has at least a year or two experience of living in your host country, that way they can give you tips and insight that might take you much longer to learn on your own. They can also empathize with you, as you’re both foreigners in a new world.
Unless they’re well-traveled, locals tend to be far less self-aware of their country’s true habits, and they’re often protective of their home turf. You rarely hear the whole story from them, as they prefer to keep their country’s negative aspects on the down low. On the other hand, a foreigner is generally more willing to tell you how things really are, rather than the way the locals hope you perceive things. Just don’t wind up living in a expat bubble by only befriending other foreigners. Way too many foreigners make this mistake. You should balance your time between both locals and foreigners. And all of these friends should be platonic, not people you’re sleeping with.
6. Make Regular Trips Back Home
When we first move overseas, many of us view our new locale through rose-colored glasses. Some of us, myself included, even curse the way things are done back home during this period. But eventually those rose-colored glasses have to come off, and we can finally see things for what they really are, and we might even start to miss things from back home. This is very normal and healthy for someone new to living overseas.
Through my regular trips back home, which are usually every year and a half or so, I have a chance to appreciate some of the things America actually does well. I also get to visit old friends and family. Even though I feel the distance mentally among myself and those back home growing more and more each year I’m abroad, I still care about those people and seeing them again is something I can’t put a price on.
I usually stay home for a month or two each time I go back, which is just enough to see everyone and do all the things I want to do. Usually around the end of those trips, I’m very ready to get back overseas, but I still enjoy my time back home very much, and it’s part of the reason I can remain overseas more or less permanently. Though if I stay back home too long, bitterness and restlessness will inevitably start creeping in, that’s why I always have a return date set for getting out.
7. Build a Nest Egg
Every so often I’ll meet other expats here in Asia who’ve been living in their respective countries for years, yet they haven’t saved a penny. I don’t understand how they can’t do it, nor how they can live comfortably always living paycheck to paycheck. It’s vital to have a nest egg when living overseas. In my almost seven years of living in Asia, I’ve not only paid off tens of thousands of dollars of student loan and credit card debt, but I’ve also saved thousands more, which acts as my safety cushion. I say that not to boast, but to let others know that it’s not as hard as it may seem, as I’ve done all of this on the same humble salary as my fellow broke-as-a-joke English teachers.
A million different things can happen to you when you’re overseas. You might get in an accident. A loved one back home might become gravely ill or pass away. Things might turn sour with an employer. In these situations your savings serve as your safety net. Also, living life long-term overseas means you’re probably not paying into any kind of pension system, such as America’s Social Security system. Therefore it’s even more important that you’re accumulating savings of your own to compensate.
As a foreigner living overseas, you must be very self-reliant, and being self-reliant should mean you have your finances in order, even if the unexpected suddenly happens. One big bonus to having your own savings is that you’re no longer a slave to employers, since you’re no longer desperate for that next paycheck to come in to cover the next month’s expenses. If an employer starts to screw with you, you can just up and leave because you have enough money to get by until you find another job. Being able to tell your shady employer to go straight to hell is true freedom!
8. Document Your Experiences
All these years you spend abroad are going to be some of the most memorable of your life, so having a way to revisit these memories in the future is invaluable. Nothing fills me with nostalgia more than going back and looking at some of my old pictures from when I lived in China and Thailand or from previous trips around Asia. Without these pictures, some of these memories would fade into obscurity and be forgotten forever. Those are very precious memories, so I’m glad to have them. Don’t let them just slip you by without keeping some kind of record.
Find a way to document your experiences in a way you enjoy and find convenient. I do this through photography, writing, and this website, but others might enjoy keeping a simple journal. It may not seem like it now, but I guarantee you that a few years down the road, reading a journal entry or looking at pictures from a few years back (which now is right now) will be a warm and nostalgic experience for you. It will help you remember why you went abroad in the first place. These years overseas are truly unique and worth documenting. And who knows, maybe someone 100 years in the future will find the information you wrote or the pictures you took to be immensely valuable.
9. Always Be Looking into Other Countries
When I was living in China, I had Vietnam and Thailand on my radar. When I was in Thailand, Korea and Japan were on my radar. And now that I’m in Japan, Taiwan and Mexico are on my radar. That doesn’t mean I’m always looking at the future while letting the present pass me by. Rather I think it means I’m always aware of what else is out there. I always have plans for what may be next, and I always enjoy learning how other countries compare and contrast to the one that I’m currently in.
I’m fully aware that there’s no one country that has it all, but my mind is nomadic. I’m always on the move, from one country to the next, slowly but surely. A few years here, and then a few years there. That’s just the way I like it, and I never get too bored or burnt out with my host country by living this way. And if I ever did, I’d simply move on. I don’t get “stuck” in one specific country like many other expats do. The way I see it, each country is merely a chapter in the book of my life. I believe being mentally ready to leave everything in one country at the drop of a hat makes you freer. You are no longer bound to what only one country can offer you. Suddenly the world is your oyster, not just one country.
10. Engage in a Hobby that Forces You to Interact with Your Environment
Whether it be learning the local language, a local craft, or a local skill, engaging in a hobby that forces you to interact with your environment makes you appreciate that country more and enhances your perspective. It also makes you feel more like a part of that country, as the locals will respect you more for appreciating something in their country beyond chasing money and women. In Thailand this could be muay thai or Buddhism. In Japan this could be anime or cosplay. In China this could be mahjong or calligraphy. This could even be something broader that crosses country borders, such as history or architecture. If you’re like me, this could be photography, something that works well in every country.
As a photographer, I have to pay close attention to everything going on around me. I want to find my locale’s interesting and notable points, as those always make for the best photos. Photography forces me to interact with and be more aware of my local environment. It also makes me excited to see a new city or country, as I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to shoot photography there. What will the street life be like in Jakarta? What food will I be able to photograph in Kyoto? How will people react to having their picture taken in Yangon? These questions run through my head as I move around Asia, and traveling to these places to find out with my own eyes is the best way to learn. This hobby keeps me in touch with my surroundings, and this helps me stay interested much longer than the average expat.
I don’t I have all the answers you need to live happily abroad, but I do believe that applying the tips I’ve outlined above in your life overseas will surely make your experience a more positive and fulfilling one. Every expat goes through high and low phases, as that’s just part of culture shock and adjusting to a different environment. Incorporating these tips into your life overseas might just be what keeps you overseas once you inevitably reach one of those lows.
Be patient, expect the unexpected, keep opinions to yourself until asked for, save some money, make your health a top priority, make chasing women a low priority, constantly be developing a marketable skill, appreciate something meaningful about your new environment, and always be aware of what else is out there. Chances are you’ll do quite well overseas. I wish my readers the best of luck on their journeys overseas.