9 Reasons I’m leaving Southeast Asia

Written by Andrew Henderson
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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.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Dec 27, 2019 at 3:15PM

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28 Comments

  1. Chris Backe

    Welcome to my world.

    Seriously – after spending ~5 years in Korea, 2 years in Thailand… we were done with Asia. Done everything we wanted to do, and then some. We’re now exploring South America before returning to Canada, then… who knows?

    SE Asia is great, but it’s far from a panacea.

    Reply
  2. Fredrik Aurdal

    I agree. After living in Thailand for a year, I moved back to Europe. It’s true, for the most part it’s very easy to get things done, even if you stay in country that isn’t very rich. I think the reason also has something to do with the ladies Norwegian-American Andrew 😉

    Reply
  3. Pete Sisco

    Good observations. And it’s true, the little things can have a cumulative affect over time. There’s a breaking point.

    We all know no place is perfect and we grow over time, so personal flexibility and adaptability are worth deliberately cultivating.

    We’re heading to Ireland for a few years, and looking forward to having all of Europe in our backyard.

    Reply
  4. Hester

    Funny that you mention smart people in Europe and contrast that with the Philippines. I read a very interesting book a while ago: IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen. This book looks at the correlation between intelligence and the wealth of countries. Aside from capitalism vs. communism, IQ seems to explain a lot. The average IQ in most European countries is close to 100, while it’s 86 in the Philippines, 91 in Thailand and 92 in Malaysia.

    Reply
  5. Dundee

    (this is not related to my previous comment) Anyway, i am curious what are the countries in Europe that have 9-15% of tax? What are those countries? Dont say cyprus…that country is very unstable imo. Also, you mentioned ” I follow what is going on in Central and South America” but what countries specifically? Are you talking about panama and st vincent and grenadines? Which country in south america have low tax and easy to invest?

    Reply
  6. Chris Ferreira

    What parts of Europe are you interested in living and investing in?

    Reply
  7. Aurélien Amacker

    Hi Andrew I’ve been living in Sydney and Colombia and last year we moved back to Europe and we chose Portugal (I’m french and my wife is Colombian). Weather is good, people are super friendly and most of them speak english, food is delicious, it’s so cheap (you can eat at lunch for 5.50 euros).

    Right now many foreigners are moving to Portugal, last year we bought a 95m2 apt for 150 000 euros to rent it on Airbnb, it brings in 1500 euros net income per month.

    Oh, and did I tell you that it’s beautiful and that they have great wine ?

    Reply
    • Duarte Nuno Farbu Pinto

      Hi,
      Where in Portugal did you but the apt?

      Reply
  8. Alo

    This article really resonated with what I’m going through in my life right now. Moved to Thailand when I was 23, now I’m 33 and am in the process of selling everything and returning to the Western world for the very same reasons – no cultural integration in Asia, the way my career is going the opportunity cost of staying in Asia is just becoming too high – would happily take a hit in my standard of life and cost of living for the benefit of being in an environment where I can integrate better with the surrounding society. Just spent two months in New Zealand and made more friends in that two months there than I have in 10 years in Thailand. Now looking to split my life up between NZ, Canada and Europe.

    Reply
  9. Ash

    Why are you apologising for having an opinion?
    I agree with everything you said.

    Reply
  10. webattorney

    An interesting article. What you described is how many Asians feel about living in a Western country. Lol I have not lived in Malaysia, but having lived in Korea, I find general service level in Korea a lot higher than service level in the U.S. One thing I don’t like about Korea though: hot, humid summer weather (plus yellow dusts from China during April/May) and certain items are way more expensive than in U.S., especially since I live in a region of temperate climate in USA.

    I am now exploring other countries such as Panama and Ecuador in which I can retire and spend at least 6 months every year. As I get older, I just detest the U.S. health care system and costs.

    Reply
    • Patrick Wang

      we are in the same boat there.

      Reply
      • Steve

        Nicaragua is the place Costa Rica crime is ramped if your suicidal go to Mexico or El Salvador, Honduras, If you like retards go and live in Cuba or Haiti if you like base ball move to Dominican Republic, Buy a team they dream of going to the US to play so you’ll get there sister’s young and beautiful and free . the women in Nicaragua love Gringos.
        I’m going to try Cambodia this year if not going to move to XXXXXXXXXXXX can’t tell you. US, Americans ruined Costa Rica took 30 years. Thailand is one big tourist trap. Vietnam take it off your bucket list. but the best place in the world for the price to get your dental work done 20% less then Thailand. 85% less then the US. Where shoes at night or boots trust me good luck with all. I love USA but it’s time to go

        Reply
  11. jixiang

    Haha, you need to try and live in Mainland China. Trust me, your complaints about standards of services and being treated as a foreigner in Malaysia would quickly disappear.

    I have just spent a week in Malaysia, and trust me, compared to Mainland China the standard of living and the attitudes are far better. The only problem is that there are more opportunities in Beijing and Shanghai.

    Reply
    • Rich

      I lived in the Mainland of China for roughly 5 and 1/2 years. Even in a tiny isolated village called Yichun way up north. Very tough at times for an extroverted dude like me. Have my sights on a much friendlier country now 😉

      Reply
  12. Patrick Wang

    I strongly encourage westerners moving out of Asia, so the cost of living in the region will decrease more and I can move there to retire.

    Reply
  13. The Truth

    Here’s the real deal.
    1. The entire article is based on find a business and money.
    2. If you have the money and don’t need to work or are retired? You cannot beat S.E. Asia for cost of living including a beach life year around that no weather including Miami in the states can beat.
    3. The End.

    Reply
  14. Sailom

    So true about asia,,,,
    And hope you find the right place for you…

    Reply
  15. Land Lording

    Some people are never happy . Sipping out of coconuts and simple island life is just too boring for them . Haaa . Look at the alternatives… Would you rather go back to the plantation living among western witches and globalist governments who only seek to enslave and destroy men ? Or “SE Asia the single man’s paradise” for early retirement , cheap living , an abundance of women who will treat you like kings ? One of the few oasis’ left for affordable living and traditional relationships . As long as you remember dont fall in love with females and keep your assets in the west then you will be fine guys . ~ Playboy for life , loving and living it up in Philippines !

    Reply
  16. Mike

    Interesting article, however as the founder of [Website removed], a site with over 15,000 Filipino workers registered on it, I have to disagree with the claim of “You won’t find a worker in the Philippines who can provide the same quality service.”, as that’s a stereotype.

    It’s like saying “Polish make good cleaners” or don’t hire the Chinese because they “steal your ideas”.

    Obviously, every country has it’s good and bad, I employed staff in the UK, and the quality there differed greatly.

    Reply
  17. Ian

    Wow… I have a very opposite experience. I am an American expat. I tried to settle down in Warsaw, but I am going back to Thailand. I definitely integrated over there. I only hang with locals and I jam with Thai musicians. Warsaw women are very career oriented (no time for me). Polish language is very tiring compared to Thai. Oh yeah, and at the age of 33 I am completely fine with never experiencing winter again. That feeling of ‘missing the seasons’ is a cruel illusion.

    Reply
  18. southeast asian girl

    It’s funny because I’m a Malaysian who came to Europe to study, and in just a few months I’ve already felt most of what you’ve described in your article. Some (SOME, not all) racist people who refuse to provide me service when I enter their shops, weird looks I get on the streets and public transport just for being Asian, etc. I do admit that there are racist people everywhere in the world, including Malaysia, but never have I met people who can be so vocal about their racism until I came to Europe, nor people who glare at me just for having a different skin colour. On the other hand though, there are also very nice people around, people who are very polite and friendly, but I also do feel that it’s hard to make friends with these locals, just as you do. I guess it’s because of my skin colour? The fact that I stand out as the odd one among them.

    And regarding “food lifestyle”, I actually find it a lot more expensive cooking at home in Europe (Germany and the UK at least) than back in my home country. But to be fair, I’ve lived in Kuala Lumpur my whole life and I know where and how to spend lesser on groceries, which to you might be a challenge since you were an expat instead of a local.

    The Uber issue is also something neither me nor any of my friends have experienced. Uber drivers follow the map instructions to get to their customers, there is absolutely no need for them to ring up their customers. I’m pretty sure it was just that one/two drivers that you were unlucky enough to have met.

    In all honesty, I believe that it’s just harder to integrate into a different society when you’re not a local. Having been in Europe for 6 months so far, I have not made a single friend who is a local, other than one European girl who is a Portuguese, who also claims that the locals in this country (which I’m not going to specify) are not friendly. All of our friends, and I mean ALL, are Asians, even though she’s European and should actually be able to make European friends easily.

    I do feel sorry that you left Malaysia frustrated with my country. I hope you find a better place to settle down and wish you all the best in your future endeavours! 🙂

    Reply
    • Stasa Momcilovic

      Hey! Thank you for sharing your story, we appreciate it. 🙂

      Reply
  19. Rebecca

    How you feel is exactly what I am feeling now, after living in London for 5 years. Mind you, I have also lived in Australia, HK and UAE before this.

    Originally from Malaysia, when I was in my early teens I was fed with the colonial mindset (West is best) mindset. But now I have completely changed my mind and yearn to return home. I would have done so if it wasn’t because I am now married to a Portuguese man.

    I agree with some points you have raised. Especially about taxis. Hence I am glad now grab is available throughout South East Asia now. But on that note, I used to fly and have been to many places, though infrastructure in UK is developed and has good networks but the service is horrible. Trains constantly cancelled or delayed, never on time and people push each other around. Many times I have even witnessed passengers throwing up in the bus.

    On the note of assimilation. I am afraid its the same everywhere. I do not feel at home here at all just because there are subtle or obvious discrimination. I think the worst experience with racism I had was in Australia. My friend was thrown an egg just because he looks different and countless times I was bullied by two white aussie teenage girls whilst working at a cafe when I was a student. I suppose many expats do not try to assimilate at all. They don’t make the effort to say learn the local language and get to know more locals. My husband for example, he speaks malay and is eager to learn. He hangs our at local coffee shops talking to local people. He made the effort and never once did he feel as an outsider. In fact in Malaysia, he has his own friends and he has his favourite hang out spots.

    I don’t find cooking in Asia expensive at all. In fact ingredients are so much fresher and natural. I spend at least £60-£70 per week on food. That’s cooking at home. In Asia u have so many options even till late night. In Europe its dark, wet and everywhere shops close early.

    And the ease of starting a business I think it’s so much easier in Asia than Europe. Too much bureaucracy to do anything. And from my experience in general workers here have very bad work ethics. Always calling in sick and just generally don’t care attitude.

    But there are also good things here such as opportunities and people are given opportunities regardless of educational background. In Asia if you don’t hold a degree, you’re sidelined. That’s one thing I do appreciate here.

    But to each it’s own. Everyone is different. But I wish you luck and hope you find what you are looking for soon.

    Reply
  20. Elite Jersey

    Agree with everything. I lived in KL for 7 years and just had enough of it all. Moved to Europe and feeling much better here.

    Reply
  21. Ot Khmer Ot Phleu

    I have been in Cambodia for a bit over two years and can’t wait to leave. Sipping on coconuts and sandy beaches get old really quickly when you’re not vacationing (Cambodia beaches can’t be enjoyed as they are among the most polluted on earth. Look it up). The pollution, the traffic, the piles of trash on every street corner, the stench, the waiters playing with their phones when you’re over there turning into a windmill just to get their attention, the overall stupidity, the greediness, the uncontrolled development… the list goes on and on. As the author pointed out, the little things add up and eventually will lead you to seriously consider moving to a more developed place. It’s really difficult to have a good day when the day starts off with someone trying to scam you out of some money. That’s just one example by the way. You may also almost lose your life thanks to an Range Rover driving Cambodian or be stuck because someone felt like it was ok to drive northbound in the southbound lane.
    I am willing to trade my life in a tropical Asian country for a life in a country with seasons, genuinely nice people, good food, and the ability to find whatever I need without having to post on an expat group.

    Professionally speaking, Cambodia is a nightmare. For reasons that are well-known, Cambodia doesn’t have a very qualified workforce. I work in a STEM related field and it’s scary to see how uninformed my local coworkers are. I have friends in Bulgaria (from Bulgaria) that would put the most qualified Cambodian mathematician to shame. Knowledge-based jobs are either poorly executed or done by foreign companies. Try to have a somewhat intellectual conversation with a Khmer and in 98% of the time, you will be rewarded with ethnocentric and nationalistic comments. Critical thinking doesn’t exist here.

    I don’t how things are in Malaysia, but in Cambodia, expats and locals don’t mix. Sure, you will see the average Joe shooting the crap with a tuk tuk driver for two minutes. However genuine friendships between Khmers and expats are almost nonexistent. Some say it’s due to the language and cultural barriers. Oddly enough, foreign men seem to have zero issues shacking up with local women. The opposite rarely happens.

    I’m not saying that Cambodia is all bad. Not at all. The country does have some positive features. It’s centrally located meaning that you can easily travel around the region for a decent price. You can live like a king on $3k/ month. You can learn Chinese easily (Cambodia is now a Chinese province). Some Cambodian people do have a big heart and will do their best to make you feel welcome (Thailand doesn’t deserve the nickname “Land of Smiles”. Cambodia does). After a while though, the negative tends to outweigh the positive. I’ve reached that point. I don’t want to hear anymore retirees in a bar boasting about their sexual exploits in Cambodia. No more meth-induced suicides in the expat circles. No more racist discussions about the Khmer behind closed doors. I am DONE!

    All in all, Europe and North America have never looked so damn sweet. 20% tax on revenue? Please take it. Please. If that’s what it takes to have nicely paved roads, a police force that enforces the law, entertainment that doesn’t include alcohol/ drugs/ prostitutes, and a better standard of living, please take it. I’ll throw in an extra 3%. Here you go.

    Reply
  22. Dekker

    “their drivers can’t show up to a location without calling you several times to ask how to get there.” Can anyone explain why Grab drivers in Indonesia require so many confirmation texts?

    Reply

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