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To Work Abroad Successfully, Put Down Roots

Make Your Fantasy Job a Reality

How to Find and Create Full-Time Work Abroad

Millions of expatriates are living abroad somewhere right now, many of them working the kinds of jobs often profiled in the pages of Transitions Abroad. They are teaching English, working as an au pair, doing seasonal agriculture work, or are involved in the tourism industry. In the hottest property markets, many more are working as real estate agents, earning a living by helping other foreigners find the perfect vacation or retirement home.

This is the traditional path, and in some ways the easiest. For one thing, it’s often far less hassle to get a work visa if you’re doing a job the locals can’t perform: modeling correct native English pronunciation in a classroom, for instance. If you have a defined skill or passion outside these areas though, there are certainly other routes to take. Many expatriates have managed to do what they were already good at, but in a location that offers them the chance to experience a different place and culture.

Escape the Crowds

Architects Nick and Rachel Sowers set out for New Zealand with no job in hand, but they are now involved in designing houses for a new development project there. “We were fed up with commuting in Los Angeles and working towards our architecture licenses without any kind of satisfaction or real joy in our jobs,” says Nick. “A year and a half into the job I was doing the same thing I started out with—model building—and I didn’t see that changing very quickly.”

He points to a fellowship studying Islamic architecture in his past as the experience that opened his eyes to other possibilities. After months of talking about escaping, he and his wife headed to New Zealand. Through the WWOOF organic farm volunteer program (www.wwoof.org) and Help Exchange (www.helpex.net), they lined up volunteer jobs that used their carpentry and design skills. As they took on more building jobs, they designed and built a solar shower and started getting requests from other people for small projects.

“Eventually we met up with this guy who was building a house and we worked with him on that, from banging nails to actually doing design work,” Sowers explains. “On a rafting trip with him, by chance we met a Dutch couple planning to build a house. They asked us to sketch out some ideas. Long story short, we got the commission to do their house, found a room near there on the North Island, and worked our butts off. It seems like it was all a natural progression, even though we didn’t set out to do that.”

As Nick and Rachel worked hard and proved themselves to a network of friends, they easily progressed from being volunteers to being paid for the work they’ve always wanted to do. “Now we’re in a position where a developer is giving us free reign to come up with concept designs that will attract buyers,” Nick explains. “There is very minimal risk for us, but potentially we could have projects for years down the line. We’re doing the work we love, but with the lifestyle we want to have, in a place that offers almost unlimited outdoor activities.”

Business Skills, Reapplied

David English left the U.S. not to escape, but because he found Argentina irresistible. While living in the U.S, he owned a company that licensed music industry trademarks (such as Gibson and Steinway) and developed licensed merchandise for sale in overseas markets. After spending six weeks in Patagonia on a Rotary Club exchange program, he vowed to find a way to return to Argentina for good. “I kept coming back on subsequent trips, always looking for opportunities,” English explains.

He eventually moved to Argentina, married a local woman, and settled down in Mendoza, the epicenter of the wine industry in Argentina. Perhaps not surprisingly, his business skills eventually led him into the wine business.

After moving to Mendoza, he started offering general business services to foreign investors and foreign corporations, helping people set up locally or form partnerships. He smoothed their way by knowing how to get things done locally, removing much of the risk from doing business in a foreign land. Word soon got out to investors and companies. “Because of where we are in Mendoza, most of the companies and individuals who came to us were looking to invest in or partner with the wine business,” he explains, “so I got involved in matching people up with vineyard land and helping them get established.” The result was English and Associates, now a thriving consulting firm.

English has found his business niche: keeping foreign investors from making lousy investments. “One of our primary goals is to keep people from totally messing up. We guide them through the local pitfalls and make sure they understand the risks. We steer clients away from land that wouldn’t work for growing grapes, for instance, or mitigate their risk by working out deals with an experienced local partner. Some of our clients are only here a few times a year, so we are their local eyes and ears, bridging the two cultures.”

Finding a New Path

Many traditional professions have always had the advantage of being portable: for example, physicians, dentists, and attorneys can easily apply their skills in countries around the world. Also, most large cities with international business operations employ plenty of expatriates in banking, marketing, or the oil business. This doesn’t mean the path to expatriate living has to be so clear-cut, however.

Joshua Berman, a frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad and co-author of several guidebooks (including Moon Living Abroad in Nicaragua and Moon Handbooks Belize) has come across all kinds of creative job paths in Central America. “The last time I was updating my guidebook in Belize,” he says, “I shared my Internet cafe ‘office’ with a German veterinarian who made a living translating vet studies online and occasionally operating on jaguars at the Belize zoo; an American master’s degree student writing an anthropology paper on the effects of tourism; a few requisite Web designers working on various projects around the world; and an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who’d been hired to set up an office for a volunteer abroad project.”

“We would all belly up to the laptop counter with fresh cups of coffee, plug in, tune out, and go to work—then we’d break a few hours later with a walk to the river together,” Berman explains. “In Nicaragua, I’ve known a few back-to-the-earth Italians and Americans trying their hand at permaculture/organic farming. I’ve also got some good friends working to promote and build the fair trade coffee industry in northern Nicaragua.”

A New Home in…Kuwait

Marie Javins, author of the Africa travel narrative Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, makes her real living as a comic book colorist—something she has managed to keep going in various locations around the world. “I spent 13 years editing and coloring for Marvel Comics before leaving New York to circumnavigate the world by surface transport,” Javins explains. “When I am in the U.S. coloring comics, I download black and white comic art off of a remote server in Maryland. I color it on my laptop in Photoshop, and then upload it. This is no different when I am living in other parts of the world, except that the Internet access is seldom as fast or convenient.”

She has often worked from the road, renting an apartment in Berlin for a month, renting one in Barcelona for three months, and living in Australia for six months. Her toughest experience was finding a good Internet connection while living in Uganda, Namibia, and Cape Town for six months. “In Uganda, I’d have to get a ride for an hour and a half to the nearest town, and there, in Masindi, they had an ethernet cable and laptop station at the Internet cafe. I’d upload 50 MB or so over a few hours. I’d sit at a table nearby and have lunch, keeping an eye on my laptop.”

“Earlier this year I was living in Kuwait, editing comics. It was exactly the sort of job I would have had back in New York, but it happened to be in Kuwait,” Javins says. “I worked for Teshkeel, a start-up company that publishes original superhero material as well as reprinting Marvel, DC Comics, and Archie comics in Arabic for the Gulf and North Africa region.”

As with many expat opportunity stories, one thing led to another. “They originally hired me to help set up their coloring and production ends of the business,” Javins says, “but the job evolved quickly and I found myself editing their original superhero material (in English) within the first few weeks.

The move from production to editing brought communication to the fore. “At home, everyone at Marvel knew that adamantium was the name of the fictional metal that made up Wolverine’s skeleton. In Kuwait, I found myself fumbling as I searched for the words to explain a fictional metal to an audience consisting of a Lebanese translator, a marketing rep from Sarajevo, and an Egyptian editor. Once, when they were translating a Spider-Man comic, I was first called upon to describe a Sissy Spacek movie when the Lebanese translator innocently asked: ‘What does it mean to go all Carrie on them?’ That same day, someone was puzzled by the phrase ‘Senior Skip Day.’ When I finally managed to clarify, the editor declared triumphantly that we should have a ‘Work Skip Day.’”

Most expatriates who are working full time admit that working a “serious job” in another country can be just as draining as doing the same thing at home but with more cultural hurdles. The payoff can be tremendous though in terms of travel opportunities, cultural understanding, education, and new experiences. Just be flexible and ready to go with the flow. The journey to a real job overseas is part of the fun.

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