Sunday, January 23, 2011

Asian Opportunity

After my last post there was a short exchange in the comments about how where you live has an effect on how you live and what you can do. While I am the first to recognize that much of what shapes your outlook on life comes with you as mental traits that can be changed in one location just as easy as in any other, I also feel very strongly that opportunities and life style can be strongly shaped by where you choose to live. My thesis is that what I am currently doing, or have been doing could not have been done if I had stayed in the States. I figured I'd make this into a full post because I realized I've never really fully explained much of the differences clearly and have only alluded to them in ways that someone who has never been to Asia might miss. So my response in this way also isn't fully aimed at Rob, who will undoubtedly already be familiar with some of the things I go over, but instead I'm turning it over to a more general accounting to readers in the west who have only some or little experience in the east.

Below are the relevant parts of the previous discussion;

Robert Hartman: Great post, but I tend to think circumstances are a lot like zip codes... I've had a lot of friends move to lots of different places over the past few years, pursuing a lot of different dreams and most seem to be discovering that, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Brian Smith: No doubt that you take yourself with you wherever you go, but to ignore the difference in opportunities that exist in some places over others is to turn a blind eye to the reality of vastly different terrain, economic, cultural, and weather differences. I simply couldn't do the things I'm currently doing in the US, I wouldn't have the time that I have, and the costs are much higher. Ultimately different environments allow for different living habits. Now had I not made a drastic move and just went to some other spot in the US, then I would agree, not enough of a difference to really change the circumstances of what your doing.

Robert Hartman: I don't claim that changing your circumstances can't positively or negatively impact your life. We should all exert all our effort to live the life we want to live... but ultimately if you are satisfied with whatever life you end up with that is a product of how you approach it, regardless of circumstance. In my limited understanding of buddhism, that seems to be a central theme.

One man's exotic locale is just someone else's backyard. I'm glad you are happy where you are, I really am, I'm just saying that if you are willing to put up with a stale fridge and lack of hot water for extra time in the day, you can pretty much do that anywhere.

I work all day with people who made the opposite migration and they see the opportunities in exactly the opposite way. I think there is a grass is always greener element here. Knowing you can always return home and be living in the world's upper middle class within 6 months is very different than having that door permanently closed to you.

Again, I'm not criticizing you personally, I'm just saying that opportunity looks very different depending on where you come from.

Ok, so where to start. First I want to be clear that I agree with almost everything Rob said in the last post, well at least in the first and the last paragraph and I essentially take issue with the two in the center. The issues I want to cover here are costs, opportunities, and finally the education/learning/social aspects of living abroad and how these vary widely from just migrating within the first world and varies considerably from staying within your home country.

One thing that he very correctly asserts is that opportunity looks very different depending on where you come from. As someone that comes from a country like the US with a currency that is highly valued in the world market, my opportunities once I possess it are very different than someone who is earning an undesirable currency. In the US it's hard to take advantage of this as everyone there also earns dollars and as a result our cost of living is in accordance with what everyone earns. Where the leverage exists is that if once you have put away a decent amount of a highly valued currency and then go to a place with much lower valued currency you have instantly increased your buying power and thus relative wealth by a large margin.

Many people who live in Kathmandu and work at desks or as semi-skilled labor make roughly $100/month. The cost of living is then relative to that amount for the mot part for the natives of the city. Now some cultural differences skew the numbers. Nepali's, and many Asians, earn wealth as an extended family that pools a bank account, so individual wealth spending and earning power can be hit or miss to correlate directly. Also the cost of living for a foreigner in most of these countries s higher as there is a two tier price system that is based on the color of your skin. That's just the way things are and there isn't any way to sugar coat it. All that said, the disparity is quite great and so regardless of the exact numbers it's clear that earning US$  at the rate that is common in the States and then having the ability to supply your standard of living while abroad stretches how far those dollars go by a very large multiplier. As you note too, if you are from a country like Nepal, the ability to go to a country like the US and earn that higher income, especially if you can send some of it home to help out family, is a very good opportunity. It's not that the grass is always greener, it's simply a matter of opportunity based on where the person is coming from and what they already have.

While living here has certain challenges that often get highlighted, I should also note that there is simply no way we could live nearly as comfortably as we do here on the amount of cash that we are spending if we remained in the US or any first world country. Here is a quick list of some prices for comparison (I'm converting all amounts to US $ and measurements for quick comparison);

1 Bedroom Apartment:  $130/Month
Landline Phone: $4/Month
My Cell Phone Bill so far this year: $7
Water Bill: $7/Month (occasionally $15 in the dry season if we had to have a truck deliver it)
Electric Bill: $8/Month
Internet Bill: $22/Month
5 gallons of drinking water: $0.75
Taxi across Town: $2
Taxi to Patan (One town over): $3
Bus halfway across the country: $4
Western Style Medical Check Up/Perscriptions/Consultation: Roughly $100 (based on tooth extraction and localized infection- the two things I've dealt with while here)

These costs/quality can not be achieved anywhere. I mean sure you can go find a cave anywhere and live there, but I'm not quite there yet(although would I be fined by the US government for not having purchased health care?). Local food costs are also very low, tomatoes are roughly 0.35/lb and although onions are currently high due to crop failures in India they have over most of our visit been close to 0.20/lb. Meat prices are close to what we pay back home, about $1.50/lb on chicken with the rate going up for just a cut of breast meat. Where prices go through the roof is when you want to buy an imported good, there are few local cheeses and almost no corn products like tortillas and chips, and so not only do you pay relative to the price from which those products are imported from, you also have to pay the fees that make it worth bringing here. A bag of corn chips sets you back $4.50 and Philadelphia Cream Cheese can set you back almost $10 for a tub. Where locally produced options are available you can pay much more reasonable amounts. Another thing to consider is that some of these low prices cascade into other savings, for instance because Taxi's and buses are so cheap there is no reason to buy a car, which means there is no reason to pay for gas or insurance...all things that are major costs back home.

I bring all this up to highlight that living costs are so much lower that if you arrive with a decent amount of cash or have a way to secure a foreign salary while in one of these countries you can live very well for very little. This means you can buy time cheaply, and time not spent paying off the bill collector is an opportunity for time spent doing things that might not immediately make money (or ever) that you still would really like to do. Currently I'm writing a book, and I try to spend at least a couple hours six days a week concentrating on it. I also spend quite a bit of time researching it through reading and various online searches. I write in this blog, I wrote for a travel book (think it'll be out in March), and for a short time I helped found the most exciting start up company in the country right now. Even with large spending reductions back home I simply could not afford the kind of time I have over here, and without that time I simply wouldn't have the energy to devote to the things I'm doing. I know, because I've tried to do most of them while I was never really worked.

This is a big one because it is not immediately apparent in the way most people consider it. Most people think that this is all about getting to see exotic cultures and go to different places. Some of that is true, but to be honest what once seemed exotic seems everyday...but that was never the point. You see back in the U.S. you might be like everyone else, but when you come to a place in Asia you suddenly realize that just by being from a different part of the planet you have a whole host of valuable skill sets that set you apart from most of the population where you live. It's kind of like how superman was nothing special back home, crosses that yellow sun arrives on earth and all of a sudden he's something special.

The easiest way to understand this might be to think about foreigners who have made it back in the U.S. Before Chinese and Thai people made their awesome restaurants in the U.S. there was no good Thai or Chinese food. It wasn't because Americans wouldn't eat it, we just didn't know about it or how to make it. It's not that Americans aren't good at running Hotel chains, but because Indian families work together as a single financial cohesive unit and don't mind living at the hotel together as a family they do very well and can make decent money running such operations. In the same way, an American comes to Aisa and immediately finds out that things like speaking English, their education, experience in professional fields can all be rare and highly in demand attributes. In developing countries (a term I kind of hate to use), a foreigners extensive familiarity with how things work back in their home country gives them the opportunity to reinvent something that is already a tried and tested thing that people just doesn't exist yet because like Chinese food at one time in America, the local population isn't aware they would like it yet. This is essentially what did, we took something like Online Shopping, that we know people in much of the world already love, and created a way for the local population in Nepal to get around all the barriers that prevented them from joining the rest of the planet. Demand for these kinds of services is there, the infrastructure just needs to be created.

This brings me to another point which is the ease with which a company can be created over here as opposed to the U.S. While the paperwork here is draconian and the rules often applied arbitrarily and with a heavy hand toward corruption, there is little intervention once up and running. Most importantly the regulation isn't so damn stifling. Reams of paperwork and hundreds of man hours are required of small businesses in the US and  while it is done mostly in the guise of protecting consumers it essentially serves to just drive up costs and create redundant jobs (which further drive up costs). Employing people in the US is a huge headache, with the costs of employment absolutely prohibitive to start up companies that do not have access to significant capital or are willing to go into a serious amount of debt. Aside from the government taking a third of your paycheck, American employers have to shell out about an additional third of your salary to cover their costs of employing you due to unemployment taxes, health, and social security commitments. In Asia, due to lower regulations, and much lower costs of living you can pay people competitive wages and create a fun work environment for the smallest fraction of what it would cost in the States. Being an entrepreneur without connections to deep pockets over here is much easier than it is back home.

Social Aspects
Finally there are the social/education/experience benefits that you have when living over seas, especially in places that are quite different than where you come from. while one exotic locale might just be someone else's backyard, having an insight into how that guy runs his backyard as opposed to how you've been running yours can offer quite a bit of insight. The thrill of being someplace different just because it's different wares off rather quickly and things that I now take for granted would no doubt shock friends and family back in the west. Important differences include approaches to notions of the family unit, how work is to be conducted, how social gatherings are run, what good food is, etc.

Then there are the opportunities to visit and travel to other nearby locations. I've been able to travel to Tibet, romp around amongst the highest peaks in the world, travel to quiet lakeside towns and experience high altitude desert plateaus. With a short three hour flight I was exploring the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia and swimming in the gulf of Thailand. Next month I'll be taking a short flight to visit Bhutan, a secluded Buddhist Kingdom on the east end of the Himalaya, and after I get back I'll be setting out to walk to the base of Mt. Everest again. It's not that any of these are essential to life, or even that I couldn't be happy if they were not available to me, my point is that by placing myself in a location where these are all easily available opportunities for me to seize upon I've increased these kind of experiences without compromising other values or working copious amounts of hours to afford them from a position back in the States.

Then there is simply the experience of living a different way of life. The pace here is different, the people you meet and interact with are different, and in the end it again serves as a way to give you a certain amount of perspective. Sometimes it forces you to learn more skills, you become a bit more patient, you learn new concepts of social interaction that didn't make sense from afar. You may still be perplexed as to how anyone can find soccer or cricket exciting, but in turn the questions of how Americans can find our version of football exciting is illuminating as to how other people see it. My point is that you gain what I think is one of the most important parts of any education and that is the ability to find unquestioned preconceptions about the world and see how they are not only not always a certain way, but how they are in fact viewed differently. The more comfortable we become with this the more we are able to apply it to broader parts of how we look at and approach things within our experience.

Finally there is the concept that a new location can break the bonds of old habits. Maybe some of these things could have been done if I had stayed back home, but by simply changing my surroundings and creating a new home environment it freed myself of many of the habits I had fallen into that I wished to get rid of. Sometimes the perception of change itself acts as a strong catalyst in creating actual change within a person. Maybe I didn't have to go half way around the world to get away from playing too many computer games, but regardless I have gotten away from it. Maybe I could have spent more time writing after work, despite being exhausted, but I never really did, where as I have here. Maybe tomorrow I am forced to be back in Maine living in the cold and snow and working 12 hours a day.....and if that were the only option I'd embrace it and make a good life of it. Barring those circumstances though I'll work toward creating an environment for myself where the chances of that are low.

Final Thoughts
 Knowing you can always return home and be living in the world's upper middle class within 6 months is very different than having that door permanently closed to you.
Maybe, but something to keep in mind is that by coming here I've never left that category, and if anything you are treated better over here in some ways than back home. Just by being born where we were and having access to the education, and upbringing that we did there are always certain options open to us that only a small portion of the world have. I'm not trying to brag or make some moral claim one way or the other about this, it just happens to be the way the world works. Even if I were never allowed to return to America, that door would for the most part always be open to me. To be entirely honest if it were not for friends and family or the fact that I may have to compromise with what my better half wants to do with her life, I would not be in a hurry to ever go back to the US. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, UAE, New Zealand, Turkey, Hong Kong, China, Australia, Costa Rica, Greece; all of these places are locations where I would be thrilled to be able to spend some time. Maybe I can, and maybe I can't but my position in life is established by what I've already done, what I know, and where I was born....not by if I ever could go back. That door whether I want it to be or not, will it seems always be open to me.

In the end location is just a part of what dictates circumstance, and I am a firm believer that the quality of a human life lies not in its circumstances but in the choices that the individual makes. In this way I am very sympathetic to the concept of "wherever you go there you are" and to Kim's chagrin I say this far too often. That said, one of the choices available to the individual, within certain limitations, is where they choose to spend their time and their life. Finding a spot that maximizes the chances of what it is you want to get out of life is part of that process. For many friends and family of mine they have found that back in Maine in the US. For me, while I could make a very good life there, I am very content with my decision instead to spend it here, and I think the results thus far bear that out quite well.


  1. Good thoughtful, post.

    I was pretty aware of all of those reasons prior to your post, but I'm sure it was illuminating for some.

    Like I said before, I am really glad you found a place to do what you love. I hesitate to say I have a problem with your "argument," since it isn't an argument at all, just a set of very true facts. And while I don't think we should spend too much time sweating over the things we won in the birth lottery, it is important to acknowledge that, as you do here.

    My only reservation with this line of thinking is that what you point out as advantage is clearly diminished (just slightly) every time someone takes you up on it. Your advantages over there stem from the relatively limited number of Westerners living there. So in practicality, it is good advice for someone who is for whatever reason discontent with their life because they can't find a good work-life balance here, but it lacks universality (not that that was your goal) because if everyone in the West took you up on it (not that that would happen), the advantages would evaporate.

    So, like I said, it is great for you, and I'm glad for you, but those advantages are, essentially, made possible by the productivity of people in the another part of the world working 9-5. That's not a practical limitation, but it means that it is only solid advice for a necessarily limited number of people. I know that isn't a concern of yours, but so much of your work has been on offering a universally useful way to live, that I'm just pointing out the lack of universality here. The majority of people still have to find a way to cope with living where they were born, roughly.

  2. I'm only concerned with universality when the application is universal. I'm certainly not making the argument that everyone should move and come to Asia, just that for certain people, with certain goals, with certain life styles will find it very rewarding. My biggest point is that geographic location can be a big aid in adjusting circumstance to better coincide with what it is you are trying to accomplish and not taking advantage of that might be a mistake. What that location might be varies tremendously according to the person in question. Things like family, income, travel opportunity, nationality, adaptability,standing capital, connections and contacts, etc. all make this a very unique problem to solve for different individuals.

  3. If you added computer games it would not only more fully enrich your life but Kimmay would once again find a greater appreciation of the time you spend with her.


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