Dateline: Warsaw, Poland
I’m going to cut right to the chase today and start with a warning: this post might be a little negative. You’ve been warned.
Here’s the deal, I’m done with living in Southeast Asia.
Now, I’m not going to say that Southeast Asia is a terrible place or that you shouldn’t live there. I’m not even going to say that I don’t like Southeast Asia. I’ve maintained a base there for the last three years. Obviously there are a lot of positives.
But I’m going to be totally honest with how I feel about things. Take it for what you will, but personally, I’m looking for something else. Some of my reasons might resonate with you, others may not.
Whether they do or don’t, here are my reasons for leaving Southeast Asia.
1. Limits to Social Assimilation
To tell the truth, it’s harder to become integrated into society in Asia as a foreigner. There are thousands of digital nomads throughout Southeast Asia, but rarely do they integrate into society.
As time goes by, priorities change. You get out of your 20s and you want to be connected in some way to some thing or somewhere.
It’s hard to do that in Asia.
Don’t get me wrong, the people in Southeast Asia are very nice people. And Malaysia is probably the best country in the region for those looking for a more western culture. It is — in a good way — the United States of Asia due to its wide range of diversity and the number of people who speak English there.
Yet, I have more personal friends and contacts in places outside of my base in Kuala Lumpur than I do in all of Malaysia. That’s partially my fault. I chose not to live in a place where there are a lot of expats. I could have lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand (which might as well be the 51st state) and have had an easier time integrating into the expat society there, but that wasn’t what I was looking for.
And while there a lot of oil and gas expats in Malaysia, I wasn’t looking for an expat community there, either. Integrating into an expat community is very different from assimilating into the culture of a given location. And while every experience is what you make of it, it’s definitely tougher to make friends in Southeast Asia than other locations where I’ve traveled.
I figure that if it’s easier to assimilate into a culture or country where I don’t live, it’s time to move on.
2. Business Barriers to Entry
It’s not only difficult to integrate socially in Southeast Asia, but also professionally. For instance, it’s hard to join in or work with people in an existing business.
That being said, I still think that starting a business there can be very profitable. I have one friend in Cambodia who is doing well with various businesses. In fact, there’s quite a bit that can be done throughout Asia with great potential payoff. Since it is harder to do business there, those who choose to stay, invest and make it work definitely have the chance to do very well.
But I’m not looking to make my first $100,000. I’m looking for a place to grow what I already have, which means I can look at opportunities where people are more open to outsiders and the business culture is more welcoming overall.
3. The Foreigner Disadvantage
Apart from not being able to assimilate into Southeast Asian society, being a foreigner (especially a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner) anywhere in Asia makes you stand out as a target for people who have no qualms with taking advantage of your . . . westernness.
For instance, try getting a taxi in Asia when you look like me without getting ripped off. Kuala Lumpur, for all of its good things, is one of the worst cities in the world for taxis. And even though they have Uber in Malaysia, their drivers can’t show up to a location without calling you several times to ask how to get there.
But you have to use Uber because, as I said, taxi drivers will overcharge you every time.
Contrast that to Tbilisi, Georgia where I can stop any taxi, speak seven words of Russian and get treated fairly every time. I’ve never paid more than US$2.50 to go anywhere in the city.
I’m not claiming that people in Asia are the only offenders when it comes to taking advantage of foreigners. I’m more than positive that when Chinese investors go to the United States, there’s probably some guy in a real estate office just dying to exploit their total lack of understanding of the US real estate market.
Believe me! When I was in Hong Kong I saw an outfit selling California real estate for US$40,000 – $50,000 per property in the Twentynine Palms area east of Palm Springs. Those properties are basically in the middle of the desert! But do the Chinese know that?
So, it’s not that Asian people are racist, but let’s be honest, there are certain occasions where people will take advantage of the fact that you’re a foreigner.
On the other hand, there are times when I have received kindness. For instance, every time I’ve walked into the GEM restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, they have remembered me. There are really nice people who treat you well. So, in some ways, standing out is nice.
As a rule, however, I’m starting to look for somewhere where I can integrate into society and not worry about being “the foreigner.”
4. Food Lifestyle
Something as simple as wanting to cook my own food can be a costly desire living in Asia. I rarely cooked food in my apartment in KL for the simple reason that it would cost me a fortune.
First of all, while I had a beautiful apartment, most apartments simply don’t come with a big oven or a dishwasher. Cooking customs in other parts of the world aren’t the same as in the US, and since it’s not what you’re used to, you tend not to cook as much.
Cooking for yourself can also be expensive simply because prices are higher in the areas where the majority of expats choose to live. Most people aren’t going to live in a cheaper area of the city just to get lower food prices, so expat-priced food is one of the costs you sort of have to add on.
You can eat an abundance of street food for incredibly cheap prices, but there are times when I want to have more control over what’s in my food. I don’t want to buy the smoothie that’s full of sugar. I want to know what’s in my stuff.
And I don’t want to pay exorbitant amounts of money just for the privilege of cooking for myself. It may seem like a small detail, but things definitely add up.
5. Poor Customer Service
Another one of the little things that seems so minuscule you’d think it wouldn’t matter, but after years of the same tends to build up, is the quality of customer service you often receive throughout Southeast Asia.
For instance, The Majestic is one of the nicest hotels in all of Kuala Lumpur. The tea they serve is some of the best you can find and the cost is phenomenal for what you get. But try asking them if you can take some of their tea sandwiches home with you and they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. I had to ask them six times and they still didn’t really understand.
Another example: my apartment was in a nice building serviced by doormen from places like Nepal and Bangladesh. They are wonderful people and I would even buy them dinner from time to time because I know just how little they get paid. But since they don’t speak the language, they never went out of their way to actually serve their customers.
It may seem like a simple annoyance, but they would never send the food delivery guy up to my apartment and required that I would go down to meet him. That’s not a huge deal, but it’s the kind of service you would expect in a nice place.
The point is, I have made a resolution to solve each problem in my life, however minuscule it may be. I am not letting problems linger. I’m not going to go around a problem. I’m fixing the problem. So even if the problem is as simple as not being able to get the food delivered to my apartment, I’m going to fix that problem.
6. Lackluster Banking Institutions
The poor customer service spills over into Asia’s banking institutions as well. Overall, banks are very difficult to work with in Asia.
Banking in Hong Kong has become an utter mess. Talk about filling out form after form after form. Hong Kong bankers are the quintessential definition of paper pushes. Even worse, there’s zero innovation coming out of the banking institutions in these countries. Singapore may be the one exception, but Hong Kong? Forget it!
In a lot of Asian countries you can’t even get a bank account. And in many you wouldn’t want a bank account. In most cases, you have to have certain residences or do certain things to qualify to open an account and it’s just not that easy and really not worth it.
In places like Hong Kong, banks like HSBC have stated that they simply don’t want to open any more new accounts. They literally want to stop opening accounts unless you live there and have millions of dollars.
I can’t say that the customers they will lose are at a disadvantage, though. The HSBC in Hong Kong looks like it’s from the 1990s, and when I had a premiere account with them it was the most un-premiere thing I have ever experienced. They took weeks to return my calls and needed me to come in to their branch for basic procedures.
Banks in Singapore are a bit better, but if you are a foreigner banking in Asia and you can’t figure out the online banking one day, forget it.
In Europe, on the other hand, you can go and start a bank account or get health insurance without problems in most places. In fact, you can go and do a lot of things without feeling like you are being held back.
7. Europe is Exploding with Opportunity
One of my biggest reasons for leaving Southeast Asia is because I want to be in the middle of everything that is happening, and that means living closer to Europe.
I see more opportunities and more ease of operation in Europe. In Asia, for example, I helped one friend start a real estate business built around helping people figure out the Asian real estate market. He has been successful because, without outside help, it’s almost impossible figure out real estate in the region.
Malaysia is still a very open place for real estate, but things are very overpriced. To find the best opportunities, you have to dig really deep. But only a few are willing to go to somewhere like Cambodia where you have to personally put your thumbprint on the deal. If that’s you, that’s fine, there’s a lot of money to be made there if you know what you’re doing.
If you want a more normal lifestyle like I do, however, there are plenty of places to look other than Southeast Asia. In Europe, if you want to buy a house, you can almost do it on your own. The process is simpler, the laws are more open, and there are more protections for everyone involved.
Plus, if you run a business like mine that is knowledge-based, you probably ought to look to a place like Europe anyway.
I’ve said for a long time that my sphere of influence is between Dublin and Hong Kong. I follow what is going on in Central and South America (I have a team member there and I make at least one visit there each year to keep up on things), but I increasingly recognize that the opportunities for most people are somewhere “between Dublin and Hong Kong.”
Plus, Europe checks most of the boxes for what you should be looking for offshore, especially for residencies, citizenship programs and low taxes. There are so many countries with taxes as low as 9, 10, and 15 percent.
Also realize that Europe does not automatically mean Belgium or France. There’s so much to Europe. There are so many places to invest.
Personally, I want to be in the middle of that.
8. Better Talent Value
Another benefit to working in Europe over Southeast Asia is the cost per value of the labor force. If I were to start a knowledge-based business and could only work out of one country in Europe, I wouldn’t know which one to pick … Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova … there are so many countries with incredibly smart people with a strong work ethic willing to work for a fraction of the cost.
We recently hired someone from Serbia and I can guarantee you that she is doing three times the work than what we’ve seen hiring people in Asia before. She’s on the ball and understands what we’re looking for. You won’t find a worker in the Philippines who can provide the same quality service.
By the way, this doesn’t just apply to Asia. A friend of mine who runs a business in Panama is talking about packing up and moving to Germany because, for the same price he pays for a top-notch English speaker in Panama, he can hire someone in Germany who can do even better work.
There is a better knowledge base and — while Asians are very, very smart people — you can find more attentive individuals to hire who offer better value work on the whole.
9. Changing Priorities
Finally, I am leaving Southeast Asia simply because my priorities are changing. I am proud to have called Malaysia my home base, but I am moving on and growing up.
The reality is, I’m getting too interested in family, too interested in seasons (yes, winter, spring, summer, fall), and too interested in total ease of life and people who understand me to remain in Southeast Asia. Especially when there are places in Europe that better match my motto of going where you’re treated best.
Plus, it’d be nice to have a home and Europe better accommodates that type of life. There’s a part of me that sees Asia as the place where men go to meet women and enjoy warm weather. I’ve grown out of that. I’ve gotten tired of drinking out of a coconut every day. The good news is that when I do want to drink out of a coconut, I can go on vacation . . . whenever I want.
For now, I am looking to Europe as a place to live, do business, and continue to grow as a person.