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What Migrating for Work Has Taught Me
Working internationally, being a diaspora, going to new country
People migrate for all sort of reasons. Many of them migrate to seek a better life in a new country, or a new city. Many go to work and live in a place very far or very different from home where they don’t speak the language, or practice the religion and engage in the culture.
Yet, millions of people do that in their lifetime.
It is even more challenging to be in the migratory side from developing country to developed one. Those who migrate from developed country to developing ones are usually paid better, and given a wonderful title: Expatriates.
Those who are lucky enough never have the need to migrate to seek a better life. Either they feel enough, or the government they have provide enough opportunities and living conditions.
I am the one who migrated for a job, from Indonesia to Singapore. At one point, I wanted to look for opportunities in Europe or America. Nothing materialised, mostly because I was rejected. I am not good enough to warrant a job in a place that is supposedly better for me.
Until Singapore, of course. It came naturally. It was in 2014. I got a job offer from Singapore. I never dreamed of working in Singapore. I thought it was “too close” and “too familiar” from my home, Indonesia. Yet, plenty of opportunities from here. How the government attracts foreign talents is just applaudable.
Long story short, it didn’t last long but I did manage to come back here in Singapore in 2016, up until now when I now have my permanent residence (thank you, Singapore).
What do people think of migrating? What do my fellow countrymen, Indonesians, feel about diasporas? What kind of challenges do I face? Or, is it all The Good Life in the Promised Land? Let me break down to you. I try to make it more general than specific about moving to Singapore. Also, because I’ve been working in mostly North American companies, I also try to break these experiences down to tiny bits of lesson.
Coming from an education and society whose primary language is not English, having to speak, listen and write English daily in my job is a continual challenge, even after 15 years of working full time in an international environment. Yes, people say, don’t lose your identity and accent or whatnot, but still it is a challenge.
Meetings, presentations, writing, designing… all suddenly become a chore at some point. Not saying that doing all these in Indonesian are any easier now, because a lot of UX and product terms are inherently English-originated, but the general sense of communicating everyday is still challenging.
It even becomes weirder at times when you try to mingle and make jokes, or try to understand jokes from others, or just to understand between the lines.
Even worse when this happens with teammates half-way across the world who never understood why on Earth there should be a designer planted half-way across the world to work on things that can be done from the headquarter, and why would they hire somebody whose not a good English communicator?
This becomes problematic at times too when it’s time to raise up to corporate ladder. Between those who can communicate natively and those who don’t, the choice always almost go for the first.
How about working with Singaporeans? I feel they’re luckier because they’ve been educated in English, so they have less problem.
Believe it or not, this still exists. Workplace discrimination still exists. I would say some are blatant, but more often, these are soft and within the “boundary of legality”.
If you’re working in a foreign company, it will sometimes be challenging to get all the important assignments, if you’re not “part of them”.
This is an easy example and I think everybody agrees to this. If you’re working for a North American company with a strong gravity towards the North American organization or culture, you’ll find it hard to get strategic projects or be promoted. Why? Because of cultural differences. It would be much easier to hire a leadership position in North America and have all the foreign offices report to this person positioned in North America, supposedly as an easier “bridge of communication”.
If you work for a Thai, Singaporean or Indonesian company (to be a fair comparison!), it is also sometimes more convenient for local companies to hire locals to head up operational teams, and only hire foreigners for certain positions.
Although I must argue that most likely in Asian companies, the foreigners are usually high up in the ranking.
This is fact, and while many companies have started to address this issue, not all have the budget, culture and spirit to fix this, let alone the industry as a whole.
So, if you’re coming to work overseas, be ready for this political fiasco.
If there’s anything that I vouch for for living and working overseas, it is experience. You can get a good amount of monetary compensation, for sure. But you can also get that if you work in your home country. Money is not, and should not be, the main motivator when you decide to migrate; unless in certain circumstances, e.g. there’s an immediate need to work overseas because of survival reasons.
For me, there’s something wonderful about exposing myself to a different environment than my home country, and to experience different cultural experience, including work culture. I must argue though, with 7-8 years accumulated in Singapore and working for North American companies, I start to feel that Singapore is a home, and the North American work culture becomes the de facto work culture that I expect. I most likely will experience reverse culture shock when I come back to work for Indonesian companies, or even Singaporean companies.
What’s most exciting for me is that given my experience working for products that focus mostly on other regions (e.g. North America or Europe), being positioned in Asia Pacific (APAC) has given the team the necessary “culture shock”—or enlightenment to say the least—about how they should pay attention to how distributed today teams are, how different work cultures can be, and how different products can be perceived in different geography.
To end the note here, I would say I am pretty privileged. Everybody is privileged in their own ways of course, I do not want to discount the fact that many have great experiences without migrating. But here, I just want to state that I am thankful.
To all my Singaporean and American coworkers — just know that you are also privileged, and I often envy how you are the destination countries of people who seek to migrate to. You all also speak English way fluently than I do, and I feel like you all will have more successful careers than I do because of this very reason, but please do respect us as well, the people who have dared their lives to move to a new country. Just remember, when we are in a meeting together, and you listen to my weird accent or muffled words… it doesn’t mean we’re not able to communicate… it just means we’re trying so hard to speak in our native language, then convert to English!
Just also know that when you all boast about your holiday plans, my Indonesian passport cries. It is such a privilege to have the strongest passports in the world.