What questions should you ask before you move abroad for your career?
Not sure where to start? Josh Steimle gives Communicate Influence some in-depth answers. The influence marketer and MWI agency owner talks about how to manage practical needs, language barriers, dealing with culture shock and more.
Working abroad brings all kinds of benefits, such as exposure to a new culture, new skills and contacts, an enhanced network, and maybe a new language.
Josh moved to Hong Kong in 2013 with his wife and two young children to open an MWI office, and in 2016 repeated the experience by relocating to Shenzhen, China.
Thinking about moving abroad for your career? Read Josh’s interview and gain some valuable insights into what it takes!
Josh, you were working in Utah as the founder of MWI. Life was good and you have an extended family, too. So what prompted you to move abroad, and why China?
It’s not the traditional story of getting a job here, it’s about our family. My wife and I started looking into adopting from China in 2012. We felt impressed to adopt an older child, and one day I turned to her and asked “Why don’t we just move to China?”.
We had always wanted to live abroad and have adventures and that was about as much of an adventure as we could imagine.
Everything lined up with the business and our personal lives and by mid-2013 we had moved to Hong Kong – because we got cold feet about moving directly to China without any prior experience in the region.
After we had been in Hong Kong for a little over three years and established an office which was running itself, we started looking at moving to a new location. We considered Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore, and even went to Singapore to look at apartments. China was off the list because using the internet here is such a pain due to government filtering and that was a bit of a deal breaker for me.
But one night we watched a documentary on Shenzhen, China, from Wired magazine, and as soon as it ended my wife said to me “Why are we moving to Singapore? We should be moving to Shenzhen.” Three weeks later we were living in Shenzhen.
Moving abroad for your career
Prior to your move, how much research did you do about China and Shenzhen?
Not a lot! We had visited several times, because it’s right across the border from Hong Kong, but we mostly just knew that it was a big city and that they don’t speak English as much as in Hong Kong. Actually pretty much nobody in Shenzhen speaks English, not on the streets about town, anyway.
Let’s talk about the basics. Did you travel solo first to find accommodation, or did the whole family relocate? Where did you stay in the early days?
When we moved to Hong Kong I came out on a fact-finding mission. My wife had done a lot of research and identified a few places she thought might fit our needs. The second village I looked at was a perfect match. A few months later we all moved to the general area and stayed in short-term housing, but then it took us two months to find an apartment.
With Shenzhen it was faster. But we also worked a lot harder. We didn’t want to wait that long.
How did you go about finding an apartment? What were your key considerations?
We worked with a lot of realtors in Hong Kong, and real estate is really, really, really expensive in Hong Kong, which is part of why it took so long to find a place there. In the end, a local friend of ours saw a Chinese-language flier pasted on a light pole advertising a place, and she went and looked at it and then called us and said she found us a home.
In Shenzhen my wife looked at over 20 places in two days and found a place that fit our budget and our needs for space, and which was also in an area where we wanted to live. That was a busy weekend.
In those first few weeks, how did you navigate basic day-to-day activities, given that you didn’t know Mandarin or Cantonese? How are your language skills now, after four years in the region?
In Hong Kong they speak Cantonese and read Traditional Chinese characters. I would have loved to learn both, but I was so busy there just wasn’t time, and it’s not very motivating when the Hong Kong people themselves are telling you that Cantonese is a waste of time and you should learn Mandarin, which is what they speak on the mainland. I may have learned 50 words in Cantonese, enough to get around in a taxi.
When we moved to Shenzhen I told myself “You’ll kick yourself the rest of your life if you don’t learn Mandarin and Simplified Chinese characters while you’re living here”. I hired a tutor who came to my house twice a week for six months, and so I can carry on a basic conversation, a bit more than just enough for taxis. Then I got busy and stopped that. I’m still learning Mandarin just by going around, but wish I could justify making more time for studying. It’s difficult. I’m already kicking myself.
The strangeness of moving for work
In the early days, how did you all deal with the strangeness of it all? Was there any culture shock or homesickness? What tactics did you use to manage emotional ups and downs and ensure a smooth transition?
The stranger the better for me – I love it. I had already lived in Manaus, Brazil when I was a 19-year old Mormon missionary, and nothing I’ve experienced in China comes close to that, so it’s all just a fun adventure.
My wife loves the adventure as well, but she deals with the kids more than I do which can be taxing if they don’t like something . . . or even if they do. Kids are a lot of work, regardless.
We’ve networked with other expats and made friends. We travel back to the US once in awhile, and we try to stay busy having fun.
Your daughter and son are school-age and are homeschooled. What prompted this decision? For people who don’t want to homeschool, are there English-speaking educational options?
International schools are about $25,000 per year, per child, in both Hong Kong and Shenzhen. That’s a bit of motivation to homeschool right there. But for us the main reasons are that we think it’s best for our children and their specific needs, and because we want to be around them as much as we can. We only get them until they’re 18 and then that’s it, they’re adults and off on their own.
Your extended families in the U.S. must really miss you all. What do you do to maintain these important connections and ensure relatives continue to see your children growing and developing?
Email, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, and trips. Thank goodness for the internet and cheap flights!
How to network when you move abroad for work
How did you approach networking, with both the Chinese and English-speaking residents?
We met English speakers we met people through our church, but also just around town and through other activities, and through other groups.
With the Chinese it’s tough. They don’t expect us to speak Chinese or necessarily be interested, and even if we do want to interact with them the language barrier makes it very hard.
We’ve made friends with locals who speak English as well, but there are often difficulties with the language. It’s all too easy to just live in a separate world.
Your sleeping hours occur when the West is awake. Has this brought about any difficulties? And how do you manage to stay involved with and connected to the MWI team?
People in the U.S. are very U.S.-centric and expect everyone to do things on a U.S. timezone. I’ve had a lot of phone calls at 1, 2, or 3 a.m. my time.
At the same time it has been great for MWI because it forced me to let go, and forced my partner, Corey Blake, to take over. That has turned out to be great for the business overall, because I tend to make a mess of things if I’m around too much 🙂
How has your presence in Shenzhen impacted MWI?
We wouldn’t have a presence in China at all if I weren’t here, so there’s certainly that, but it’s also good for our business elsewhere, because it shows potential clients that we can do business globally, and that opens doors.
When someone says “We need a digital marketing agency with offices in China and the US,” there aren’t many choices for them. It helps us stand out and win contracts with large clients that would be hard to compete for if we were only in the US.
You may not be involved in your agency’s hiring directly, but what’s your take on candidates who have worked abroad? What kinds of things do you look for in such candidates?
It’s not a must-have, but having worked abroad sure makes a difference. International experience gives someone such a different perspective on people, cultures, and geography.
I think it’s a huge advantage if someone has lived somewhere else, even if only for a year, but especially if they’re learned another language. I’ve never counted, but I think at least half our agency is bilingual, and some are trilingual.
But the most important thing is that the people we hire are nice. They can be smart, hard workers, super talented, etc. but if they’re not nice they don’t last.
Working and living abroad is a life-changing experience. In what ways has being in Asia changed your life – both personally and professionally?
Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness . . .” and I’ve felt my views change as I’ve lived outside the U.S.
Where I grew up, near Los Angeles, there was a large Asian population and for the first time I feel like I understand my childhood neighbors, at least better than I did before.
Professionally, working abroad has opened all sorts of doors. When I started writing for Forbes the editor told me he wouldn’t have given me the chance except that I was moving to Hong Kong and that made me different than other contributors. It has led to speaking opportunities all around Asia and beyond.
Looking back, is there anything you would change or do differently when planning such a big move?
We had our challenges, but I’m not sure they could have been avoided. One thing I’m grateful for was that we were able to make contacts with other Americans living here before we moved and they gave us a lot of helpful advice and made our transition easier.
What insights can you share with people who are thinking about moving abroad for work? Any pros and cons from your perspective that will help people with their decision?
In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says when someone experiences something new – a new process or system, or a new place – their brain has to work harder. This leads to higher stress levels. Once the place becomes memorized, then the brain doesn’t work so hard.
I’ve found that it takes two to three months for the mind to absorb a new place and everything that goes along with living there, and then it becomes the new normal. If it’s hard at first, just do your best, it will get easier.
Any plans to return to the U.S. or work in another country?
We’re planning on moving back to the US in Spring, 2019, to Boston. But my wife has made me promise that after we move back to the US we won’t get stuck there. We want to live abroad again, and maybe for most of the rest of our lives. It’s just too much fun.
Marketer, author and speaker Josh Steimle
Josh Steimle is author of Chief Marketing Offiers at Work, and his articles have been published in Time, Inc., TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and VentureBeat. He’s presented at TEDx, ClickZ, AdTech, MOSA, Echelon, and CommunicAsia.
Josh is also one of the world’s leading influencer marketers. As a thought leader, Josh works with executives and entrepreneurs, guiding them on how to become influencers and thought leaders in their space. He’s also an international speaker on marketing and influence. Find Josh on Linkedin, follow him on Twitter, and find his Facebook page here.
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