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7 Tips for Living Abroad in Asia Successfully

Bangkok temple in Thailand

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 in 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 the martial arts, yoga, a wide variety of rituals and traditions, and popular music dating back to the 1960's. Being part of this exotic world while living in Asia seems like a dream come true to 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 annoying. We provide tips here to made a successful transition to the country of your choosing, as well as advice on how to research remotely and in person from the many options.

Tip #1: Know Before You Go

Fishing boats in China

What visitors to Asia sometimes do not to realize before leaving their homeland is that their great job, internship, or study abroad semester comes with a measure of cultural adjustment. There is no Asian country where the way of life, customs, and mentality of its people even closely resembles those of Western countries, though you will often find varying levels of expatriate support and local help. As a result, adjusting to the Asian way of life takes time, effort, and bit of perseverance. So before you start looking at retirement options, a year of study abroad, volunteering, an internship, or look for a career move to Asia, do some reading and research to learn about the countries that interest you the most. Ideally, take a long-term trip to your favorite countries in order to get more than a passing sense. "Travel is fatal to prejudice," Mark Twain once famously wrote.

Tip #2: What is Your Purpose?

Traffic of all kinds in Hanoi, Vietnam

The main challenge for most people planning to live in Asia is to choose a destination that matches the main 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, an exciting nightlife, and interesting things to do and see.

  • As a retiree, you are certainly be 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 probably among your top priorities.

  • As a volunteer, you may to consider the conditions and the projects which are most commonly needed in different regions of Asia, and where you can learn the most for any future volunteering at home or abroad.

By clearly laying out the main 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 largely out out.

  • If you want to immerse yourself in Asian culture and teach English, then China, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan and several other countries may be appropriate for you.

  • As a finance professional, you may find that Singapore or even Hong Kong offers a good balance between an attractive salary, a Western lifestyle, and a rewarding work experience.

The more clear 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

Beach in Japan

Deciding which one of Asia's many countries to choose as a destination depends upon a number of factors. If you are looking for work in Asia, then you probably would want to take a close look at the countries where the jobs are (see our article Working in Asia). If you are interested in studying abroad, you need to take a serious look at which  Asian cultures and languages interest you the most. Few universities in Asia have English as the main language of instruction, and if you are thinking about studying abroad, it is important to determine the  Asian language that interests you as it may well help you with your career later on. Learning a foreign language is a time-intensive task, and the decision of what language to study should not be taken lightly.

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 whose culture, language, and ways of life are unfamiliar to you. Pick a destination that will not only enhance your resume, but 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. This is also true if you are thinking of moving abroad for a change in lifestyle (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 work in Asia.

Tip #4: Focus on What You Like in Your Chosen Country

Floating food market in Thailand

Do you like the people, food, culture, climate, entertainment, and recreation in the country of your interest? If your answer is yes to most of these items, then you have likely found a good match. There are cultural similarities among some Asian cultures, but each country has its own unique way of life, culture and often subcultures, and language(s). Take your time to research the details so you can 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 country that is wildly unfamiliar. After all, some of the 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 might 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 destinations in Asia with large expatriate communities, where English is more widely spoken, where familiar foods and amenities are easily available, and where Westerners are well liked and welcome.

Tip #5: Read and Research About Your Chosen County

I cannot emphasize enough that successful living in Asia, be it for work, study, retirement, or volunteer work, depends very much on the research you do before you leave home. Since a different way of life, food, habits, and customs will be a part of your new daily life in Asia, it is a good idea to prepare yourself a little bit ahead of your departure. Read books and watch documentaries about contemporary life and issues in the countries that interest you so that you get a better understanding of what life is like at your destination to know what to expect. Reading "The Wonder that was India" by A.L. Basham, a classic work about India's millennial civilization, is a fascinating read, but it will not prepare you 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 Sunday's on your front porch in Southern India. The less you know about your host country, the more of a surprise (in often a bad way) you will have when you get there, and the higher the chance that you will discover things about the country you simply 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 important step to assure a smooth transition to your host country if you plan to live there long-term. Regardless of what you are planning to do, it can very helpful to make contacts with other expatriates ahead of time. This could be through a professional organization or your future boss, an expatriate club, student exchange program, or language school. Getting in touch with peers ahead of time allows you to get the heads-up on what is new, what to look out for, and generally how to prepare. You can ask other members of the expatriate club about their experiences when they first arrived and about any hints, tips, or advice they may have. Perhaps your host university or language school can put you in touch with other foreign 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 you can 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 it is to meet the locals, in part because of the different language and culture, and 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 goes by and you become better adapted to your new destination and better understand both the local culture and language, you will meet more local people and will be more confident in your interactions.  

Tip #7: Prepare for a Different Way of Life

Take some time and really 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 daily 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 your 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 longer period, it might be a good idea to take a trip there first and find out if you really like it. Get a sense of place, practice cultural immersion to the extent possible by finding out how the country feels and smells. See if you feel comfortable in the local culture and enjoy the way of life and the people before making what could be one of the biggest 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.

He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide, including many in Asia, and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.

Related Topics
Living in Asia

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