Winston Wu, the Taiwanese-American founder of HappierAbroad.com, tells me a bit about his background and his observations and experiences living and traveling all over Asia and Russia for the last decade. He also gives us an inside look at what it’s like to live life as a digital nomad, a lifestyle that so many of us aspire to have. Read the full interview below to learn more about who Winston Wu really is, and why he left America more or less permanently to live a life “happier abroad.” (Ness in bold font and Winston in regular font):
I don’t think you need much of an introduction, as we all probably already know who you are, but could you let us know your age and what kind of person you consider yourself to be?
I’m in my early 40s. I’m kind of a philosophical type, so I like to think deep. I don’t just stick to practical issues like most people would. I’m a deep thinker, a free thinker, and a truth seeker. I’m also very genuine, honest, and down to earth. I like to tell it like it is.
At what age did the idea of moving abroad to seek greener pastures first come to your mind? And what do you think triggered that?
I first thought of the idea in my late 20s, largely due to my frustrations with the dating scene in America. It was very hard for me to meet girls, and even when I did, they would usually blow me off – say that I’m not their type, tell me they had a boyfriend, or say that they only like me as a friend, etc. I reached a point where I didn’t want to waste any more years of my life being alone – I wanted romance, love, or at least a fun dating life.
In the late 90s, the whole “Russian mail order bride” idea was kind of taking off in America, which caught my attention. I figured that maybe I stood a chance at finding a woman in Russia, and then in 2002 I made my first trip to Russia. That was the year that I discovered my own “happier abroad” – that going overseas would lead to a much happier dating and social life.
The dating scene in America is radically different than what you can find in most of Asia, that’s for sure. If I understand correctly, besides just the United States, you’ve also lived in Russia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and China. How long did you spend in each country?
Over the span of three trips, I lived and traveled across Russia for a total of about one year. It wasn’t one straight year. I lived in the Philippines from 2007 to 2011 – about four years. I still go to the Philippines for regular visits on and off. I’ve visited family back in Taiwan for months at a time my whole life, but I lived in Taiwan in the early 90s as a teenager for one year, as a result of my toxic high school life back in the United States. I was getting so depressed that I couldn’t even study, so I took a break from all that by staying in Taiwan. That year off from high school really helped develop who I am today. And when I was living in the Philippines, I would go back to Taiwan frequently to visit my parents, sometimes up to six months at a time. That was also a great time to work on my website and my business, as Taiwan had far less distractions than the Philippines. I went to China for the first time in 2015, so the country is still somewhat new to me. I spent about seven months living there in Shenzhen.
I’ve been all over China, but I’ve yet to see any of Guangdong, the province Shenzhen is in. I’ve heard good things about Shenzhen though, as it seems to be universally liked by most Western expats.
What’s the single best experience you’ve ever had abroad, and what’s the worst?
I wouldn’t say there was one single greatest moment, rather just dating women across Russia and Asia overall has been great to me. It makes me feel high and alive. Even when it hasn’t worked out for me, at least I’m in the game, and I’ve tried.
The single worst experience had to be getting mugged in Russia back in 2004. A Russian “friend” set me up to be ambushed at a park late at night, because he wanted to get ahold of my valuable video camera that he would later use to extort money out of me. I thought those kind of things only happened in the movies, but no, it actually happened to me in Russia.
I can’t say I’ve ever been mugged or set up in my time overseas, but I’ve had a few close calls.
You make a passive income from your website. Can you give us an idea about how exactly a website can generate income? Are there any tips you can give to newbies, such as myself, on how to monetize a website?
The most important yet most difficult thing to do is driving traffic to your website. I started writing about my trips to Russia in the early 2000s, and I had developed an infamous reputation among the Russian bride community. Over the years I had built up a regular email list of people who were interested in my stories about Russia, so once I finally built my own website and forum, HappierAbroad.com, people on that mailing list served as the initial traffic to my new website. I don’t have any special web design skills, so I think what really drove people to my website was my interesting stories, as I have a passion for writing. And back in 2002, not much of anybody was preaching to go overseas for a better and fulfilling life like I was.
There are a couple of ways to make a website work. One way is to take an existing idea and make it better than the competitors. You have to do something the competitors haven’t quite done yet or just be better than them. The second way is to have a unique idea that no one has tried. I think this way is easier, as it’s hard to go into an existing market and be better than your competitors. For example, realistically you’re not going to be able to make a book website that’s going to be better than Amazon.
I went with this second way myself, by creating the Happier Abroad self-help movement. Almost all other self-help gurus preach staying in America to fix your own personal situation, whereas I believe going abroad is the key to fixing many of your problems. Telling people to leave their home countries as a solution to their problems is a controversial and offensive message to many people, but it’s one I believe in.
So once you have some traffic, there are a number of ways you can monetize it – affiliate ads, Google pay-per-click ads (Adsense), making commission from other websites, having a PayPal donate button, selling e-books, selling products or services and so on.
How much money do you make every month? Do you find that it affords you a pretty decent standard of living?
When I started my website in 2007, I only made maybe a couple hundred US dollars a month, but then it slowly climbed to 500, then 600, then 700, and then a thousand. At one point it even reached 2,000, though it tends to fluctuate around 1,500 or so. Sometimes advertisers or sponsors will cancel, or sometimes the site will have less traffic than usual, but now the income is mostly stable. I also make some passive income, maybe 800 a month or so, from rental properties my family owns back in the US.
As long as I budget well and live very modestly in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, or China, I can pretty much get by. I’m good at saving too, so I’ve built up quite a bit of savings from living modestly. I think I have a pretty good expat lifestyle.
Making almost $2,000 a month from being your own boss and making a passive income is pretty good I say! What are the pros and cons of making a living the way you do?
Of course being able to work when you want by setting your own schedule is a big pro. And since so much of my income is passive, I can lay on the beach and still be making money. I don’t necessarily have to trade X amount of time for Y amount of money, so to say. This also gives me a lot of freedom in choosing where I want to live. My work is portable, so I can live in almost anywhere – the Philippines, China, Europe, you name it.
The cons – this kind of work requires a lot of self-discipline. You have to be passionate and really believe in what you’re doing. You can’t just follow a formula or a routine and hope for the best. And because there’s no pressure and the fact that you have so much freedom with this kind of work, it can be easy to slack off. There’s no direct driving force to make you get work done. You have to motivate yourself. Also, the money fluctuates a lot – you might make very little one month, but then a whole lot the next.
And finally, because you work alone and you’re not part of a team, this kind of work can get really lonely. There’s not really any camaraderie like when you work in an office with coworkers. You have to go out and put in effort to really have any kind of social life. Life can also get more complicated when owning a website. Suddenly you have to worry about SPAM, running out of disk space, finding the right server, etc.
To someone like me, it sounds like the pros far outweigh the cons. My goal is to be doing something like you’re doing by the end of the decade.
Before your Happier Abroad days, did you work in any other industries?
Yeah, back in the US I used to work some office jobs like data entry and filing. All of that was pretty boring. In the 90s, I wanted to become an actor, so I did some stand-in extra work and corporate video work. In between that, I would do some marketing and promotion work like passing out flyers and promoting products at trade shows. That was fun because I got to talk to a lot of different people in different locations.
However, I never really had a real career. Once I realized I wanted to get out of the US back in the early 2000s, I started working at temp jobs found for me by job hunting agencies. I didn’t want to get a permanent job and be tied down in the US, so it was good working for these temp agencies, as I never had to lie to employers about wanting permanent employment, which is what most employers wanted at the time. All the money I made from these temp jobs helped provide me with the money I needed to relocate out of the US. I think my good karma and destiny helped to bring all these jobs when I needed them the most.
I wasn’t really too familiar with your background before you ultimately started living abroad, so this is all interesting to know.
Next topic – I would classify your website as being one of the many “manosphere” sites on the web today. Are you familiar with Roosh Valizadeh, one of the leading figures of the neomasculinity movement? How do you feel about people like him, as there’s a lot of overlap between your and his movements? Of course you two as individuals are radically different, but you do share many of the same viewpoints.
I don’t follow Roosh V much, rather I just hear about him third hand on my forum, and some of my close friends like to follow him, too. I don’t really have much of an opinion of him, but I’m aware that his forum has pretty strict rules, and that they ban people pretty quickly, whereas over on my forum, we’re far more tolerating of differentiating viewpoints, and we don’t clamp down on people like they do. You’d have to be a really nasty person to get banned on my forum.
I don’t know him personally of course, but I’d guess he’s probably less easygoing than I am, and maybe he’s more judgmental, too. I’m really laid-back, open-minded, and easygoing, but I don’t really picture him being the same.
However, concerning the manosphere movement as a whole, I think they’re doing a really good job at fighting feminism and fighting for men’s rights. They often expose just how harmful and unjust feminism and liberalism can be towards men. We see eye to eye on that. But on the other hand, I think they’re a little too cynical and negative towards women. I feel they paint all women with a broad brush. And some of these manosphere sites don’t promote going abroad for happiness as much as they should.
So it seems like you both share the same core beliefs, but you both feel differently in how to go about fixing things.
Anybody who’s read your work or participated in your forum is surely familiar with how discontent you are with America as a nation. But are there any aspects to America that you find yourself missing after living abroad for such long periods of time?
Sure – America has a lot of beautiful nature and good national parks that are very well-preserved. Driving through Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and even the Pacific Northwest, there’s so much beautiful land that’s great for camping, hiking, and exploring. The fresh air and the trees – the land just feels so refreshing in America. When I’m in Asia on the other hand, nature just feels kind of dirty, or at least not as fresh as the nature in America, like say the redwood forests in California for example.
I also like the consumer choices available in the US. There are so many great choices because America is a consumer culture. But that feels empty and soulless in the long run. Customer service is also good in the US, as they really try to please the customer.
I personally tend to really miss the food back in America. We Americans are really quite open towards new and different foods in comparison to the people here in Asia. American food proportions are extremely generous, and the American food scene is extremely diverse in both local and foreign cuisines – far more so than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.
You’re right. There’s so much variety when it comes to food in America, and the taste of food is very rich, too. For example, the Mexican food in the US has much more taste and flavor than the Mexican food in Mexico. They’ve got to be putting something in the food in America – some chemicals or MSG, who knows. And America surely has the best pizza in the world too, even better than the pizza in Italy. Maybe America’s pizza is less healthy than Italian pizza, but the pizza just tastes so much better in America.
It seems like we as Americans take good food ideas from other countries and then run with them, greatly improving upon the original formula. Whereas in Asia they often do the reverse – they adapt food ideas from foreign countries, but then they subtract so much from the original recipe that one is left with food that’s barely recognizable and much less savory as a result.
Moving on – living an extensive life abroad has surely helped shape who you are in many ways. In what ways do you think you’ve changed since first taking the plunge all those years ago?
I’m a happier person of course. I feel more alive and feel like life has more meaning now. There’s a lot more adventures to be had overseas, and I meet more people, and I get to talk to more women. Now I also have more control in my life, and I can change things if I don’t like them. I don’t have to put all my eggs in one country’s basket, as I can just move somewhere else if I don’t like things in one place. I’ve also become more broad-minded and have an expanded view of the world.
People have to understand that there’s no one country in the world that’s gonna have it all. Certain countries have certain nice aspects about them – maybe Thailand has nice food, whereas China and the Philippines have great dating opportunities, and maybe Malaysia has a great cost to standard of living ratio. But all these countries also have their downsides, which will inevitably start to bug you. So if you can think and live more globally and tap into the best things that each country has to offer, while minimizing and avoiding their downsides, you’ll likely be happier than if you just move to one country and put all your eggs in that country’s basket. Be a resident of the entire world, not a resident of just one country.
That’s right. One of my well-traveled friends always says “don’t look for water in the desert.” In other words, don’t expect certain good things in countries where those good things are rare or don’t exist.
Being such an opinionated person who doesn’t try to hide his identity has surely brought you a lot of negative attention over the years. What’s the most bizarre or scariest thing to happen to you as a result of your infamy?
Well, generally when people recognize me out on the streets, the attention is mostly positive. When people don’t like me, they usually just ignore me. But I’ve had people write bad things about me online, I’ve had hackers hack into my website and damage things or take down my website, and I’ve had people hack into my mail server and send out SPAM en masse. These things are usually fixable, though. Nothing too serious.
On the other hand, having some fame can also have its perks. How has small scale fame benefited you?
If you have a popular website like I do, then advertisers will contact you and pay you to feature their ads on your website. This is partly how I make my living, so that’s an economic benefit for me. Sometimes people also contact me to do interviews, like you and I are doing right now. And if I ever travel somewhere where I have a fan, that fan will sometimes treat me to dinner or something. But it’s really not much. I’m never on TV, nor do I ever get any coverage in the mainstream media.
I suppose that’s certainly better than nothing. Have you ever been recognized on the street, either inside or outside of America?
It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, it’s usually outside of America, as I don’t really associate with a whole lot of people in the US. It’s happened to me a few times in the Philippines and once in Taiwan.
Interesting that you’ve only been recognized overseas – somehow I figured it would’ve been the other way around. How has your love life been since going abroad for the first time all those years ago? Do you feel successful in the realm of international dating and romance?
Yes and no. In the beginning, I was so ecstatic at how much easier it was to meet girls in Russia and Eastern Europe. I’d often exchange numbers with girls and meet them for coffee or dinner, but back in the US, I could never even get a girl to meet me, as they would always have some excuse. So my dating life overseas was a big step up from what it had previously been back in America.
But once you start to date so many women, your standards naturally go up, so now I’m pickier than before. I also realize now that only a few people in this world are ever truly going to love me and that most dates with women are only superficial. But even if most of these girls only turn out to be friends, I still feel that’s better than nothing. Love is a different ballgame, and it’s not going to be easy no matter what.
Of all the different nationalities of women you’ve come across, are any of them your favorite?
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was mostly into white women, but my tastes have since changed. Once I went to Asia, I realized that the women there were much more feminine, and I also felt like I vibed better with them, probably because I’m Asian, too. So now I’m more into Asian women.
But I can appreciate different ethnicities of women for different things. Filipina women are usually the best for a girlfriend experience, because they’re the easiest to get along with, as they’re so sweet and easy-going. In terms of pure physical attractiveness, I’d say Chinese women are better than Filipinas. They age better, have better skin, and just look better altogether. Even Filipino people themselves agree with this. However, Chinese women are more judgmental and not as easy to get along with. So I don’t have one favorite above them all – I just like different women for different reasons.
That’s a good answer, and I agree with you. Now moving on to another topic – when you travel overseas, what’s your style? What does a typical trip consist of?
Since I’m self-employed, I don’t really have much of a schedule to adhere to. So the first time I take a trip somewhere, it’s usually just a “scouting trip.” I go there, look around, soak in the vibes, talk to the people and the women, and try to form a first impression. I don’t make specific plans, rather I just take things day by day and go with the flow. If I like it there, I’ll try to stay longer, but if not, I might try a different part of the country or just leave altogether. But no matter how much I like a country, if I stay too long, the country will start to grow stale. Everyone needs a change of scenery every once in a while.
I like to take multiple trips to the same destination, too. I find that the second time to a country is usually better than the first.
Are there any tips you can give to newbies who may be contemplating living a life abroad, but are hesitant to take the plunge?
Assuming you’re not happy with your life in America, then I say don’t think about it and just do it. Less talk, more action. The first time you go overseas is the scariest time, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. You’ll start thinking to yourself that you wish you had done it sooner. And if you like it a lot, it’ll almost become an addiction.
As the saying goes, you regret more the things you didn’t do, than the things you did. So it’s better to do something than nothing. Even if you don’t like it, at least you tried and can learn from that mistake.
Back in 2009 when I first moved to China, I did very little research and planning prior to moving to the country. This had some disadvantages, but overall I think it was a big positive and a great decision. I got to learn about the country as I saw it day by day, and I didn’t let my fears stop me from moving by dwelling on the “what if’s” too much. I say just let things surprise you – don’t microplan and over-research everything. Some things are worth planning for, while others are not.
It takes a lot of guts and open-mindedness to do that. You have to embrace the unknown, whereas most people fear the unknown. But once you embrace the unknown, everything only gets easier. Trust your destiny and go with the flow.
Of all the countries you’ve traveled in the world, which one has the best food? Which one has the worst food?
No matter where I go, I can always find some food that I like. America probably has the best food in terms of taste, but it’s just too unhealthy. China has a lot of variety, but that’s just variety with their own ethnic Chinese food, not international food. However, the food there is tasty and low cost.
I found the food in Russia to be kinda tasteless and bland, but it was pretty healthy. There were very few chemicals or preservatives in the food there. Eastern European food is pretty wholesome and natural, too. Local Filipino food also doesn’t have a very popular reputation among foreigners in the country, but on the upside, there’s plenty of foreign food also available in the Philippines. I’ve also heard really good things about Thai food.
Thai food is pretty good, though I personally got tired of eating it every day for three years in a row. I guess the same would be true for any country. The food in Malaysia is better to my tastes, but yeah, Thai food is definitely one of the best in the region.
Do you find yourself socializing much with other foreigners when overseas, or do you mostly like to keep to yourself?
If they’re friendly and have something interesting to say, then I enjoy socializing with other foreigners. I’ve encountered a lot of older Western men overseas who just talk on and on and on and never let you get a word in, so I don’t really like talking with those kind of guys, as I find communicating with them very draining. But if the foreigner is down-to-earth, sincere, and intelligent, then yeah, I love talking to them.
I’ve also met a lot of Westerners overseas, particularly females, whom you have to be so politically correct and only say positive things about your host country with. Talking with them gets so boring, because I can’t talk about any deep or meaningful topics. As someone who’s into philosophy and also an introvert, I like deep topics, not superficial ones.
I can understand your viewpoint, as I’ve met countless other foreigners during my years living here in Asia. Most of them are just average people whom I’d probably have little or nothing to do with back home. I’ve also met a lot of oddballs and social rejects. But occasionally I meet other foreigners whom I share the same hobbies and interests with, and our personalities vibe well together, so I’m naturally more attracted to hanging around with those kind of foreigners, but they are few and far between. I also tend to gravitate more towards foreigners who have lived in multiple countries, as I can appreciate their broader view of the world, at least much more so than the foreigners who just stick with one country and never move again.
How does your family, who are mostly first generation Taiwanese immigrants, feel about your website and lifestyle? Do they support you?
They saw how depressed, lonely, and miserable I was when I was still living in the US, but now they can see that my current lifestyle makes me feel much more happy and alive. They don’t necessarily agree with some of the viewpoints expressed on my website, but they accept what I’m doing and what I believe in, because they can see I’m happier as a result.
I also think they’ve learned a lot from me and the things I’ve learned from my experiences overseas. I think I’ve really opened up their minds in many ways – I’m kind of like their spiritual, cultural, and philosophical teacher. They appreciate me more and more, even though we’re fundamentally different.
My parents are also much more open and lenient than the typical Chinese-American parents who can be very demanding and expecting you to conform. I think my parents are a gift from God, because there’s no way I could have this lifestyle if they weren’t as open as they are.
Interesting – do you have any people whom you look up to or consider to be an inspiration?
When I was a child, I idolized Captain Kirk and Spock from Star Trek. Captain Kirk was so brave and decisive, and Spock was so logical and pragmatic. I lacked those qualities as a child growing up in America, so I looked up to those who had them.
Nowadays, I look up to some of my expat friends and advisors whom I’ve met from my forum. They have a lot of advice and wisdom to offer, so I’m always looking to them when I need help.
Where would you like to be, location-wise and career-wise, ten years from now?
As far as location, I don’t really know. I’ve only been to 14 countries so far, and there’s still so much I haven’t seen. I think some people just aren’t meant to settle down and are meant to be lifelong travelers/nomads. I want to keep moving around and seeing new places, but I’m also getting older and slowly running out of energy. I feel conflicted.
Ultimately, where I settle down in the future will probably be wherever I find my soulmate. I’d like to find a Chinese wife someday and maybe even settle down in China, but I feel the most compatible culturally and personality-wise in Europe, so I’d even consider living in Europe someday. I’m really not sure if Europe would be good for me in the long run, though. I like dating more in Asia, but I like socializing more in Europe, so I’m torn between two places.
Career-wise, I would like to see my website get more popular and help more people. I’d also like to get more coverage in the mainstream media and have more interviews, documentaries, and maybe even write a bestselling book.
So after it’s all said and done, would you do it all over again? That is creating Happier Abroad and living a life overseas. Any regrets or things you wish you did differently?
Of course I’d do it all over again! The only regret I have is that I didn’t start sooner. I started going overseas when I was 29 years-old. I wasted so much of my youth being miserable in the US. I would’ve been so much happier and had many more positive experiences had I been overseas during that time.
I’ve been lucky, and I’ve followed my true destiny by opening my website and living a life overseas. I believe if you follow your destiny, God or the gods will help you and other great things will also happen to you along the way – this has certainly been true for my life.
I’m 29 now, and I couldn’t imagine how different my life would be if I was just now moving overseas for my first expat experience. I’m glad I started this lifestyle as early as I did.
Anyways, I’m glad you have no regrets in doing what you do, Winston. I know I’ve certainly learned and taken away a lot from your forum over at Happier Abroad. I know you’re a busy man, so thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me today. Good luck to you in the future.
This interview took place on January 24th, 2016. All photos were provided by Winston himself.