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Higher salaries and better prospects are only half the story when it comes to the benefits of working abroad – the excitement, variety, novelty and cultural openness are just as valuable

Esther An


This article was first published in the November/December 2013 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

When William Adams arrived aboard a Dutch ship off the southern Japanese island of Kyushu in April 1600, he was blazing a trail for Europeans moving abroad for their careers.

Born in Kent, Adams had served in the Royal Navy, as a pilot and had learned shipbuilding, astronomy and navigation. In Japan his knowledge and skills were highly prized and he quickly became an adviser to the shogun.

By the time the first diplomatic mission from London arrived 13 years later, Adams had been granted samurai status and an estate near the port town of Yokosuka, and was one of the closest confidantes of the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

While it would be far more difficult to end up as an intimate with a head of state in Asia today, millions of people have now taken up expatriate opportunities in one of the world’s most rapidly growing regions.

In its fourth annual report on global professionals on the move, released in May, British recruitment firm Hydrogen pointed out that there are now more than 200 million people living and working abroad – more than double the figure 25 years ago.

For the vast majority, the prime motivations for moving abroad are career opportunities, new experiences and greater earnings potential.
And while in the past a spell in Seoul, Singapore or Shanghai might have lasted a couple of years before the expatriate finally returned home, today’s expats are increasingly settling down in any number of booming Asian cities.

‘Japan is now our home,’ says Deborah Hayden, regional director for capital markets and mergers and acquisitions for Edelman Japan. ‘We have learned the need to listen, explain and not assume that what we think is the right thing to do is automatically understood to be the case by others. We love the food, the safety, the cleanliness and convenience that Japan offers.

‘There is always something new to learn, some hidden fact to uncover, that again changes how you approach this fascinating market. Living here is a journey of discovery and learning – one that will probably never end.’

Professionally, moving away from her native New Zealand has been an advantage for Hayden as well as ‘extremely exciting’.

‘The region has changed remarkably over the 25 years I have been in the industry,’ she says. ‘There are always new and interesting opportunities and challenges to deal with. Nothing stands still – even in Japan – for very long.’

Home is Tokyo

Nicola Sawaki is another New Zealander who has made Tokyo her home after transferring from the London office of accounting firm Ernst & Young in 1994.

‘I wanted to improve my knowledge of Japanese business, accounting and the language, and I also thought I would be useful to the firm here,’ she says. ‘And yes, I think that accounting and auditing firms do look on staff who have lived and worked in other countries favourably because most large clients are multinationals now, so a wider knowledge, experience and an ability to adapt are important.’

For expats and anyone considering moving overseas to further their careers and increase their earning potential, the Hydrogen study is compelling reading.

‘Despite the recession and the economic crisis, I believe that the global war on talent rather than abating is about to heat up,’ Alev Kilic, the ESCP Europe tutor who supervised the Hydrogen research, says in the report. ‘All the forecasts point to a huge increase by large companies in their global mobility assignments between now and 2020, particularly in emerging markets.’

Two-thirds of those interviewed for the study say their employers regard international experience as important or very important. Of the respondents who are already abroad 83% believe relocation has accelerated their personal development, 77% that it has boosted their career prospects and 72% that it has enhanced their salary.

And a whopping 98% of those who have already moved overseas to work would recommend the experience to others. The number who want to stay abroad is 86% – more than double the 37% recorded in last year’s report.

The global report identified the US as the top destination for people wanting to work overseas, with the UK and Australia in joint second place. In Asia Pacific, Singapore topped the popularity list and was in fourth place overall, followed by Hong Kong in eighth place, China in 11th and New Zealand in 15th.

The positives

Mark Cooper arrived in Hong Kong in March 2010 and has built up a property publishing company covering the key markets in Asia. He ticks the positives off on his fingers: new places, new people and low tax rates.

‘The mere fact that I run my own business is still a source of intense satisfaction, while writing about a region that is on the up is also a distinct positive,’ he says, adding that he has turned down
job opportunities to stay in Asia Pacific.

And while Japanese corporate culture may have changed – to a degree – in recent years, Terumi Kamata still believes she made the right decision to move to Singapore 22 years ago and then to New Zealand four years ago.

‘There were so few opportunities for women to take more responsibility in Japan in the early 1990s, but in Singapore there were no differences between men and women when it came to employment,’ says Kamata, who has an MBA in finance and supply chain management and is currently financial controller for the New Zealand operations of Japanese cosmetics firm Shiseido.

‘People who live in different countries for long enough or experience a completely different culture and society tend to learn the strengths of diversity and are better equipped to embrace changes,’ she says.

A feast of cultures

Many expats are happy to put down roots in one place, but others have found they prefer to hop around the region, sampling the wide array of cultures on offer.

David Waller has lived and worked in some of the biggest and busiest cities in Asia for the last 15 years and has no desire to return to the UK to live.

‘I spent a year travelling after graduating, mainly in Asia, and returned to the UK to gain my professional qualifications, but I always had the idea of returning,’ says Waller, at 44 a partner with KPMG in Singapore.

‘During that year in Asia, I met a few British people who had chosen to live in this part of the world and they seemed to have interesting lives. A few years working in the UK reinforced my view that I would have a more varied and exciting career and life in Asia.’

After arriving in Hong Kong in 1988 – just in time for the start of the Asian economic crisis – Waller has had spells in Shanghai and Tokyo before settling in Singapore eight years ago.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, he says. ‘You get to meet more interesting people; there are fantastic opportunities for holidays; it’s a great environment for children, to open their eyes to different ideas; plus, I save more money than I would have done in the UK.’

The professional positives are just as numerous. ‘There are more opportunities for exposure to different situations and more variety,’ he explains. ‘Many Asian countries are expanding at a fast rate and this gives exposure to managing growth and change.

‘I also feel I have the ability to make a difference and make team mates or juniors learn from my experience. There are more opportunities to take on additional responsibilities beyond what you would get in your home country.’

Drawing on his own experiences, Waller says he looks more favourably on people who have had exposure to working in other countries when he is hiring mid-career candidates. ‘They are more likely to be able to manage change better and fit into a different working environment.’

Drawbacks

However, Waller adds that a hard-working expat can become a victim of their own success and have more responsibilities piled onto their desk, and there are the personal drawbacks of being a long way away from family and friends and a sense of the UK being ‘a bit alien’ on return visits.

But he has no regrets about his decision to relocate to Asia on a permanent basis and would recommend it to others, with some caveats.

‘They need to be clear in their mind why they want to move and what they want to achieve,’ he warns. ‘They should have a can-do attitude and a mindset that is prepared to deal with change. Sometimes people who just do it for a couple of years enjoy it, and can benefit on return as they can deal with some of the challenges thrown at them, but the romantic image of tennis and cocktails at sunset is not the reality.’

Julian Ryall, journalist

Last updated: 8 Nov 2013