Having a Foreign Affair

Kate rolls out of bed, and there’s a smell of fresh coffee in the air.

Walking down the hallway into her open living room, a warm breeze comes through the open patio area.  Unlike a North American or European home, there isn’t a wall separating her living room from her backyard.  A large, tastefully extended awning keeps the warm rain from spattering into her living space.

Kate’s maid provides coffee, freshly squeezed mango juice and banana pancakes—perfect fuel before Kate heads off to the office, driven by a gentleman who couples as her gardener.

No, there’s nothing steamy going on between Kate and her man-helper.  Kate’s love affair is with South East Asia.

Her children are just finishing their breakfast, and soon they’ll catch their bus to The International School of Bangkok,  located miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown.  With more than 50 different nationalities represented by the student body, socializing becomes an education in itself for the kids.

Working for Proctor & Gamble, Kate never imagined she’d be spending her entire career overseas.  But she prefers working in Thailand to the grind she had in the U.S.  Plus, Kate gets paid more; she pays fewer taxes; she doesn’t have to cook and clean; she has a personal masseuse, and she travels extensively every year to exotic places like Jordan, Fiji and Vietnam.

Thousands of people live like Kate:  thousands of miles from where they grew up.  They work for companies like Coca Cola, 3M, BP, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Rolls Royce, Crocs, Bristol Myers, JP Morgan & Chase….the list is endless.  And everywhere foreigners reside in large numbers, there are schools to service them.  Singapore American School, where I teach high school English, has nearly 4000 attending students between Kindergarten and Grade 12.

Foreign cultures are like magnets for some people, and many expatriates wouldn’t dream of putting their kids in North American, European or Australian public schools.

That might sound bizarre.  As an international teacher, when I speak of the benefits of working overseas to friends in Canada, they often say, “I couldn’t do that to my kids.”

Yet—when I ask friends overseas if they want to go back to Canada or the U.S., they say, “That wouldn’t be fair to my kids.”

There are pros and cons to living overseas.  And I want to show you what they are.  In a 3 part series, I’ll profile some overseas professionals who have worked in a variety of different locations.  I’ll examine some of the benefits and difficulties associated with being a third culture kid,   and I’ll show you what some of the pros and cons are, socially and financially for re-locating expatriates.

Speaking of financial benefits, shall I whet your appetite?

I have friends who recreationally ride horses weekly; their kids are involved in soccer, ballet, and they live in an expatriate community of 12,000 people—thousands of miles from home.  Before leaving Canada, neither of them had ever made more than $60,000 a year.  This past year, his first pay check alone was $30,000 for the first month.  Granted, the business gave him a “settling in” allowance, but the couple figures they can easily save more than $100,000 U.S. a year—while travelling prolifically during their time off.  I said “SAVE” $100,000 a year.  And he does the same job that he did back in Canada—back when he and wife’s combined after tax salaries totalled about $80,000.

Where do they live?  What do they do?  I’ll reveal that, and more, in my next post.

So…what do you know about expat living?  And what would you like to know?


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Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School (2nd Ed. Wiley 2017) and The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat (Wiley 2015). My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions. However, please read the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and the Comments Policy.

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17 Responses

  1. Mich @BTI says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I'm looking forward to knowing more about this couple. I am not surprised with such salaries, a few years ago a friend from university relocated to Dubai and the last I heard was a bonus equivalent to what used to be his yearly salary in Canada.

    The question is, is it worth it? from a strictly material point of view, its a big YES. However, as a tightly knit family, I would hesitate in taking my kids to a place where we have 0 family. It would be equivalent to the immigration experience I went through 2 decades ago and wouldn't want to go through again…

    Speaking of the Arabic Gulf, salaries are no longer what they used to be since they started importing engineers by the ton from India. Probably Saudi Arabia still pays very high for expats, but would I want the risk of some man eager to get early into heaven by blowing himself in a compound harboring infidels? Not a Chance!


  2. @Mich @BTI

    Hey Mitch,

    You've brought up some valid "cons" to living in certain parts of the world, not to mention the separation you'd experience from an extended family.

    I'll do my best to illustrate the pros and cons of living and working in a variety of locales–based on "real life" examples and perspectives.

    If this interests you, let me know specifically where you'd like a profile from: ie. professionals who have worked in Africa, India, SE Asia, Japan, The Middle East, Europe?

    From my experience, most of the people embarking on this lifestyle run the gauntlet of locales, so there are plenty of people for me to interview right here in Singapore.

    Guide me, dear readers. And I'll profile the relevant individuals–with pros and cons eked out of them, of course.

  3. Milo Mindabenda says:

    @ Mitch

    I'm not sure where you emigrated from to go to Canada, but I can imagine ripping up roots and moving to a new country, is very unsettling.

    But having been in SE Asia for the last 5 years I was intrigued to see you segway and lump SE Asia into The Middle East.

    It's something akin to saying that I wouldn't live in Canada because of the drug problems in Mexico!

    And in fact, on that analogy, you wouldn’t live in Canada because of all the gun deaths in the US makes a lot more sense!

    Distance from where Andrew lives in Singapore to Baghdad is 4419 miles. In comparison Vancouver to Mexico City is 2774 miles and Ottawa to Washington is 459 miles.

    SE Asia would have to be considerably safer than North America, if you take the US, Canada and Mexico as North America together as a whole.

    As far as violence and death goes — here is an old report I found online:

    The United States accounted for 45 percent of the 88,649 gun deaths around the world reported in the study, the first comprehensive international scrutiny of gun-related deaths.

    The top 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in 1994 by country were as follows:

    1) U.S.A. 14.24

    2) Brazil 12.95

    3) Mexico 12.69

    4) Estonia 12.26

    5) Argentina 8.93

    6) Northern Ireland 6.63

    7) Finland 6.46

    8) Switzerland 5.31

    9) France 5.15

    10) Canada 4.31

    The study is an old one, and how relevant it is to today is a moot point. It obviously doesn't take into consideration the two Gulf wars and Afghanistan, in fact the study didn't have any middle east data other than Kuwait..

    And talking about the Middle East… If we take some of the info available on the net at the moment we find the following:

    More Americans die of gunshot wounds in the US each year…(According to The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during 2000)

    … Than ALL American deaths in Iraq up till December 2009 totalling 4,287

    And even all Coalition soldiers had been killed in Iraq – 4,692 deaths (Jan 2010)

    On those figures you’re clearly safer to be an American soldier in Iraq than living in the US… Ironic huh (for the time being we'll leave the Iraqi civilians out of the equation)

    & certainly we find that SE Asia is not immune to violence:

    Notably Indonesia, 2003 Marriot Hotel (12 deaths)

    The 2005 Bali Bombing (Indonesia – 202 people, including 38 Indonesian citizens).

    And again in Indonesia, with a co-ordinated attack where 7 people died in 2009/

    (Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world of 240 Million people, consisting of five main islands in a group of more than 13,000. It stretches almost 5000 kilometres from the Asian mainland into the Pacific Ocean)

    Of late we've seen Thailand erupt in violence, but that is purely a domestic political issue, not at all targeting foreigners.

    When I have been in Singapore I have yet to meet anyone who is scared to walk around the streets after dark or late at night. Its clean safe and friendly.

    You see teenagers walking the streets late at night and young children playing without parents hovering overhead. Much like when I grew up as a kid in the 60s than the paranoid 80s and beyond.

    At the end of their schooling you do see kids caught between three worlds — hence third culture kids that Andrew talks about — and after an initial settling in period after some time overseas they will tell you how much they love and appreciate being given the opportunity for a real education — and after graduating how nervous they are at returning 'home." And when they return as Alumni they will say that school was the best time ever.

    I have seen kids come, go and sometimes return 9dad's work committments) and when they return they say how much they've missed it all — and now they say just how small minded the friends were back home ("Singapore? Where's that?" or "That's China right??")

    I wouldn't hesitate a second to give my kids to get a fantastic education in Singapore!

    Nevertheless. clearly the most dangerous places in the world are not Asian on the figures shown above! (Indonesia doesn't even rate a mention in the top 10 most dangerous countries…)

    But if you want to get an idea of the world’s safest cities (2003) … (No middle eastern ones here:)

    Here are the top cities on the list.

    1) Luxembourg

    2) Bern, Geneva, Helsinki, Singapore, Zurich (tie)

    7) Katsuyama, Kobe, Nagoya, Omuta, Osaka, Tokyo, Tsukuba, Yokkaichi, Yokohama (tie)

    16) Vienna

    17) Stockholm

    18) Copenhagen, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremberg, Oslo (tie)

    20) Perth, San Francisco, Ottawa (tie)

    The most dangerous place on the planet to live and raise kids, it’s not SE Asia, not the Middle East, It’s Africa.

    However, the US (and North America) must be considered by far and away the most dangerous ‘cililized’ country.

  4. Mich @BTI says:

    @Andrew Hallam

    Hi Andrew,

    Since I am somehow familiar with expat life in the middle east from first hand accounts, I would be interested in the profiles of those living in SE Asia since this area falls under the "very far and exotic"category 🙂

    Thanks in advance!

  5. @Milo Mindabenda

    Hey Milo,

    Wow! Now that's what I call a comment! I was hoping I could draw out a response from an expatriate. Cool that you're from my backyard.

    You gave me some things to think about: homocides in certain areas, based on per capita representation.

    In my English class this week, we're focussing on the question, "Who or what is an American?" It's such a diverse country, with diverse people and cultures….I'd imagine there are statistically "safe" areas and statistically dangerous areas.

    Could it be like that with other countries–even those labeled dangerous?

    Canada is considered safe by many, but pockets of Vancouver at certain times of the day/night can now be especially sketchy.

    You made good points about SE Asia. Personally, I'm far more comfortable in SE Asia than I am in Canadian or U.S. cities at night. I feel like a naive child when I come home to Canada. Walking down Victoria's streets at night is a pretty frightening experience for me (go ahead, you can laugh at me, I know it sounds ridiculous!).

  6. @Mich @BTI

    Hey Mitch,

    There's a lot to like about SE Asia. I'll try to present a really balanced view from a few different perspectives. I'll also look into interviewing some of the people I know who lived in SE Asia, and left for various reasons.



  7. @Milo Mindabenda


    I appreciate all the effort you put in your comment, but you completely went off-road with it.

    I never lumped SE Asia with the ME, in fact i don't know anything about SE Asia.

    I simply discussed the cons of expatriation in general and focused on the expat situation in the ME.


  8. Not sure if I'll ever get to live the ex-pat experience or not, but I look forward to the series and the education.

  9. Nice Photo, Andrew. I'm also looking forward to this series, with a focus on Asia, for sure.

  10. Milo Mindabenda says:

    Hi Mich..

    First two apologies… one for getting your name wrong, and second, yes, apologies again, I did go a little off road, maybe into some sand dunes..

    Speaking 'of roads' .. (sorry for the sick pun) Singapore does have some very dangerous areas..

    It's crossing the roads!

    I've crossed the roads in Indonesia and Vietnam which appears to be total chaos, but you put your head down keep going and they avoid you.

    The secret is to keep moving — and look straight ahead…

    The drivers in Singapore may well be the worst in the world, I have nearly been knocked over on pedestraian crossings several times with them careering past without even a glance. If I hadn't got out of the way I'd be a hood emblem..

    The secret is to keep moving — and keep looking left and right!

    And the taxi drivers are crazy.. sitting inches from the cars in front dodging and weaving –often you have to ask them to slow down cos the ride is so rough…

    Im sure that they all feel they should be given wildcard enteries into the Singapore F1..

    PS — I asked Andrew to make some 'minor' edits..

  11. larry macdonald says:


    I'm looking forward to your series.

  12. @The Biz of Life

    Thanks Biz,

    And I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.



  13. @larry macdonald

    Cheers Larry,

    I think you'll find it pretty interesting—thanks for checking in!


  14. @Milo Mindabenda

    Hey Milo,

    We love the passion!



  15. @Kevin@InvestItWisely

    Hey Kevin,

    Perhaps I should throw in a few tips on how to negotiate Time Share salespeople in Asia. If you haven't read Kevin's crazy encounter, here it is: http://www.investitwisely.com/how-i-almost-got-sc

  16. The Yakezie says:

    I have certainly looked into the foreign affairs before. Is it still amazingly difficult to join?

    Please talk about those joining mid career, and whether they have to start at the bottom or not.


  17. Hey Yakezie,

    Most of the people coming to a place like Saudi Aramco, or SE Asia, tend to be seasoned employees. I can't say I've met many people right out of college. They tend to be experienced, and many (if not most) bring their families along.

    I think you should try it!

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