Friday, 31 January 2014

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing… Drew McNeill

Our latest guest blogger, Drew McNeill, fills us in on his experiences of beginning life in The Fragrant Harbour.

Image source: Creative Common/Trodel
Memories are often lost; some become less black and white, perhaps more a shade of grey. But others are forever etched in your mind, so that you can remember the faintest details with such precision it still manages to take your breath away. My first sight of Hong Kong Island - 20,000 feet up in the air and with a little cloud coverage to exaggerate the magical array of blazing lights shining from the most beautiful forest of skyscrapers – well, that is a moment I can’t forget.

Striking gold
I had it lucky—I had a best friend already living in Hong Kong and making friends becomes much easier when you have a connection. Connections, though, are where expats have the upper-hand over tourists. Expats have work colleagues and as expat communities  which allow them to meet and start spending time with people immediately. Expats in Hong Kong are no different - they all want to make more friends. On top of this, my colleague (who became a very dear friend who I miss terribly now that I’m back in the UK) gave me her apartment for 6 weeks because she wasn’t using it at the time. I’d struck gold.

Harsh elements
After only one day on South Bay Beach to recuperate after my flight, I had my first day in the office (having found a job before setting out). Air-conditioning in your apartment is essential for most of the year; on my first day at work I had it on arctic cold, put on my suit and left the apartment to a wall of heat and humidity. A three minute walk outside is all it took to realise why everyone looked as though they had had a full workout at the gym—it was just the effect of a brief walk outside at the mercy of the elements.

I arrived at the office to meet my boss and colleagues for the first time. The women on reception took pity on me as I was drenched thanks to the humidity and my boss simply laughed while informing me “you’ll get used to it.” Be warned…it gets very hot and humid!

Octopus travels
The underground train system called the MTR is one of the most efficient and cheapest in the world, and the city travel card can be used nearly everywhere from fast food restaurants to local newsagents. Most interchanges between different underground lines have you coming off a train to get straight on the next one. Even if you do have to walk a little to get to the train you need, all signage is very well positioned to make your journey as smooth as possible.

Victoria Harbour
My first week was packed full of activities outside of work. I recommend taking the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central Pier; it’s only a 10 minute journey but the view of the cityscape from Victoria Harbour is one of the most mesmerising sights to behold. Do this trip twice, once during the day and once at night. Both are spectacular.  For New Year’s Eve (and nearly every Sunday), we hired a junk boat with our own captain and staff to provide the ultimate Victoria Harbour party—the fair price means these boat trips are not reserved for the fabulously wealthy!

West East fusion
Hong Kong is an astounding blend of the Orient and the West. The two collide with an undeniably insatiable result. You can enjoy the western restaurants in Soho or the dim sum houses in Tsim Sha Tsui. You can spend a day at Ocean Park and enjoy rollercoasters with views all over the island as well as the South China Sea.

To step back in time, take a trip to Tai O fishing village on Lantau Island, home to the Tanka people, where you’ll see an ancient Chinese form of life with houses on stilts over the water and little sampan boats to take you out on the water to see Hong Kong’s playful pink dolphins.

This city offered me an opportunity to grow. I learnt about a culture I knew nothing about, I made friends from far flung places and my eyes are now open to what the world can offer. Hong Kong is a great place for expats starting out for the very first time or for the veterans among us.

Gong Hei Fat Choi (May you have much joy and wealth)!

Have you experienced life in The Fragrant Harbour? Share your hints and tips here with other expats:  

About the author
Drew started his career in Hong Kong as a business journalist reporting on all things HR and corporate strategy and has recently moved to London to continue his career in communications. He spends his free time travelling and is partial to a blockbuster at the cinema.  You can find out more about Drew here and connect with him on Twitter by following @12just3drewit

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Becoming Sydney

Image source: Creative Common/Jason Smith
Great, your mind is made up and you’ve decided on Sydney as your next home! So start packing for Australia and you’ll be calling yourself a Sydneysider in no time, as, before long, you’ll feel like you were born in the most famous city Down Under.

Sydney is the most populated city in Australia and it often tops the charts of world cities for its quality of life. It was chosen to host the Olympic Games in 2000 and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. On top of that, it is home to the largest social and cultural festivals in Australia including the Sydney Festival (arts), the Big Day Out (rock music) and the Sydney Film Festival.  So it really is a city which caters for every taste.

Here’s a to-do list to ensure you uncover some of Sydney’s gems, but feel free to check out our hints & tips tool to check out the advice of other expats if you need the inside track on what’s going on in the city.


1. Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge: Yes, it may seem an obvious choice but when you conquer any inhibitions or fear and reach the top, that view will eclipse any other.

2. Take a whirl on a Thunder Jet Boat down the harbour: You’ll get up close and personal to Harbour Bridge from a completely different angle—just remember that you’ll definitely get drenched in the process!

3. Set aside time for the beach: Take the boat trip over to Manly Beach and spend the day soaking up the rays.

4. Stroll down Manly Wharf: With many delicious treats to choose from, we recommend getting yourself some pancakes from one of the famous cafes. Delicious would be an understatement.

5. Get out of the city: We know you’ll have just arrived, but the Blue Mountains offer fantastic scenery which will leave you feeling at one with Mother Nature.

6. Go on an excursion around the Sydney Opera House: It is in fact a complex of multiple performance venues and key residencies are held by Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

7. Go up market: Take a stroll around Darling Harbour and choose between the amazing restaurants on offer—just note that the prices are somewhat more expensive and the environment is sophisticated.

8. Have dinner at Sydney Tower: Enjoy the range of weird and wonderful food on offer at the buffet here. They have everything from crocodile to emu on the menu!

9. Relax in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens: The gardens are home to ponds, pyramid glasshouses and a colony of over 22,000 grey-headed Flying Foxes!

10. Go surfing: Have a surfing lesson at Botany Bay to truly understand the essence of being Australian.

This list comprises of ideas that will leave you feeling refreshed, invigorated and possibly terrified but don’t forget that the easiest way to find new fun things to do as well as integrate into your new home is to make friends.

Start feeling lucky - Sydney truly has it all! It’s a city which accommodates every whim and is a fantastic choice of city to immigrate to. 

Monday, 27 January 2014

Fictional Expats

As an expat, it’s always great to hear from other people in the same position. It’s the perfect way to find advice, new haunts and of course, friendship. And reading about fictional expats can be similarly inspiring – even if you can’t meet up with characters for a drink in your new location. Here, we give you a (very scientific) history of fictional expatriation:

1. The Trojans – the ultimate expats (who eventually found Rome!): Virgil’s epic Aeneid may not leap out as expat literature but it is most definitely a story about relocation, culture shock and the difficulties of integration (even if war is thrown in at every stage for good measure). Aeneas and crew leave modern day Turkey and try out several destination countries (including Carthage in modern day Tunisia) before settling in Italy. Serial expats take note – it may take several trial runs before you find the best place to settle down!

Image Source: Creative Common/William Miller
2. Robinson Crusoe – the reluctant expat: Crusoe was shipwrecked which is a little unusual nowadays, but many of you may also have had an unexpected start to expat life – being posted by your company to an unfamiliar location. Take inspiration from the Defoe novel and get to grips with your new home – the landscape, food and wildlife. And beware the effects of extreme isolation by making local friends too!

3. Jamesian expats – looking for love: If you’re American, female and single in a Henry James novel making the move to Europe is a sure fire way to find a man. Our latest survey revealed that nowadays it’s Brazil sending expats’ pulses rating, with more respondents finding love there than in any other location.

Image Source: Creative Common/Jasaya
4. Dorothy - following the yellow brick road: Expat life is a bit of a whirlwind but can be a prosperous career move in many cases. Take a look at our rankings for ‘expat economics’ to make sure your dreams don’t go up in smoke and prospective opportunities are more than just hot air. For many the real land of Oz – Australia – remains a popular expat destination!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Top Five Posts of 2013

Over the course of 2013, Expat Explorer brought expats posts on topics as diverse as housewarming parties, marriage, national sports and staying safe when moving abroad. We also introduced you to a wide range of guest bloggers, all with very different, exciting stories to tell, like Cheylene, who swapped American suburban for a fast-paced city life in London, or Mike, who takes on a new expat destination every six months to get the most out of retirement.

Image Source: Creative Common/christmasstockimages

But which posts, published this year, proved the most popular with readers? Here’s the Top Five:
Otherwise known as great factual titbits, these anecodtes are perfect for dinner party chats or pub quizzes as well as avoiding faux pas abroad. Want to know about camel wrestling? Scared of offending with your (lack of) chopstick etiquette? Look no further.
Aisha shared her experiences of moving from the UK to Canada, along with her husband and three small children. ‘Expat life forces you to develop your identity in ways you’re never pushed to at home’ she explains and her story is revealing, entertaining and relatable.

3.       Adjusting to life abroad
This post looked at the scary side of moving abroad, especially when flying solo, and gave useful tips for fitting in and overcoming difficulties, relevant to expats no matter their backgrounds or destination country!

Proving our expat readers are definitively the romantic type, lots of you wanted to you know how to fan the flame of cross border or even cross continental love.

We’re not usually ones to judge but these expat stereotype character sketches (the soul searchers, the homesick, the local Joes) obviously rang true to our readers!

If you have ideas for what you’d like to see on the Expat Explorer blog in 2014, let us know in the comments or by tweeting @expatexplorer

Friday, 17 January 2014

Living and working in Beijing

Image Source: Creative Common/ahenobarbus
Beijing is famous for its beautiful architecture, ancient temples and luxurious palaces, but it’s also a modern buzzing city which provides many opportunities for expats.

Indeed, the city has been drawing in expats for years. They are often transferred by their companies but find the city to be a great place to live and work.

So, what should you be thinking about before moving to Beijing? 

Deciding where to live in Beijing can be quite a daunting prospect. Its sprawling size and huge population mean that there are many types of accommodation, as well as neighbourhood options. There are certain key things that all new residents should be aware of and take into consideration when deciding the place that they will call home.

As it is such a big city, getting from one end to another can take some time no matter what mode of transport you take, so, if you’re conscious of the commute, try to live fairly near to your place of work, or,  if you are to rely on public transport, look for a place that is walking distance to the subway.

If you’re keen to live among other expats then consider living in an area such as the Chaoyang district or in Shunyi (a bit further out from the centre) where there are high concentrations of foreigners and a lot of expat amenities such as western supermarkets, for those little touches of home.

Some expats will choose to live in traditional Beijing houses called Hutongs. Hutongs are single story properties arranged on narrow alleys around communal courtyards. While you can come across cheaper hutongs, if you move into one which is fully modernised and equipped for living, they tend to come at a premium, being highly sought after and in limited numbers. Even if you do not plan on living in one, it’s worth taking a tour around them, either by food or rickshaw, as they are deeply rooted in Beijing’s culture and so will be a great way to begin your expat immersion.  

Thursday, 16 January 2014

How to talk to your children about moving abroad

There's no question that moving abroad can be a daunting prospect, but for children in particular the thought of a new life in a different country could be met with some trepidation. 

Whatever age your children are, they’re likely to have mixed feelings about the idea, particularly older children and teens who might see the move as an uprooting from their friends and familiarity at home.

Talking to them about it with them can go a long way in helping to address any anxiety they might be feeling - here are a few ideas to help make that conversation a little bit easier!

Learn about the move together

Depending how old your children are, it might be difficult for them to grasp the reality of moving abroad. Younger children are likely to be less aware about what’s going on and might find it difficult to grasp. You might find it useful to try thinking outside the box with some more creative forms of communication - younger children might respond well to visual stimulus, like finger puppets or dolls. Slightly older children might enjoy reading about fictional characters that have done the same thing – why not try reading story books together which address topics like moving abroad or even moving house? Another option could be to help them to do their own learning about their new home by using the internet.

What will the move offer them?

For many older children, the thought of moving away from their lives and friends is likely to be unthinkable. However, doing some research and being able to talk to them in detail about how their new life might actually look can go a long way. What school will they attend and does it have any unique facilities? Is there the opportunity to take up an activity that they haven't been able to do previously - for instance horse riding or (something)? Even the prospect of having a larger bedroom or playroom, or a bigger garden, might help kids get used to the idea of moving abroad.  

Visits from friends and family

Although it's rarely a good idea to make unrealistic promises, the prospect of visits from close friends and family can be a great incentive - especially during the initial move which might involve some upheaval. Involving your children in planning visits from family members or friends will help them to feel more involved; is there anyone in particular they're missing, or had a close bond with at home? What part of their new life would they be most excited about showing to visitors? Whether it's the local town, a favourite place to eat, or even just a special area in your garden or yard, giving children a little responsibility when it comes to looking after guests helps them to feel as though they 'own' part of the move.

Image Source: Creative Common/hirestrategies

As a general rule, we think that keeping conversations positive and highlighting the change of lifestyle as a new start, rather than the end of anything, is a good way to help your children adjust to the thought of living abroad. It’s also important to be honest: it might be challenging at times but helping them to understand better will go a long way in making the process much easier – for them and you!

Have you moved your family abroad? Share your tips for an easy relocation with other expats:

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Expat Year

Like the migration of swallows, the journeys of expats around the world can be predicted and charted according to the season. As 2014 kicks off, we look at the top times of year to make the move by analysing different groups and their timing motivations:

The parents: Wannabe expats with kids are well-advised to consider the structure of the academic year when considering uprooting their families. In most of Europe and the USA the school year kicks off in September, so the summer months may be the time to take the plunge, but check out application dates for schools ahead of time to ensure you don’t miss out on enrolment! Parents should also be aware that other countries differ in the academic year’s structure and start date. In Australia, South Africa and Malaysia the school year starts in January. In the Philippines it’s the end of March. In India – April. So do your research and plan ahead for a seamless start to your family’s new life.

Image Source: Creative Common/ajari

The students: Again, this goes hand in hand with the different conventions of academic life, as university language students  head off to prime their language skills as their course dictates. There’s not much of an element of choice here, students, but beware becoming too close to fellow expats studying two languages – six months in, they’re likely to be on the move again!

The partiers: These are people like the friends who never flag on a night out, perpetual partiers who want to holiday for a season – not a week. They flock where and when the sun shines and may even choose to stay abroad to prolong the season and adventure.

Image Source: Creative Common/Kelly.ibiza
The retirees: The retired have the greatest freedom when considering the perfect time to move. Things to consider include:

The climate in your destination country - moving when the weather is most distinct from what you’re used to at home could be uncomfortable.

Financial considerations – if you’re selling your home, it may be best to be guided by your finances.
Farewells – If it’s important to you to hold a goodbye bash, consider family and friends’ commitments ahead of time.

Flight prices – Booking flights far in advance may help the budget for your move. Also consider moving at a time of year when traffic to the country will be lighter, especially if you’re choosing to retire to a popular tourist destination!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Expat Resolutions

Whether you were among the first or last to usher in the new year globally, 2014 is now definitively upon us, along with the annual barrage of self-deluding promises of increased fitness, multilingual fluency and bright and breezy Monday mornings.

Image source: Creative Common/en:User:Solitude

Go-getting expats, whose social and work lives pose different challenges to those who remain close to home, may especially welcome the chance to reassess and reorganise. So here’s a top five list of alternative expat resolutions for 2014:

1.       Staying in touch: You may be racking up incredible phone bills, or glued to devices which allow you to chat with loved ones face to face. Alternatively, your dear but deserted relatives may hardly hear from you and be left wondering if you ever made it back from that bar, that spontaneous bungee jump or that isolated hike of self-discovery. Either way, there’s one resolution we can all make – to ensure every interaction we have with those back home is personal. Write letters, send gifts, and share photos and anecdotes from your life abroad.

2.       Getting your paperwork in order: Visas, finances and records. Do it now! And make sure you’re backing up anything electronic. Expats suffer more than most from bureaucratic blunders so look to make this a stress free 2014.

3.       Exercise: If getting back on the exercise treadmill is something of a New Year ritual for you, then try working out expat style. That means not retreating to an international and corporate looking gym, but exercising in ways you couldn’t back home. Make the most of your surroundings and local culture - take a morning jog past Sydney opera house, join in mass martial arts classes or take flamenco lessons. Fitness and culture here we come.

4.       Learn to make…: Whether it’s a favoured tipple or a local culinary delicacy you’ve discovered abroad, save money and impress your friends by learning that recipe.

5.       Share the expat love: If you’ve been living the expat life for a while, help out those who are just taking the plunge, in person or via blogging and social media. If you feel inspired to share already, add your personal knowledge to our hints and tips tool!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Where to live in Paris?

Picture source: Creative Common/Goutaste

House-hunting is an important consideration for any expat, and will affect your budget in terms of initial purchase costs or rent, living expenses and lifestyle. In Paris, like with other popular cities, this becomes even more important, because the places in which the tourists hub are probably going to be different to the areas where most people actually live.

It is a good idea to research the best places to live (not stay), and look into all of the neighbourhoods to find the right fit for you.

Unlike the blocks of New York, Paris has a different and rather unique layout. It is laid out like a snail with 20 neighbourhoods, or ‘arrondissements’ making up the spirals.

Picture source: Creative Common/Stephen Carlile

The 1st through to the 4th arrondissements are the smallest, but also the most centrally located. This centrality, combined with the size means that it can be difficult even finding property to buy or rent - a lot will be short-term rentals, aimed at visitors staying from a week to a month, which means very high prices longer term. The fact that these areas are also home to attractions such as the Louvre Museum and the Notre Dame Cathedral means that you can expect to pay tourist prices when shopping or eating out.  While being in such close proximity to the museums might be a bonus for the weekend, for most, these areas are more convenient for visiting, rather than living.

So… if you want to be fairly central but get slightly more ‘bang for your buck’ then head to the 8th or 9th arrondissements, where rents are a bit lower. The rule of thumb in these areas is the further north you head, the cheaper the rents become; however there are little pockets around the Champs Elysées and Opéra where you can expect rent and amenities to be higher. Nevertheless, it is a lovely – and very ‘chic’ - place to live, being home to endless boutiques and famous fashion brands.

The 5th and 6th arrondissements - with their many Parisian Universities and Grandes Ecoles – are very popular among the student population. For this group, not only are these areas convenient for travelling to and from campus, but there are also many libraries, cheap restaurants and bookstores in the vicinity.  As you would expect, accommodation is fairly affordable but unless you are studying, it can be difficult to source.

Image source: Creative Common/Carin Olsson

If you don’t want to be on the Left Bank, but still want a great student scene, the 10th, 11th or 12th arrondissements might be the places to go. In these areas, there is great accommodation as well as an abundance of shops, bars and nightclubs and it is easy to find reasonably-priced restaurants as it is a bit off the tourist belt. Not only home to Gare de l’Est (one of the biggest train stations in Paris) these districts are also very well connected so you can whizz around the city to your heart’s content.

The 7th arrondissement, similar to the 16th, has become a popular neighbourhood among British and American expats, who are drawn to the areas for their good schools, historic buildings, parking availability and roomier apartments – so maybe consider these areas if you are moving with a family.

While Paris is an expensive city to live in and highly sought after because of its beauty, if you take the time to think outside the box, and do your research, you can find property to suit both your lifestyle and your budget.



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