Plan Away…and Seize the Day!
Here’s a novel thought: Although the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in dramatic changes in global mobility for business professionals, latent demand for cross-border movement of human intellectual capital has created unprecedented opportunities for international career development.
After more than a year of COVID-19 related restrictions on international travel, public and private limitations on global mobility are easing. With the world emerging from lockdown, you have the chance to realize your expat dreams, by designing and executing a plan for the personal and professional life you’ve always imagined. Even before nations again open for travel, you will want to be prepared to go.
To aid you, VivaCarta’s founders share their own stories about the steps they took to execute their pre-COVID “live abroad” visions. As with any advice freely given, you need only pick and choose from these tips and examples to jump-start your action plan to thrive as an expat in a post-COVID world.
Steve Pollock, his wife and their two teenage girls moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Japan for a 1-year overseas experience, which they subsequently extended to two years. They accomplished their dream of living overseas by relocating his consulting work and drawing on the help of friends and clients.
Kirsten Detrick started her family’s 8-year expat adventure in Zürich, Switzerland, moving there from Southern California for a job with a new employer. Sponsored by a large corporation, her family of four later “doubled-down” on expat life, moving to Vienna, Austria.
Sean Yap, a passionate multiculturalist, was born in Malaysia, grew up in Australia and has lived and worked in Belgium, France and Switzerland. He and his family of five now split their time between Switzerland and France. He runs his business remotely.
VivaCarta: What process did you use to make the decision to move overseas?
Steve: My wife and I dreamed about living abroad from the time we got married, but there was always something in the way — work, kids, school, health, finances…you name it. Ultimately, we realized that the most significant barrier was actually resolving to make the dream happen. Once we adjusted our mindset, we began to transform obstacles into resolvable challenges. One of our first decisions was to choose a destination. We settled on Japan for a variety of reasons. I lived in Japan as a teen, and could speak Japanese. My consulting work focuses on Japan and we had enjoyed traveling there as a family, so it was an obvious choice.
Kirsten: I had briefly lived in France, Venezuela and Scotland as a student. These experiences fueled my wanderlust. My husband is an avid traveler and explored Central and South America before we married. For us, the opportunity to move abroad was something that we often discussed, but never formalized. Quite unexpectedly, a company contacted me about an interesting job in Switzerland, and that is when our vision took flight.
Sean: I have always loved travel. For example, by the age of ten, I had visited the farthest reaches of New Zealand. Later that year, I visited the United States, using inexpensive air travel passes. Like Steve and Kirsten, my spouse was also open to living abroad. She and I both wanted to explore the world — what we needed to do was to proactively create the opportunity.
VivaCarta: What about finding or keeping a job? What were the steps in that process and what was the impact on your partner’s career?
Steve: Initially, I thought that finding a job was the prerequisite to executing a move. However, finding employment that fit our requirements and timing proved challenging. So, we developed an alternate plan focused on self-employment, which gave us an added benefit of flexibility. I sought advice from my Japanese contacts on how to execute this plan. I discovered that Japan is more welcoming to foreign workers than the US. With the help of a friend’s boutique consulting firm in Japan, I secured a 5-year visa that also authorized my wife to continue her work as a self-employed market researcher. We fully expected she would have to scale back her business during our residence in Japan. To her surprise, she actually developed new expertise and relationships that led to unexpected consulting opportunities.
Sean: While living in Melbourne, my wife and I took a European vacation. I used the trip to visit with potential employers. For example, I arranged meetings in Singapore during a stopover in our itinerary. I visited the Belgian offices of my employer. Each meeting was exploratory — at the time, there were no suitable open roles. We expected that our efforts would require regular internal networking and lots of time — perhaps years — to manifest a result. To our surprise and delight, I was offered a position just three months after my meetings in Brussels. Coincidentally and near simultaneously, my wife was offered a 2-month overseas posting with an NGO she worked with at the time.
VivaCarta: How did you handle the logistics of exiting your home culture and starting life in your destination country?
Sean: We had a lot to button down in preparation for our departure, but those issues were fairly straightforward. We found a tenant for our apartment. We figured out how to administer the logistics of being a long distance landlord. We identified a mover. That’s pro forma stuff. After expat stints in Melbourne, Brussels, and Paris, we have now learned that the critical focus is about successfully establishing our family in our new destination. For us, the most important decision is choosing the right neighborhood. Obviously, conducting a lot of research prior to landing in-country is critical. However, nothing beats being “on the ground” to identify which neighborhood is right for you. It has taken me as few as four, and as many as 12 weeks to identify the best place to live in a new country. In Paris, we had to move between three different temporary places until we found the right location to call home. It was worth it — we now live just steps from the Eiffel Tower. We have not moved since 2007.
Kirsten: It’s funny, unlike Sean, my focus was entirely on exiting the US, not entering our new country. My employer had arranged for a pre-arrival visit to Switzerland, and during that trip, my husband and I found an apartment and a school for our kids, so that was relatively easy. However, my parents had both passed away just prior to our departure, which was certainly a complication. I was named as executor for their estates and I was about to move out of the country. Furthermore, we had to downsize our belongings significantly, as we were moving from a 5 bedroom/3 bath suburban home to a 3 bedroom/2 bath city apartment on the third floor of a building without an elevator. I estimate that we gave away or sold about 20% of our belongings, stored another 20% in the U.S., and moved 60% with us to Europe.
VivaCarta: How did you identify the right schooling for your kids?
Steve: Once we committed to the move, our biggest concern was about education for our girls. Our older daughter was 16 at the time, and she requires special education support and resources. Realistically, we knew we didn’t have a lot of options, so we were willing to homeschool her if necessary. We researched the possibilities and, to our amazement, we found a great international school program in Tokyo that worked well for her and for us. As for our younger daughter, we made the joint decision for her to attend Japanese public school — even though she didn’t speak any Japanese. Although the first six months were challenging, she had a great attitude and ended up having a fantastic experience, making close friends, and learning a lot of Japanese. I’m so incredibly proud of her. We initially intended to return to the US after a year, but we were all loving the expat experience so much that we extended our stay for a second year.
VivaCarta: How did you support your partner? What issues or challenges did they face?
Kirsten: My husband was an enthusiastic proponent of the move, even though he wasn’t able to work overseas because of work permit restrictions. He quickly discovered that most trailing spouses are women, but he made friendships and settled in quickly. He also assimilated by volunteering for various programs at our kids’ schools, and by forging relationships with people he met during his day-to-day travels. He was instrumental in building our social life. In fact, he helped us make lasting friendships with many local Swiss people, ensuring that we didn’t succumb to the urge to stay within a US expat “bubble.”
Steve: My language skills meant that I was responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting on the assimilation front (school enrollment, taxes, local service providers). My wife, despite her lack of Japanese language skills, was able to leverage several of her professional contacts in the country. She connected with them for networking immediately upon our arrival in Japan. She found a number of consulting projects via these connections. She also extended her professional network and experience base in meaningful ways that paid off in the longer term. What was really amazing was how my wife managed to build a large network of friends in Tokyo without my assistance. It’s really inspiring to see how people can live abroad, manage their lives in English and build great new friendships.
Sean: We did wonder how my wife would make friends. My expat jobs have usually required a lot of travel, which meant that sometimes, she felt stranded in our new country of residence. Furthermore, like Kirsten’s husband, she was impacted professionally for the first five years of our residency in the EU, due to work visa issues. Our dog (a beagle — folks are always interested in her), coupled with my wife’s outgoing personality helped her to meet lots of people. She made numerous friends via an expat mothers group. Later, once our kids were school age, we made friends with local people from our adopted countries.
VivaCarta: What were your fears prior to going? What challenges did you underestimate?
Steve: I worried that the family might hate the experience! Would they be turned off to two of my favorite things: travel and Japan? Fortunately, neither of these was a problem. However, I underestimated the challenges my younger daughter would have starting in a Japanese middle school. The cultural experience was fantastic for her, but mastering the academics in Japanese was a heavy lift. We also had to navigate challenges upon our return to the US school system. It took multiple conversations with our home school district in California to reach an appropriate solution with regard to academic credits, grades, and graduation requirements. It shouldn’t have been a surprise — all her records were written in Japanese!
Sean: We had no specific fears, because we were ‘happy-go-lucky’ about the adventure. I did ensure there was a repatriation clause in my contract, as “insurance” in case things didn’t work out with the new job. I think one of the more unusual worries that nagged at me over time was about returning to my home culture before I was emotionally ready. I really wanted to sustain the experience in perpetuity, and in the end, that’s what we have been able to accomplish.
Kirsten: Like Sean, I worried that if my new job didn’t work out, we would have to turn around and go back to the US. I also worried whether we would fit into Swiss culture. I have expatriate friends who struggled to assimilate into their adopted homelands. These concerns turned out to be completely unfounded, but they did cost me some sleepless nights!
VivaCarta: How did you manage your finances? Living abroad can be expensive.
Kirsten: We moved to one of the world’s most expensive countries, Switzerland. The cost of living there is extraordinary. We merely adjusted our lifestyle to accommodate a tighter budget. We cooked dinner at home nearly every night. We probably ate in restaurants fewer than ten times during our entire four year residency. We thought carefully about every expenditure. Ironically, it turned out to be a boon to our family finances. We actually built a savings habit that has continued to this day!
Steve: Overall, there was a financial cost to living overseas, but it was a little hard to calculate precisely, because there are a lot of elements involved — modified income levels, different taxes, new cost of living, moving costs, and so on. There were a few big financial items that worked out in our favor. We found a renter for our house in the US, which covered our mortgage. To our surprise, our rent in Tokyo was less than we charged our renter in the US. The cost of living was hard to calculate — we did not need a car in Japan, school expenses were lower, and we were able to join the national healthcare system, which were all financially advantageous for us. However, we did a lot more weekend travel and ate out more frequently. One huge worry revolved around the potential for Japanese inheritance taxes. If a parent had passed away while we were overseas, the Japanese government might have had a taxable claim on distributions from the estate. Fortunately, our parents remained healthy.
Sean: Our first big concern was related to our inability to predict the cost of sustaining our same lifestyle in a new location and whether pay equivalence existed between the country we were leaving and the one to which we were going. We made numerous projections, but you can never be fully certain you’ve done the right estimates. Our second big worry was related to taxes (including inheritance taxes). My concerns about pay equivalence turned out to be true and it took a few years to catch up.
VivaCarta: What was the impact of your move on your family?
Steve: It was a great adventure, and I believe a positive, life-changing experience for all of us. My children faced challenges that they never would have encountered had we remained in the US — but the ultimate payoff was worth it. Navigating different school environments, overcoming language and cultural barriers to make new friends, and just figuring out how to get through the day in a foreign environment all made them more culturally aware and resilient. We also enjoyed a shared experience that brought us closer together and that we will treasure for the rest of our lives.
Kirsten: Living abroad changed the course of our children’s lives. My son has focused his college academic career on art history, a discipline he grew to love because he lived in Europe. My daughter has grown into an erudite and mature young woman who is articulate and confident in her capabilities and who loves poetry and the German language.
VivaCarta: What challenges did you face while living abroad?
Steve: For me, the challenges in Japan all turned out to be great adventures. However, we had a series of misadventures renting our house in the US — flooded basement, bounced checks, damaged furniture and so on. We got through them all, but I guess I was much more excited to be a cultural explorer than a landlord!
Kirsten: I had taken a global job with my new company, working in an office with colleagues from 30 or so different countries. I knew culture shock would be a challenge, but I found myself having to negotiate many more cultural cues than I had anticipated. Working in this environment of rich cultural diversity was an incredible opportunity and one of the most incredible privileges of my career.
VivaCarta: What family considerations did you have beyond those for your partner and your kids?
Steve: Our biggest concern was being far away from aging parents. We worried about unexpected health issues arising, as well as missing the chance to spend more time with them. However, we were lucky that my mother-in-law and many other friends and family visited us in Japan.
Sean: I suffered from the guilt of filial responsibility. My parents had friends who lived with the next generation, whereas my parents had kids who all lived more than an 8-hour flight away. Both sets of parents travelled extensively and were adamantly supportive of our expat plans, which certainly helped to assuage some of my guilt. However, there was no way to get around the fact that my cultural heritage expects adult children to look after elderly parents. That was tough for me.
Kirsten: Losing both of my parents just prior to our departure was terrible. However, starting a new job in a new country was a way to focus my energies on an exciting challenge, while I worked through the grieving process. What I didn’t anticipate was how difficult it was to be an executor for their estates while I lived outside the US. The legal processes were a real challenge to navigate long-distance.
VivaCarta: What are your thoughts about expat life, post-pandemic?
Steve: COVID-19 is another issue that someone who wants to live overseas can either look at as an insurmountable barrier, or as another challenge meant to be overcome. The lead time from when we started thinking about an expat experience to when we actually landed on the ground was eight months. It takes a lot of preparation to ensure that your landing experience is a good one. I would advise someone who’s thinking of becoming an expat to use this time as a real gift to reflect and plan out a potential living situation abroad.
Sean: Wow! I can’t believe it only took you eight months, Steve! You didn’t even have the advantage of corporate assistance. It took us four months and we had that advantage. My advice is this: what better time to launch an expat opportunity than now? Preparation and advance planning are key and that takes time.
Kirsten: Travel is opening up everywhere. Opportunities to live abroad didn’t go away, they’ve just been delayed. The rate of vaccinations is growing consistently. I think that there will come a time in the near future when the world opens back up. Personally, I would tell anyone who is hesitating about executing their dream to take this time to ponder, reflect and really visualize how to make their expat dreams come true.
Summary Thoughts from VivaCarta
Living abroad is a big decision, composed of, and complicated by, so many smaller decisions. But at its essence, the biggest decision is a simple one: do you want to live abroad and are you willing to build and execute a plan to realize that dream? The VivaCarta team typically hears all the reasons NOT to take the plunge. Will the kids adjust to a new environment? Will my partner find a job? How will we adapt if we don’t speak the language? Our team at VivaCarta believes that there is a deeper, simplifying truth about international life: you will never be able to answer every single question.
In life, weighing the unknown benefits against the known challenges can sometimes result in sticking with the understood, rather than seeking out the uncertain. And yet, we suggest that now is the time to take the first step away from the familiar and toward the possibility of realizing your expat vision. If the past year has taught us anything, it is this: each of us is capable of extraordinary accomplishments in the face of uncertainty. And launching an expat experience may be the step you take this year to live the life of your dreams.
About VivaCarta: We capture the collective wisdom of senior-level professionals whose careers have taken them far and wide across the world. We have created fulfilling international experiences by combining our career ambitions with our personal dreams. We hope that our stories and observations will help inspire you to make that international move. Stay in touch! Email us at email@example.com