Are You Sure You Want to Go Global?
The other night I had dinner with two very old friends. Both are American guys like me who have lived in Hong Kong for 20 years or more. One is the top executive in the Asia-Pacific region of a FORTUNE 500 company, and the other is a member of the board of directors of a large listed Hong Kong company. Each of us has served on a variety of boards of directors of non-profit organizations in the Hong Kong community.
We’re all very fortunate to have enjoyed success in our careers and our choice of Hong Kong as a place to raise a family. Each of us is grateful for the opportunities which came our way as a result of living and working in Hong Kong during this dynamic period of change in China and the Asian region. Compared to most cities, Hong Kong is cosmopolitan, relatively open to non-locals, and offers generally attractive tax and immigration policies to visitors wishing to work or start a business.
Over the years of living here, all three of us have been frequent visitors back to the U.S., where we of course still have family and friends. Between the internet and the long reach of global media, we’re in constant touch with news of America, American culture, sports, and American food.
Still, it is one thing to be informed about, and another to be a full-time participant in, your home country and culture. Especially given the speed of change nowadays, the longer you live overseas, the more you are liable to feel like you’re a partial stranger to what’s going on at home. When you visit, you feel slightly out of sync, like a half-foreigner. You notice things which have changed, some for the better and some not. Sometimes you ask dumb questions. Sometimes you even make language mistakes because you’re out of step with the latest lingo. And sometimes, when listening to certain politicians talk, you think you must have originated from a different planet.
This is not a phenomenon unique to Americans, of course. It affects people who live for a long time far from the land of their birth and childhood. Once upon a time, employees posted from head offices to a foreign country were called expatriates. In Hong Kong twenty to thirty years ago, most of these were from the U.K., U.S. or Europe. Expatriate compensation packages of that era were generous and based on the concept of “hardship pay”, including allowances for home rental, schooling for kids, holidays at home, etc. Gradually the composition of employees hired for foreign postings diversified to include people from all over the globe, and the compensation packages evolved as well. As a result, the term “expatriate” has become something of a historical one.
If you had asked me when I first arrived in Hong Kong what the chances were that I would remain here for ten, twenty, or thirty-plus years I would have confidently said: “absolutely zero.” I didn’t anticipate or plan it that way. My two friends would probably have said the same thing. One thing lead to another, and we stayed flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities which presented themselves. Right place, right time, right attitude — all three are equally important.
Living far away from home has many benefits, but it also involves lots of sacrifices, especially in terms of proximity to parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. It’s not for everyone. Some people find it very challenging to accept the long distance they feel from familiar surroundings, language, customs, food, sports, the environment, etc.
It’s also potentially misleading using a highly cosmopolitan and efficient city like Hong Kong as a benchmark.
Living in many other parts of the world, the people you would tend to encounter daily tend to be provincial — inward looking rather than outward looking — and neither well informed nor particularly interested in the world outside. That can be a serious obstacle to building friendships and mutual understanding.
And let’s not forget that racial prejudice and discrimination are still a factor in many places.
So, to some extent, the personal challenge of going global depends to some extent on the “where” factor. I freely admit that I’ve probably been spoiled by being in Hong Kong during this particular phase of history.
When my two friends and I began our personal versions of the “go global” story, there was no way of knowing that China was about to embark upon a historical opening process which would fundamentally accelerate the process of globalization.
Young people today can weigh their career options with a lot more certainty insofar as the huge demand for globally skilled and qualified talent goes. As to whether it’s the right path for you, that deserves careful consideration.
Finally, in order to successfully go global, you don’t need to live overseas as long as me and my two friends have. But beware, because time flies when you’ve having fun, working hard, and raising a family.
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