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Monday, April 25, 2016

So You Want To Work Abroad: Lifestyle

Working somewhere is a reality for most of us, and I don't think too many people get through their careers without having had a job at some point that wasn't their "dream" job.  But just because most of us need to make money doesn't mean that what you want out of life doesn't matter, or that you should stay at a less than ideal job for longer than necessary.  Jobs outside your home country needn't necessarily be any better or worse than jobs inside your home country from that standpoint, but being outside your comfort zone and away from your usual support network may make the experience more challenging.  Based on my own experience, here are some points that may be worth considering:

1.  Working abroad is probably easier if you really want to do it.  Scott and I did a lot of travel when we were younger, and I think some people assumed that our move to Kazakhstan for work was an encore to meeting in Egypt, spending time together in Syria, and moving to Jerusalem for a year shortly after getting married.  The truth is that while we were not opposed to working abroad, we also weren't chomping at the bit to do it.  The other truth is that we did not specifically seek out going to Kazakhstan; we went for the job opportunities, not the country per se.  I'm glad that we went, but I also think some of the more challenging moments would have been easier if I had honestly been able to tell myself that I had always wanted to go there.

2.  Find out as much as you can about where you will really be living.  When we accepted our Kazakhstan job offers, we were living in a small town in the US.  I was eager to live in a city again, even one where I didn't speak either of the official languages.  Once I arrived, I found out that I would actually be living several miles outside downtown Astana, on the university compound, a living situation that lacked most of the amenities of city life and included quite a few aggravations of small town life.

3.  Also, remember that free housing has drawbacks, as well as benefits.  The obvious benefit, of course, is that you can save a lot more money if you're not paying rent.  The drawback is that in turn, you will have no bargaining power at all because you can't threaten to move out and go someplace else.  Also, you can't decide you want a larger place, a different location, etc., and actually make it happen.  I don't want to rehash our housing issues here and now, but suffice to say that if I had some of the problems we had there in any apartment in the US, I would have moved out.

4.  Think realistically about the language situation.  Is a language you speak widely spoken where you are going?  Great!  If not, is the official language something you would like to learn?  If someone gave you the money and time to learn a foreign language, would that one be the one you would choose?  Would it land anywhere in your top five languages to learn?  Does your employer provide language training?  Scott and I started taking Russian classes, but didn't continue.  I think it's safe to say that Russian was not among our top five languages to learn, and it was taking up a lot of time, a precious commodity that we thought would be better spent on other endeavors. I have mixed feelings about stopping Russian classes now.  It would be cool if I had learned more Russian while I was over there, and our lives might have been easier while we were there. But everything has trade-offs.  I would have actually loved to have learned some Kazakh, but there were no obvious opportunities to do so.

5.  If you are going with a significant other or your family, talk beforehand about what action you will take if circumstances at your overseas job are not what you had envisioned.  It's not a happy topic, but it could happen.  Are there circumstances that you, your significant other, or other family members would find untenable?  Are you comfortable terminating your job contract early?  Are you comfortable with one person returning to their home country while the other person stays?  Is there a maximum length of time you want to spend there, even if you don't have a job offer elsewhere?

6.  Investigate education options for your kids.  Not having kids, I can't speak in detail on this one, but just be aware that there will likely be trade-offs in terms of education. A major benefit--which for some families may outweigh any potential drawbacks--is the opportunity for the kid(s) to become very fluent in the local language.  But their education will likely be different in other ways.  They may learn very different attitudes about gender roles or events in world history, for instance.  Some educational systems value "outside the box" thinking even at the expense of accuracy.  Others place a premium on memorizing facts.  It is worth thinking about what you would like to see in your children's education, and think about what course of action you could take if you turn out to be dissatisfied with the education they receive overseas.

I'll write some tips on dealing with worldly possessions and moving sometime soon...until then, wishing everyone jobs in their dream country with comfortable free housing!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

So You Want To Work Abroad: Health And Money

It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that health and money are sometimes related.  Our story isn't very dramatic, I'm happy to say, but it does bring up some points to keep in mind if you are considering working abroad.

When we were offered our jobs in Kazakhstan, one of the benefits we were told we'd receive was no cost global health coverage.  I assumed this meant that we could take care of our routine check ups, blood work, prescription refills, etc., in the US and pay some sort of a co-pay.  This impression was corroborated by our employer advising us to bring a six-month supply of any prescription drugs we needed to take.  If they were specifically telling us to take care of some portion of our health care in our home countries, that must have meant that we were going to have insurance that worked there, right?

Not exactly.  After we arrived in Kazakhstan, they told us during orientation that in the US, our health coverage was good only for emergencies during the first 28 days of any visit.  I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us.  First of all, we anticipated some of our visits home being longer than 28 days.  Secondly, what exactly did the word "emergency" mean?  I knew we could pay for routine check ups, etc., out of pocket, but what about non-emergency (but medically advisable) surgeries?  What if one of us got sick and needed expensive tests of some sort or another?  I had a health scare a few years ago, so I have an idea of how quickly the tests (and costs) can pile up.

Another interesting wrinkle to this policy is that it meant that even if your initial medical emergency in the US was covered, follow-up care might not be.  We know of at least one person who learned this lesson the hard way.

Of course, you always hope to not need to use your insurance coverage, but medical care is so expensive in the US that we thought it would be too risky to go without better coverage.  One medical emergency without proper coverage could have wiped out all the money we hoped to save over there (and possible more).  The first thing we tried to do was to sign up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare").  Unfortunately, we learned that to sign up in North Carolina, which we were using as our base of operations, we would have to physically reside there for at least six months out of the year.

Fortunately, we were eligible for COBRA coverage from Scott's previous job.  Unfortunately, that ended up costing us around $1,100 per month, an amount that largely negated the benefit of free rent, in my opinion.

Obviously, every job will offer somewhat different benefits, every country has a somewhat different healthcare system, and every individual has a different level of comfort with seeking care outside his/her home country.  That being said, here are some questions that might be worth mulling over if you are considering working abroad:

1.  Do you want to have the option of receiving medical care in your home country while you work abroad?

2.  If so, do you have insurance that will support that?  Do you have any other options for coverage (COBRA, etc.)?

3.  Do you have the funds to travel home in an emergency if you decide you want medical care there, but your insurance does not deem it medically necessary for you to go out of country?

4.  Would you be comfortable having a doctor with whom you may not share a common language?  A medical interpreter whose credentials you can't verify?

5.  Are you comfortable accepting medicine or other treatment that may differ from the standard treatment in your home country?

6.  Do you take any prescription drugs?  If so, are there any legal or logistical hurdles to bringing a large supply with you?  Remember that a medication that may be seen as fairly innocuous in one country may be viewed with suspicion in another.  Oh, and as a tip, if you need a several-month supply or your prescription medicine, be sure not to wait until the last minute to get it.  I used to work in a pharmacy, so this was something I already knew, but I was glad I started in advance.  Even if you are dealing with a conscientious pharmacist, he/she may need some time to work things out with the insurance company or order additional supplies of your medication.  If you are not dealing with a conscientious pharmacist, you may make repeated trips to the pharmacy, find out that nothing has been done with your prescription, and ultimately have to stand there and yell at him/her in order to get it done.

7.  Do you have any medical dietary restrictions?  If so, how easy will it be to follow your diet in the country where you plan to work?

Money is another topic to think consider, especially since the potential to save money is often a draw to jobs overseas.  We did manage to save money, but there are some sneaky ways that money can get away from you.  Here are some that come to mind:

1.  Additional health insurance coverage.  Enough said on that topic.

2.  Assuming that you are being paid in the local currency and to a foreign bank account, exchanging the local currency for your home country's currency, and then transferring it to your home bank account eats up some money.  Also, be very careful about unstable currencies.  We always exchanged our tenge for dollars as quickly as we could once we were paid, out of fear of a devaluation.  Also, find out what you can about how your employer handles a devaluation.  Kazakhstan's central bank decided to let the tenge "float" during our last semester there, which resulted in an immediate and sharp drop in its value.

3.  Buying things you don't already have that you plan to use over there.  We had to beef up our winter clothing, and Scott in particular needed to purchase research materials that he wouldn't have access to out there.

4.  Transporting your stuff.  We had an allowance for shipping household goods.  I'll write more about this another time, but suffice to say for now that we ended up exceeding it.  We didn't exceed it by much with the actual shipping, but then we were charged an arm and a leg in customs fees.  Also, if you're doing stuff like shipping research materials back and forth or traveling with additional bags, those fees add up, too.

5.  Taxes in your home country.  US taxpayers, if you plan to take advantage of the tax break on foreign income, be sure to know how many days you can be in the US each year.  We didn't look into this very closely before we went.  For a variety of reasons, I don't think we would have done anything differently, but we did just end up paying a largish chunk of change in taxes here.  So this is something to be aware of.  Also keep in mind that you may be taxed on certain benefits (plane tickets home, shipping allowances, etc.).  In our case, at least, these were reported as income on the earnings documents our employer provided.

6.  Treating yourself when the going gets tough.  This one probably won't apply to everyone.  If you end up getting a job someplace where you speak the language, the climate is nice, the cuisine is world famous, and there is plenty to see and do around you, you might not feel very stressed out.  And...some of things things weren't the case in our situation.  We spent a good amount of money traveling as a reward to ourselves.  This was fine--it was something we planned to do, and we'll have lasting wonderful memories of it--but it costs money just the same.  Sometimes people also treat themselves by going out to eat or drink a lot, shopping, etc., and all of those things add up.

7.  Storing any stuff you neither got rid of nor brought with you.

Wishing everyone job offers in sunny, happy locations for now!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sushi Burritos!

Not all that long ago--but pretty far away--I first had the idea to eat a sushi burrito.  I was walking through Almaty's Green Bazaar, and saw uncut sushi rolls for sale.  I was hungry, and they looked delicious, so I wanted to buy one and just eat it like a burrito.  I didn't, and to this day, I don't know if this was an amazing culinary opportunity missed or food poisoning safely avoided.  So imagine my excitement when I found out that sushi burritos were actually a "thing" here!

I read about a sushi burrito restaurant called Buredo in the Express newspaper, and knew I had to try it.  Scott was a good sport and went along with me on Saturday.  The line was out the door when we got there, and my heart sank, but they processed everyone very efficiently.  I could see when I got to the head of the line that someone in the back was preparing sheets of nori with a thin layer of rice which could then be filled with fish, veggies, etc.

The end product was a little different from the sushi burrito I almost ate in Kazakhstan--it was much thicker, like a regular burrito.  This was probably a good thing, since a regular uncut sushi roll probably wouldn't be enough for lunch.  And it was delicious.  Mine had plenty of salmon sashimi, which is one of my favorite things.

Buredo is far enough away from where I live and work that I doubt it'll become a regular haunt for me, but I'll certainly go back when I'm in the neighborhood.  It's not often that I get to make up for a meal that I failed to eat!