Working Overseas in Asia

As you wake for work, you hear the rhythmic whump of a ceiling fan overhead, sit up in bed and gaze out the window at the coconut trees in the garden of your French colonial villa. Downstairs, your maid has fixed you a perfect omelette, strong coffee and fresh mangoes, rambutans, and dragonfruit. After breakfast, your driver glides you into the city in the air-con comfort of the company Benz, and at the office you wow your colleagues and clients with your baffling Western skills before dozing through a two-hour lunch break.

Please. With the Asian economic crisis, foreign companies scaled back their operations in many developing countries, local firms began to think twice about hiring American whiz kids, and across the board, salaries and fringe benefits were curtailed. The reign of the laptop colonialists ended in July 1997.

And you should be grateful, because the exodus of the upper expatriate crust means there’s more room and more need for someone like you: a smart, energetic college graduate – who’s willing to workcheap.

What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?
Most students, on deciding to get out of the country after graduation, figure they’ll simply teach English. It’s true: as a genuine native speaker with a university diploma, you can get a job teaching English anywhere in Asia.

The easiest way to do this is simply to show up, get settled and start calling the local language schools. Turnover is often as high as demand, and you will likely find someone willing to give you a shot, though you may get paid as little as $5 a lesson (though some teaching programs, especially in Japan, pay extremely well).

If you want to get out of the ivory tower of academia and work locally there are options outside of teaching English. It seems the key to many jobs throughout Asia is to make friends. Introduce yourself in person to potential employers. Get recommendations from acquaintances. Many Asian cultures stress the ties that bind families and friends, and though this can frustrate the cold-resume job seeker, it can work to the benefit of the on-the-doorstep applicant.

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The Next Step Up: Becoming a Hack
Another way to put your English-language skills to use is to turn to journalism. It’s what I did in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. After three frustrating months as a teacher, I heard about a film festival in Hanoi, so I flew up north, made a trip to the offices of the Viet Nam News, the national English-language daily paper, and asked to cover the event. Their features page editor had just quit; I got his page, for three weeks, and made the best of it, writing about one review every night.

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When I returned to Ho Chi Minh City a couple months later, I linked up with the paper’s southern bureau and began copyediting their stories and writing more film, art and restaurant reviews. It was the best job I’ve ever had. I would show up after lunch, clean up articles with headlines like “Thai Binh Province Gets New Tractor,” snack on fresh yogurt from the fridge, listen to my Vietnamese colleagues’ stories, and, at the end of the day, drink a glass of snake wine with my editor, Mr. Le.

Nearly every country in Asia (with the possible exception of North Korea) has at least one English-language paper. At many of these, reporting is done by locals and then translated into English, which means they need native speakers with a firm – or even shaky – grasp of the written language. They are also often desperate for original content, and will often take features, reviews, reportage or photography regardless of the quality. A friend who visited me in Ho Chi Minh City sold the Viet Nam News some pictures on his second day in the country; Mr. Le even asked if he had stories to go with the photos. My friend delivered those the next day. (Note: Just because some papers don’t have New York Times standards doesn’t mean they’re total garbage. I always tried to make a real effort in my work there, and I frequently got annoyed with some of my ex-pat colleagues who, caring for nothing but the paycheck, did sloppy work, knowing no one would notice.) Working for these English-language papers will give you a good sense of local and regional politics, and often leads to a more respectable journalistic career. I managed to wangle a stringing job for Billboard magazine, and my experience at the Viet Nam News has scored me at least two other copy editor positions.

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But I Want a Job-Type Job!
There are still plenty of ex-pat posts in Asia, but, says Mandy Yap, of the marketing company Automotive Resources Asia, “Find a job before you travel to your destination.”

Yap studied business management in Singapore and has worked jobs in Vietnam, Thailand and China, doing everything from hostessing at an upscale restaurant in Hanoi to consulting on environmental standards for automobiles in Beijing. She advocates using your connections as much as possible.

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“You need to have contacts in the country you want to work in,” she says, noting that recommendations and referrals work better than write-in applications. And if your prospective employer is of your nationality, she says, you may be able to arrange a meeting or interview in your home country before investing in a plane ticket.

Yap is also a proponent of negotiation. “Ensure your contract is an ex-pat package” is her order. She says the contract should include medical and dental insurance, repatriation and “an R&R package, meaning rest and recreation, which could provide you with air tickets to go home to during annual the leave period.”

And though a large part of Asia is essentially the Third World, Yap notes that the “cost of living is expensive in big cities – unless you are willing to live” like the locals. Although many people try to “go native,” it can be quite difficult, since you are disconnected from family living, which is what makes life possible on developing-country wages.

It is also possible to find a nice job through unofficial channels. An English teacher I knew in Vietnam inherited a job from a friend who returned to the States: She became a CD-ROM producer with no relevant experience (though she did speak Vietnamese). Another friend working on a film shoot in Vietnam stayed after the production wrapped to direct TV commercials, and another settled down after bumming around Indochina for six months to work as the creative director at Vietnam Advertising. In the U.S., he recorded sound for shows like 20/20 and 60 Minutes.

As Vi Nguyen, a former multimedia art director in Vietnam who is now training to become a chef in Santa Fe, N.M., puts it, “The interesting ones are word of mouth.”


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