When American Economy Collapsed, We Found Jobs Abroad
Fantastic Alternative to Underemployment
Seeing the World and Somebody Else Pays
Intimidated By Saudi Stereotypes
Venturing Outside Comfort Zone
Know Your Limits
What Are You Running Away From?
Can a Trailing Spouse and Children Find Happiness Abroad Too?
Fear, Disorientation and Sheer Panic
Surge of Patriotism, Fear of Being Pegged, Stereotyped
Allure of International Travel and Adventure
Ultimately, A Courageous Leap of Faith is Necessary
“The born traveler — the man who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticize, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognizes that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance — has always been comparatively rare.” –Hugh and Pauline Massingham (The Englishman Abroad).
When the American Economy Collapsed, We Found Jobs Abroad
With the American economy in freefall, 2009 was the winter of our discontent. Both my wife Lucia and I lost nearly half our incomes. Located on the East Coast of the U.S., near Chapel Hill, North Carolina to be precise, she was an English teacher and I was a communications consultant. Suddenly, with little warning, several of our clients could no longer afford our services. Others dramatically scaled back or delayed payments weeks or months. For four harrowing months, we tapped into savings and knew not what would happen next. Companies were laying off workers right and left; the U.S. job market was bleak, and the unemployment rate was climbing rapidly.
Then Lucia had an idea: Why not apply for jobs overseas?
There are still plentiful jobs in some international markets, especially those with expanding populations, she noted. My own internet survey of world economies in 2009pinpointed economic growth in Turkey, Poland, Germany, India, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, China, Australia, Singapore, Costa Rica, Canada, Taiwan, Indonesia, Scandinavia, Australia , New Zealand, and the Gulf States.
In a global economy, English is the language of education, commerce, and business. As The Economist magazine observed, “In much of the world, knowledge of English has become a basic skill of modern life comparable to the ability to drive a car or use a personal computer.”
And Americans have an international reputation for being hard-working, entrepreneurial, no-nonsense, professionals with high standards. While it’s not always true, we benefit from the stereotype.
Yes, by accident of birth, I had a skill coveted by many international organizations that I didn’t realize I had. I’m a native English speaker. And an American. It gave me a leg up for certain jobs overseas.
Fantastic Alternative to Underemployment and Under-Compensation in the US
In 2010, when US unemployment was well above 9.5 percent, US companies created 1.4 million jobs overseas, according to the Economic Policy Institute. “Companies will go where there are fast-growing markets and big profits,” Jeffrey Sachs, globalization expert and economist at Columbia University, told the Associated Press. “What’s changed is that companies today are getting top talent in emerging economies, and the U.S. has to really watch out.”
Caterpillar, DuPont, and Coca-Cola were just a few of the U.S.-based companies that were investing more in overseas markets than in the US, according to the AP. The most traditional path to live and work abroad is through the American military, which is deployed in more than 150 countries. There’s also the foreign service, for which you often have to take the foreign service exam.
We have several friends who have made good livings as full-time English language tutors. At a minimum, their training included the CELTA — Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which could be garnered in weeks or months — but often, they earned a masters degree in TESOL.
For parents and educators, there are networks of American embassy schools, Department of Defense Dependents Schools, and international English-speaking schools to research, not only for placing children, but for teaching and administrative jobs as well as potentially creating a strong sense of community abroad. And in an increasingly global economy, there are almost always American corporations expanding abroad, as well as jobs with defense contractors abroad, humanitarian and international aid organizations, and international public relations firms. Full-time jobs as journalists in foreign bureaus are shrinking, but writers can often get their foot in the door by freelancing while doing something else to make ends meet.
A former colleague started out as a webmaster for a public relations firm in the US, ventured abroad to teach English, submitted freelance assignments to major news organizations, and made his way up to becoming foreign correspondent for one of the world’s leading newspapers, and contributor to major magazines. This career path would simply not have opened to him if he stayed in the US.
For myself, I earned a masters degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University back in the 1980s, and worked for newspapers, magazines, websites, a public relations firm, and as a communications consultant. After teaching English in Turkey and working in public relations in Abu Dhabi, I was hired as an instructor at a local university. This has opened up opportunities that would be hard to match in the US.
And for the most adventuresome and independent, there is the US Peace Corps, which currently employees nearly 7000 paid volunteers in 63 countries around the world. These experiences frequently put Americans in their twenties on a lifelong path of service in the international arena.
Exporting labor will probably never be a large-scale solution to America’s economic problems. Some countries in Asia readily accept that 10 percent or more of their workers need to live abroad, and send remittances back home to sustain their relatives. I don’t think America could ever accept this. Historically, too much immigration and dislocation have caused alienation and social turmoil. But on a smaller scale, for internationally-oriented, open-minded citizens, especially those hungry for adventure, living abroad could be a fantastic alternative to dead-end jobs, declining wages, long-term unemployment, or retirement blues.
Seeing the World and Someone Else Pays
The biggest unanticipated fringe benefit of living and working abroad is seeing parts of the world I could only dream about. Not only did we thoroughly explore Turkey, we cheaply visited relatively nearby countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and France. Once we moved to the United Arab Emirates, we discovered that we could use the vouchers for our annual flights home to meet family in the UK or Europe, or fly cheaply — $300 roundtrip — to countries in Asia. My current tally of countries’ visited is 40.
Intimidated By Saudi Reputation
Shortly after emailing her resume, Lucia was immediately accepted by a university in Saudi Arabia. The salary offer was low, so she replied that she would consider it only if the salary was doubled. The university immediately agreed to do so.
A military family we met at a Haw River landing outside our home near Chapel Hill, NC had just returned from Saudi, and they regaled us with tales of the harsh life there. Celebrating Christmas is officially illegal, they said. Department store attendants might unofficially guide Americans back into store rooms where Christmas items could be found, but public displays were forbidden. This family also told us that driving toward Mecca , the highway divides, with signs instructing “good Muslims” to continue on a well-maintained road, while “infidels” were sent down bumpy, dusty roads full of potholes.
The more we researched Saudi Arabia, where women, even foreign women, we read, were forced to wear veils in public and could not drive, it just seemed like too radical a lifestyle change. Banishing ourselves back several centuries did not have much appeal.
(And yet, over the years we have heard stories of educators — female as well as male — and businessmen who had mostly positive experiences in Saudi Arabia if they experienced close-knit communities in their compounds and if relatively high pay compensated for the “hardship post.” The phenomenon of the American expat finding comfort and refuge in Saudi Arabia was even the theme of a movie in 2016 starring Tom Hanks, “Hologram for the King.”)
When Lucia received a job offer from Meliksah University in central Turkey, Kayseri to be exact — a city of a million people — we were intrigued. Nearly everything we heard about Turkey, a secular Muslim country, was positive. The university offered to pay roundtrip flights for the entire family, including our 12-year-old son, Alex. Housing in a modern apartment complex was included.
Health insurance for the family—something we worried about, since our premiums had gone through the roof, more than $1,500 a month for a family of three—was also included.
Venturing Outside One’s Comfort Zone
We both had dreamed of living, working and traveling abroad. I often quoted an old aphorism: “He who doesn’t travel thinks his mother’s soup is the best.” He thinks his own country is best at everything. Or worst at everything, if he has an inferiority complex.
He also tends to be less open-minded, less creative, a more rigid thinker, less able to negotiate, and more likely to make judgments based on prejudice, theory and dogma rather than observation and experience. Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a link between open-mindedness, creativity, ability to negotiate, and living abroad. Expats, the study concluded, have a creative edge.
My older son Matthew absorbed this lesson well. From his college graduation in 2004 through 2011, he worked for cruise lines as a sound engineer in the entertainment division. By age 27, he had seen far more of the world than his parents, while saving thousands of dollars a month because he didn’t have to purchase or maintain an automobile, pay for food or rent an apartment in the states. He found he could spend a couple of months a year on vacation in Eastern Europe or the Philippines, where costs are far lower than in the U.S., and live like a king.
The travel and hospitality industries hire a lot of foreign labor. The hours are long, the working conditions and the pay can vary, but my son mostly had a good time, exploring more than 100 countries over seven years. Read our account of a European cruise.
From 2011 to 2015, he worked as a sound engineer in Dubai, UAE. The work hours were inexorable, but he received overtime pay and learned a lot, and by the time he left, he had saved enough money to buy a house and a new car in North Carolina. Even though he took a significant pay cut from Dubai to NC, the far cheaper cost of living in NC meant his wife didn’t have to work when their child was small. So, overall, working abroad put him several steps ahead financially from some of his peers.
But to live overseas successfully, you have to have the right mindset of flexibility and adaptability. Complaining loudly as you walk down the street in a foreign country, as I saw one American do, that “these people do not speak English,” is just not cool.
And even if you’re willing to learn a language or put up with language barriers, living abroad is a bit of a crapshoot, requiring willingness to risk. Things might not work out. You might naively accept a job and then discover your paychecks are routinely “delayed” or you are expected to work long hours without overtime compensation.
You might have to quit or leave feeling short-changed or unjustly treated, and end up back at home, unemployed, living with relatives, feeling defeated, tail between your legs and less money than you left with. You’ve got to be willing to venture outside your comfort zone, and see if you can, over time, make the uncomfortable feel reasonably comfortable.
Good travelers strive to get out of their comfort zone. And the hallmark of a great travel experience is that “when a trip does get us out of our comfort zone… we actually find ourselves in it,” wrote veteran travel writer and PBS host Rick Steves, on his blog as he concluded his 2011 trip to Turkey. “When we travel, like that balloon lifting off a wild Anatolian field, we are — at least for a while — free from the bonds of our culture and ready to experience our world with a different perspective. What becomes of that freedom and perspective after our balloon touches down is up to each of us.”
Know Your Limits
I’m not sure I could be happy cruising the world for seven years like my son Matthew. I accompanied him on an 18-day cruise of the Mediterranean (free for family members), and by the end of the trip, after three consecutive sea days due to inclement weather, I felt a bit like a rat in a trap. I’d wake up in the morning mostly looking forward to eating and drinking the day away. “If I had your job, I think I would be a very fat alcoholic,” I said to Matthew. “I admire you for having so much self-control.”
On trips overseas, I’ve met Americans who became homesick a week or two after their arrival. “I miss driving to Walmart,” one young American whined. “I don’t like living without a car and depending on public transportation,” said another. “I miss watching Monday Night (American) football,” was a third complaint. Some have become so homesick they abort their professional or academic commitments and return to the states after a few months, preferring unemployment at home to working or studying abroad.
This, if at all possible, you do not want to do. Before you commit and embark, do a searching personal inventory of what you think will be right for you, and make a commitment to it for at least six months, unless your safety and well-being are at risk.
One important question to ask yourself before moving overseas is, “What am I running away from?” There is a whole genre in American literature of expats running away from their past or from themselves. It seems to be a prime motivation for moving abroad. It’s even a standard question on the Peace Corps recommendation form: “Are you aware of any situations or problems the applicant may be trying to avoid by going overseas?”
In our case, we were running away from economic travails due to underemployment in 2009. Elliot Holt, author of You Are One of Them, a novel about an American who moves to Moscow shortly after the Cold War ended and is transformed by the experience, made this point when she was discussing expat literature on National Public Radio.
“Lots of expats are running away from something, even if they convince themselves that they’re running toward something,” Holt observed. “Some people get attached to their identity as expatriates because it gives them something to prop themselves up on. You know, you come home for the holidays …”
In our travels, we have met expats who were obviously running away from bad marriages, or to put distance between themselves and difficult relatives, or from a dried-up economy. Historically, America has had a reputation as a land of plenty, a land of limitless opportunity. Immigrants moved to America, not away from it, to better themselves and their children, and mythologically, to pursue the American dream. We don’t hear much about the reverse — Americans leaving the states because they can make a better life overseas. I wonder if we might start to see trend stories about Americans moving abroad because the American economy no longer works for them.
Certainly my wife and I were extremely relieved when we moved to Turkey and no longer had to pay $1,500 a month for health insurance for a family of three. Certainly when Americans retire, they can live quite comfortably on social security alone in many parts of the world.
For my family, the American dream still exists. But for better and for worse, it mainly exists outside the United States. We do, of course, maintain the hope that we’ll return for better times in the US. And to eventually retire near family and longtime friends in the US.
My sons learned a long-term lesson when living abroad, that they will probably teach to their children. Even if America is going through a period of low job growth and high long-term unemployment, some parts of the world will continue to have good economic news and strong growth. They will know to broaden their job search to the entire world.
“The spirit of capitalism – risk-taking, saving, investing, hard work – all those virtues have now migrated and are happily ensconced in China, India, Indonesia, Korea and Japan – the countries which we never thought would ever get out of poverty,” Lord Desai, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, told the BBC. “If Asia has vigorous energetic capitalism and we have tired old capitalism, we will end up paying a huge price and we will trade our prosperity for their prosperity.” Capitalism has renewed itself by migrating eastwards, he observed.
Can a Trailing Spouse and Children Find Happiness Abroad Too?
For couples or partners or families, living abroad can be especially challenging, because two or more people need to adjust, not just one. My wife Lucia was the one to secure work, first in Turkey, and then in the United Arab Emirates. I was the “trailing spouse” in both countries. Luckily, I found work quickly and easily in both places. And ultimately, a good, well-paying job on a career path.
We were lucky that our teenage son loved his international and American embassy school experiences. Though he has now graduated from high school in Abu Dhabi, he will always have fond memories of both Turkey and the UAE. He thinks of Abu Dhabi, or at least his tight-knit American school community, as “home.”
All the pieces of our personal family puzzle fit together for several years. This was the key to our long-term happiness living abroad.
Fear, Disorientation and Sheer Panic
Traveling to countries where you don’t know the language or the customs or the money, especially if you’re not part of a cruise or tour group, can induce very real and appropriate anxiety, if not fear and disorientation. Suppose I get lost and no one speaks my language? Suppose I’m robbed or run out of money in a place where no one speaks English?
As our departure date for Turkey approached, I began to get cold feet. This was a blind leap into the unknown. I felt like I was about to leap blindly off a tall bridge, not knowing what awaited me below. I did not want to move somewhere I’d be a cultural illiterate. Just as I was experiencing sheer panic at the idea of diving off a proverbial high dive into the unknown, anticipating a radical change in lifestyle and becoming a cultural illiterate in Turkey, I heard Dick Gordon’s public radio interview with Korean American Johann Choian. He sold all his earthly possessions in California to join his girl friend in South Korea. As he arrived at the airport in Seoul, noting that he couldn’t understand a word of the language, going to the ATM and realizing he had no idea how to withdraw money from a machine whose instructions in Korean he could not understand, he experienced an overwhelming moment of sheer panic.
“What have I done?? What kind of fool have I been?” he asked himself. “I am a complete illiterate in this country.”
Pulling himself together emotionally, he mustered the courage to ask a Korean who understood English if he could help him operate the ATM. He had no choice but to trust the honesty of this stranger. In America, he would be in an absolute panic about asking a total stranger to help him with the ATM, for fear of being robbed. But the Korean citizen was glad to help, and averted his eyes when the bank pin number was typed in. From then on, Choian reported, he felt that he was treated like an absolute king by the South Koreans, even though he was a stranger in a strange land.
Surge of Patriotism, Fear of Being Pegged, Stereotyped
Picking up our new passports at the US State Department increased our sense of anticipation. The passports, redesigned in 2007 for the first time since 1993, included all sorts of colorful icons — clipper ships, Mount Rushmore, a long-horn cattle drive, and 13 inspirational quotes, such as:
“Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave,” scrawled in Frances Scott Key’s cursive.
“What a glorious morning for our country.” — Samuel Adams
“We live in a world that is lit by lightning. So much is changing and will change, but so much endures and transcends time. — Ronald Reagan.
As I thumbed through the passport for the first time, I felt a surge of patriotism. I was proud to be an American and felt like I personally would be an ambassador for my country. I told Alex, 12, that he also was a personal representative of America, and ought to consider it with a sense of responsibility to behave well in foreign places.
Then I wondered if maybe the new passport design was over the top, evoking images of brash, wealthy ” ‘Mericans” with a superiority complex loudly asking “feriners” if they can “speaka-de-English.” I read that border guards in poorer countries assume that the colorful American passports are expensive symbols of our country’s wealth in comparison to the rest of the world. Already, by virtue of the document I carried, I was a bit wary of being pegged and stereotyped and deemed “different” because of my nationality.
The truth, I would discover, was that I was indeed different — and privileged — due to accident of birth, because of my nationality. Because I carried that dark blue American passport, I was welcome in all but a handful of countries the world over. Yet I would meet people who, no matter what their intentions, individual circumstances or station in life — simply because they traveled with less favored passports — were automatically stereotyped as untrustworthy to enter many countries.
“Passports are full of codes: by virtue of the colour and country of issue, some are granted privileges, others dismissed,” wrote Arab journalist Faisal Al Yafai in The (UAE) National newspaper. “No other identity document is so laden with meaning, offering some the opportunity to cross particular borders – which is, really, the opportunity to work, to study, to live, to build a family – that others are casually denied.”
Next came unexpected delays in the approval of Lucia’s Turkish work permit. Supposedly, once a work contract is signed, sealed and delivered, there’s a six-week waiting period before airline tickets can be issued. But we also heard of people getting tickets within one week of accepting a job. A friend asked if maybe we needed to offer some baksheesh to “grease their palms.” Had he read too many old novels of life in the Ottoman Empire or is this still the way things are done in the modern nation of Turkey?
I didn’t know. The visas were being handled for us, so we could only hurry up and wait. It was out of our hands and we didn’t even know who to contact. Knowing the truth of Murphy’s Law, as soon as we re-enrolled Alex in another year at his local school in North Carolina and he settled in, as soon as I got re-involved in work in the states, making new appointments and getting new projects, the airline tickets to Turkey would come through. Sigh.
American friends told us that in traveling abroad, we would come to appreciate American efficiency, and not just take it for granted. We might as well flex and chalk these delays up as learning experiences. If we couldn’t flex easily, we weren’t likely to adjust well to the many other cultural differences we were likely to encounter. A greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own culture is one of the benefits of world travel.
For the most part, my fears of being stereotyped as an “ugly American” did not come to pass. If anything, because of my American nationality, I would pegged as part of the world’s economic elite.
Allure of International Travel and Adventure
Both Lucia and I had previous experiences in foreign countries to allay our fears. Independent travel adventures as a young person – not just as part of tours — really help to lay the foundation for independent travel adventures later in life. As a college student, Lucia spent four months as an exchange student in France. When I was in my early twenties, I quit a good job, withdrew $3,000 from my savings account, and set out to discover the world abroad. Why did I do it? In 23 years, I had never made a decision that was entirely my own. I had followed everything according to parental and societal expectation — 16 years of school, and then a professional job as a newspaper reporter. Each phase was a natural progression into the next. Yet, I was in no hurry to tackle the NEXT phase of the conventional middle-class existence: marrying, settling into a split-level house in the suburbs, and planning a family of 1.5 children.
There was a value to risk, I thought. Even if it didn’t work out for the best — if I had to endure a long period of unemployment upon my return or take a job much less interesting than the one I left — it was worth the risk, I thought . I was making a decision for myself; it was my decision alone.
As it turned out, I didn’t see the world, only a small portion of it. In 80 days and 13 countries, traveling from the flat plains of Moscow in the east to the hills of Ireland in the west, from the white nights of Helsinki in the north to the majestic peaks of Bavarian Germany in the South, I experienced sensory overload. It took YEARS to absorb it all, to put it all in context. I learned more and lived more fully in those two and a half months than I possibly could have in a year of graduate school. And for considerably less expense! My mind was packed with so many new experiences that years later I would find myself recalling an anecdote for the first time. For years afterward, I would read books because my curiosity had been sparked on that trip. There is nothing like travel to make history and culture and civilizations come alive.
Inspired by the fresh beauty of my surroundings, I recorded many of my experiences in a journal. I made no claim that my journal entries were definitive portraits of the places I visited. My impressions were undoubtedly colored by my own limitations and by the circumstances of time and itinerary. But world travel most definitely made me a better writer.
That summer was one of the longest, most mind-boggling and utterly stimulating periods of my life. I felt so alive. I yearned to have similar travel experiences again. The risk proved to be well worth it — not only did I enrich my life, but within a month after returning from Europe, I had another good job lined up.
Back then, in my twenties, it all worked out for me fine. But now, well into middle age, with a family and a mortgage to contend with, I was more risk-averse. I was more likely to ask such practical questions as, “What if we can’t rent our house?” and “How would our son get educated in a conservative Muslim town in central Turkey?”
I had to take a leap of faith. Yes, somehow, even in a deep recession, our house would eventually rent. Yes, somehow, for a year or two, we could home-school 12-year-old Alex with online resources and find tutors from the university. If I could continue to work over the Internet with American clients, we could save some money and have enough to explore Turkey, Europe and maybe even the Middle East.
What did we have to lose? At the least, even if we didn’t find suitable employment, we’d get a free trip to Turkey.
Ultimately, A Courageous Leap of Faith Is Necessary
Every country has both its light side and its dark side. Whether living abroad works out for you personally will be a highly individualistic experience.
Before visiting Turkey, I thought of it as an exotic, enchanting land of such deep history and culture that it would be worth the risk to visit and live there for a year even if it didn’t work out for us in the long run. We fell in love with the country and the people, and were sad to leave after just two years. But we needed to do so to give our son an English-speaking curriculum for his five years of secondary school.
Ironically, if we had managed to stay in Turkey for another five years, we would have been forced to leave in 2016, when the university we worked for, and the elementary and high schools where I taught English, were closed under suspicion of being part of the “Gulen coup plotters…creators of ‘parallel state’.”
That’s another story, and a rather incredible one that I do not yet fully understand. But my point is that no, I don’t think reading a few books or a collection of news stories could have foretold our greatly positive experiences in Turkey for two years, or what would have become a highly negative experience if we had to flee in 2016.
Yes, you can gather information to make an informed decision about living and working abroad. But ultimately, you have to go with your gut, follow your heart, be willing to take risks.