The Reality Of Striking It Out Overseas

When I was in my late 20s, I wanted to go overseas and carve out a path for myself. I wanted to see the big world out there and gain an experience for myself, with the final goal of getting a Permanent Residence in another country. I decided to go to New Zealand, because they offered a Working Holiday Visa. I resigned from my job which I would have quit either way, packed my bags and went to New Zealand as a young, educated but naïve person who have yet to seen the world. Many said I was brave and some thought I was stupid. To summarise my experience, I went with almost nothing, struggled a lot over there and failed. Then I came back and restarted my life in Singapore, accumulating resources all over again, with the intention of going out once more. This article will share my personal experience, specifically using New Zealand as an example, and what to look out and prepare for if one day you intend to start a new life overseas. While the finer details may differ from country to country, the general logic should be the same.

Choosing A Country
Not all countries are available for you to work and immigrate freely. The top 4 immigration countries are: US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While Singapore also accepts immigrants, it does not apply to me because I am already a Singapore citizen. These 4 countries offer visas that allow you to go over more easily and then apply for a PR once you have gotten yourself a decent job. Other countries such as Germany would require one to work 10 years before granting the right to apply for a PR, and Japan generally shuts off its doors to foreigners. But that was during my time about 8 years ago. Recently UK opened its doors to high potential foreigners, allowing those from top universities to move to the UK with their families for 2 years without first securing a job. They could then take their time to find a job within the country. 2 years is plenty enough time to do that.

Savings
Whether you are going alone or with your family, you will first need to accumulate a decent amount of savings first, unless you come from a country with unemployment welfare. At the new country you will need to pay for rent and food. Rent in most Western countries are collected weekly instead of monthly. Depending on the city and location you are in, the weekly rent could vary greatly. Furthermore, if you are going there without a job, you will need sufficient savings to last until the day you secure employment. In essence, it is worse than being retrenched without a job in your own country. But everyday you are still spending money for the basic necessities.

Skill Match
If you are going to a new country to find employment, meaning you are not rich enough to solve everything with money, then it is important to know what are the skills that particular country requires. After I went over to New Zealand, I found out that there was a big skills mismatch. New Zealand is largely an agricultural-based country. Excluding top level skills like medicine and dentistry, general skills such as farming and forestry are sought after in New Zealand, but such skills are generally not available in Singapore, simply because we do not need it over here. Furthermore, while Singapore generally have tall offices and the like, New Zealand do not have many offices. They are a country 350 times bigger than Singapore in terms of land mass, yet only had a population of 4 million then. Of the 4 million, 2 million were in their financial centre Auckland, 300,000 in their capital Wellington and the rest were spread out all over the place. What it means is this: If your population is sparse out all over the place, you will have to set up multiple centres for basic needs. Rather than having 1 supermarket with 10 employees serving 10000 people, you now need 10 supermarkets with 50 employees serving 10000 people. When you replicate everything from supermarkets to car workshops, from petrol stations to eateries, you will have very few people left for higher level work.

From the nature of the skills required to the way their cities and towns were built, everything is the complete opposite of Singapore. This made the difficulty of me finding a job very high. I ran everywhere from Wellington to Auckland, from some small towns in the South Island to rural villages all the way to the North, but had no luck in getting a long term permanent employment. Looking back, perhaps going to US and trying it out in New York City would be a better fit for a Singaporean.

Landing There For The First Time
One of the first things to sort out upon landing in the new place would be to find accommodation. Some managed to sort out their rental rooms / house in advance before flying over. Some stay in cheap motels upon landing and take the first few days to find a new place to stay. For me, I use HelpX (disclaimer: no referral links and not an advertisement). Helpx is an online platform connecting home-owners and volunteer helpers for a short-term stay, where the volunteer contribute a little labour everyday in exchange for food and accommodation. For me, I stayed with a family for 5 days and did 4 hours of gardening for them everyday, pulling out weeds and stuff. It was hard work. It was a win-win for both though. During the 5 days, I gathered as much useful local information as I could and prioritise finding the next place to stay. They were also kind enough to bring me out on gatherings with their neighbours and friends, which could potentially help (but for my case it did not) in terms of networking. Of course, there are also bad experiences from both home-owners and volunteer helpers at times, as not everyone is a decent human being. That is why it is important to read reviews on the platform, much like online shopping where there are both bad sellers and horrible customers.

Job Search
Naturally, we have to find jobs as soon as possible after finding a place to stay. But one does not simply land into a good job immediately at one’s own convenience. There is the need to send resumes, go for interviews and wait for a job offer. Unless you are loaded with cash, it is recommended that you find a part time job in the meantime. In Asian countries, different part time jobs has different salaries. But for some of the Western countries like New Zealand, there is the minimum wage scheme, hence most of the part time jobs earn you the same salary. During my time it was 12.75 NZD per hour. Since that is the case, the easiest part time job to go for would be the F&B line. There are 2 benefits, the first being the salary as mentioned to keep your daily life running, and the second being the F&B sector usually provides free food which covers some or all of your meals, saving you money during a time when saving every cent is important. I worked for a noodle company, and they provided lunch everyday. That was my only meal. Every lunch I would eat till so full I had no need to eat dinner, and when I wake up the next morning I would drink water till I was full. At work it would be so busy I forgot I was hungry, and at 1500h when the shop closes I would eat my only meal for the day. It saved me a fair bit of money.

Now as you are doing your part time job, continue to send out resumes. In Singapore, bosses like to hire foreign workers because they are cheaper. In New Zealand, that is not so. In addition to the minimum wage policy, there are very few big companies in New Zealand, and many of their companies have actually less than 10 staff. First, the New Zealanders are not that profit driven. Even if they set up shop to do business, happiness seems to be more important. Afterall, if they fail, there is always the unemployment welfare. In fact, New Zealand companies often stop production if their quota is hit, turning away new businesses simply because they feel they are earning enough. That is why when it comes to hiring, the difference in cost between a local and a foreigner is not that important to them.

While New Zealand is generally a friendlier place, there is still discrimination. It probably is worse in many other countries such as Australia. Hence, when you apply for a job, give yourself an English name like John, Mary, Peter etc. During the resume selection process, there is a tendency to filter away all resumes with foreign looking names. By giving yourself an English name, you increase your chances for an interview session, during which you prove to them you are more capable than your competitors.

Skills Shortage List
Many countries decide whether to grant a work permit to a foreigner based on the nature of his job. For example, if you are to go to New Zealand as a road sweeper, chances are they will not want you. But if you are a doctor, then there is a good chance you will be granted a visa quite easily. Before going to a new place, look at their skills shortage list and see if your skills are required. If your skills are not inside, you still have a chance, but you need to know the difficulty of securing a job will be quite high. If your qualifications are what they require, then you will be in demand and should have lesser problems securing employment.

That being said, there is usually a conversion of qualifications to fit their system. For example, how will they know your medical licence is a legitimate one? How will they know your degree is a recognised one? It is just like doctors from India and China coming into Singapore. Just because their countries recognise their licence does not mean that Singapore accepts them. The same goes for us when we go overseas. There is often times a list of inclusion or something, stating that maybe if your degree comes from this university then it is accepted, or maybe you just need to do a test to convert your qualifications to that which the local authorities recognise. Research on that first to see if there is a need for you to do this.

Career Switch Via Education
Sometimes you look at yourself, then you realise you actually do not have any skills that the new country needs. What can you do? In the skills shortage list, there are skills that are easier to learn such as IT and there are skills that are more difficult to learn such as medicine. Aim for the skills that are easy to learn. A one-year professional learning course can get you decent IT skills. But do not learn in your home country first. Get a student visa and go to their university or their recognised school for a one-year course. There are merits in doing so.

First, a student visa generally allows the student to work part time for a certain number of hours a week, which you need to do anyway to survive. Next, your time in the school gives you access to a wider network of friends and resources such as job referrals. Thirdly, countries everywhere look more favourably at their own local academic and professional qualifications, because there is no need to verify it, unless you graduate from an Ivy League university. Fourth, the 1 year student visa gives you 2 years to find a job, usually 1 year for the duration of the course you study and another year extension upon graduation. Fifth, upon your graduation you would have been equipped with skills which allow you to make a career switch. Note that Western countries generally have a more flexible requirement compared to Asian society when it comes to hiring, as in Western countries generally do not require you to have a 10 year experience by age 35 to consider hiring you. So in that aspect, you are quite safe. Unless you are in a very competitive environment like New York City, if not it is still safe to start from zero in a new career in your mid-30s or even 40s.

We can see from the above that by spending some money for a one-year education overseas, the merits are many. If I could start all over again, I would definitely take this route.

Volunteer Work And Membership Circles
Volunteer work is something many foreigners do when they are overseas, not because they care about the community, but because of the benefits it brings which matters to us. In certain organisations, people do volunteer work to expand their network and social circle, and in some places there is the chance for a volunteer to convert to a full time staff should there be a vacancy made available. It is a common story among foreigners overseas. In fact, sometimes the competition for a volunteering spot is so intense that people actually backstab each other just to get a slot.

Then there are those who go to churches every Sunday to expand their network. Praising God is the last of their priority, if it even makes it to the list. There is no need to fork out any money as any donation is purely voluntary. Your only sacrifice is taking a few hours out every Sunday morning. In Singapore and many other countries, this is a very common tactic. In fact, within some of the mega churches around the world, it is known that the rich gather to network. Personally I do not like this, but it is also a fact that there are merits in doing so.

You Will Walk Alone
At the start, you will just be a foreigner (no residency status) with no earning power (no job) and no purchasing power (no money). You are the lowest of the low. The locals look down on you. Not many will bother to help you, simply because they do not know you and simply because they have no obligation to do so. Those who are in the same state as you (the other foreigners) are often your competitors. Do not mistake your social circle of individuals in similar situations to be your friends. Everyone is just coming together for mutual benefits and sharing of certain knowledge and resources. When there is a competition for a job or critical resource, see how fast they show you the true nature of every human.

Prepare To Suffer
It is common knowledge that the middle class has the highest rate of failure. Those who are rich just throw money till they get their residency status. Those who are the bottom class will do everything they can to succeed, from the aboveboard way such as enduring more hardships than others or the not-so-aboveboard manner such as ladies going around and hooking up with different guys until they find one willing to marry them. Many of them ended up being played and dumped, but for the time period they are in a relationship with the guy, they have access to certain network and resources, which they would quickly use to secure a stable footing in the country. No judgement from me here, but stating a fact on the reality. It is the middle class who are not rich enough to solve problems with money nor willing to do whatever they can to succeed. They are better off if they go back, hence do not see the need to suffer or to lower oneself, and hence in terms of competitiveness the middle class often lose out and go back in failure, as I did. Just for information, my hourly pay was 9 NZD per hour in a country where the minimum hourly wage was 12.75 NZD.

Not Everything Is Rosy
Unlike what you see on social media, life overseas is often times hard. People who made it overseas are usually also the bottom feeders or the suppressed middle-class. But at this stage they usually have sunk in too much investment in terms of time, effort and money to turn back. They may have made it overseas, but they will almost never be able to integrate nor be accepted fully by the locals. One of their few joys is to portray their happiness on social media. No criticism from me, but to highlight the reality that while it is good for us to go out and see the world, many times people who stay in their homeland have a better life. What we see on social media are the good parts they want us to see, which more often than not is not the reality.

Conclusion
This article summarises a part of my knowledge and experience which I gained through the hard way when I was in my late 20s. After failure and reflection, I learnt from it and put some of them to good use when I came back to Singapore. Going overseas is not a joy ride in the park. Be prepared to suffer. But for all the hardships, I would say it was quite worth it, for you gain new insights, you grow and mature into a more capable person and you broaden your horizons.

One day, I will try again. To the big world out there once more.

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