Ask the Expat
7 Tips for Living Abroad in Asia Successfully
More than any other continent, Asia is currently the ultimate exotic destination for many Westerners. It is synonymous with spicy food, colorful costumes, bustling markets, crowded streets, and ancient temples. Asia is associated with Eastern mysticism, religions, mythologies, philosophies, and art forms that have entered various forms into Western popular culture. The influence of Asian art on 19th-century Impressionist painters, such as Gauguin and Van Gogh, is just one illustration, as is the popularity of martial arts, yoga, a wide variety of rituals and traditions, and popular music dating back to the 1960s. Being part of what seems like an exotic world while living in Asia is like a dream for many expatriates. However, once the idealized mystique of the new destination fades, foreigners discover that the daily reality of living in Asia is not just about the exotic aesthetic but also the unfamiliar, complicated, earthy, and sometimes downright irritating. We provide tips here to make a successful transition to the country of your choosing and advice on how to research remotely and in person from the many options.
Tip #1: Know Before You Go
Visitors to Asia sometimes need to realize before leaving their homeland that their great job, internship, or study abroad semester comes with a measure of cultural adjustment. There is no Asian country where its people's way of life, customs, and mentality closely resemble those of Western countries. However, you will often find varying expatriate support and local help. As a result, adjusting to the Asian way of life takes time, effort, and a bit of perseverance. So before you start looking at retirement options, a year of study abroad, volunteering, an internship, or looking for a career move to Asia, do some reading and research to learn about the countries that interest you the most. Consider taking a long-term trip to your favorite countries to get more than a passing sense. "Travel is fatal to prejudice," Mark Twain once famously wrote.
Tip #2: What is Your Purpose?
The main challenge for most people planning to live in Asia is to choose a destination that matches the primary purpose for a move abroad:
As a student, you will likely be looking for a city with a great university or selection of language schools, exciting nightlife, and interesting things to do and see.
As a retiree, you are undoubtedly interested in a peaceful, picturesque location with a low cost of living, a pleasant lifestyle, and good medical services.
If you are looking for work in Asia, visa regulations, work culture, salary, benefits, and the quality and cost of urban living are among your top priorities.
As a volunteer, consider the conditions and the projects most commonly needed in different regions of Asia and where you can learn the most for future volunteering at home or abroad.
By clearly laying out the primary purpose and goals for your time in Asia, you will be better able to pick a country that matches your criteria. For example:
If you want to retire to a warm tropical beach town, China is mainly out.
If you want to immerse yourself in Asian culture and teach English, China, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, and several other countries may be appropriate.
As a finance professional, Singapore or even Hong Kong offers a good balance between an attractive salary, a Western lifestyle, and a rewarding work experience.
The more thoughtful you are about your purpose in Asia and what you would like to get out of your stay there, the easier it will be to select the right country.
Tip #3: Explore Where to Go
Deciding which one of Asia's many countries to choose as a destination depends upon many factors. If you are looking for work in Asia, you may want to closely examine the countries where the jobs are (see our article Working in Asia). If you are interested in studying abroad, you must take a serious look at which Asian cultures and languages interest you the most. Only some universities in Asia have English as the primary language of instruction. If you are thinking about studying abroad, it is vital to determine the Asian language that interests you as it may well help you with your career later on. Learning a foreign language is time-intensive, and deciding what language to study should be taken seriously.
Choosing a destination based alone on its global economic and political importance may not be a strong enough motivation to help you survive in a country with unfamiliar culture, language, and ways of life. Pick a destination that will enhance your resume and whose people and culture you also like. That way, you will be much happier, rather than basing your decision on the latest survey of business languages in great demand. Making thoughtful decisions is also true if you are considering moving abroad for a lifestyle change (if you are self-employed and looking for a change, for example) or for retirement. Choose a location that attracts you for more than one single reason. Cheap real estate alone is not reason enough to move somewhere, nor is an easy immigrant visa or low cost of living.
Keep a variety of factors in mind to determine if a country is for you, such as culture, people, religion, way of life, standard of living, business and work culture, language, climate, housing, entertainment, health care, infrastructure, and salary if you are looking for employment in Asia.
Tip #4: Focus on What You Like in Your Chosen Country
Do you like the people, food, culture, climate, entertainment, and recreation in the country of your interest? If you answer yes to most of these items, you have likely found a good match. There are cultural similarities among some Asian cultures, but each country has its unique way of life, culture, often subcultures, and language(s). Take your time to research the details to make an educated choice of your destination. Choosing a destination that is culturally similar to your own or where English is widely spoken is often no easier or better than picking a wildly unfamiliar country. After all, some primary reasons for going abroad are to experience a different culture, language, and way of life.
However, if the adjustment to a foreign culture looks like it might be too much of a struggle or take too long, it may be a better idea to move to a country where you won't suffer too much of what is often termed "culture shock." There are many countries in Asia with large expatriate communities where locals often speak English, familiar foods and amenities are readily available, and Westerners are well-liked and welcome.
Tip #5: Read and Research About Your Chosen County
Successful living in Asia, be it for work, study, retirement, or volunteer work, depends significantly on the research you do before leaving home. Since a different way of life, food, habits, and customs will be a part of your new daily life in Asia, preparing yourself ahead of your departure is a good idea. Read books and watch documentaries about contemporary life and issues in the countries that interest you to understand better what life is like at your destination and know what to expect. Reading "The Wonder that was India" by A.L. Basham, a classic work about India's millennial civilization, is fascinating. Still, you will need more preparation for the daily urban chaos of India's high-tech centers such as Bangalore or Mumbai. Be realistic and deal with first things first. Keep inspirational reading for those hot Sundays on your front porch in Southern India.
The less you know about your host country, the more of a surprise (often the wrong way) you will have when you get there, and the higher the chance that you will discover things about the country you do not like or cannot handle. For example, the sheer volume of people in India, China, and other Asian nations you encounter as you get off your plane or navigate the streets of major cities to seek your accommodations or destinations can be overwhelming to many travelers not prepared for the experience.
Tip #6: Make Your Contacts in Asia Ahead of Time (if Possible)
Making contacts in Asia before you leave home is another essential step to ensure a smooth transition to your host country if you plan to live there long-term. Regardless of what you plan to do, contacting other expatriates ahead of time can be beneficial. You can do so through a professional organization or your future boss, an expatriate club, a student exchange program, or a language school. Getting in touch with peers beforehand allows you to get a heads-up on what is new, what to look out for, and how to prepare.
You can ask other members of the expatriate club about their experiences when they first arrived and any hints, tips, or advice they may have. Your host university or language school can put you in touch with other international students who have already spent a semester abroad or other language teachers in the same city or province who can tell you about their experiences. You save a lot of time by making initial contacts before your arrival. In addition, once you get to your new destination, it is easy to follow up with the contacts you made and meet people in person. That way, you have an instant (albeit tenuous) support network to solidify and expand as you settle down in your host country.
It is not only natural to seek familiar contacts in an unfamiliar land, but expatriates are also a great source of information, contacts, help, and friendship. Generally, it is often much easier at first to make friends with other foreigners than to meet the locals, partly because of the different language and culture. In part because you already have something in common with other expatriates: you all live as foreigners in Asia and are trying to make the best of your stay. As time passes and you become better adapted to your new destination and better understand the local culture and language, you will meet more local people. You will be more confident in your interactions.
Tip #7: Prepare for a Different Way of Life
Take some time and imagine your life abroad in Asia. Think of the details of your daily routine, work, and leisure time. Can you get an idea of what it would be like? If you only have a vague notion of everyday life at your destination, find out more about it or take a short trip there ahead of your move to find out more. By learning about the country of interest before you finalize your plans to live there, you can discover if it is really for you or if you should look for a different country. If you consider living in Asia for a more extended period, it might be a good idea to take a trip there first and find out if you like it. Get a sense of place and practice cultural immersion to the extent possible by discovering how the country feels. See if you feel comfortable in the local culture. Appreciate the way of life and the people before making what could be one of the most significant decisions of your life.
For additional information, resources, and articles convering the many aspects of living in Asia, visit our section Living Abroad in Asia: The Essential Expatriate Resources and explore your destination country.