Going and staying…Scott Barber
I have been involved with cross-border personal tax matters throughout my career, and in 1996, an opportunity arose to transfer from Atlanta to Frankfurt for a two-year assignment with a Big Six firm. This allowed me to expand my professional knowledge and learn firsthand what it was like to be an expat. I had taken two years of German in high school. My firm also arranged further language lessons at the Goethe-Institut.
I was single at the time and had no dependents, which in some ways made it easier to move. I still had to go through the process of moving; including deciding which personal possessions to take with me and which to put into long-term storage. To save money on shipping, the firm paid to put most of my furniture in storage and gave me an allowance to furnish my apartment. This involved my first ever trip to IKEA!
I was fortunate that I had already met some of my German colleagues at conferences in the US and had spoken with a few regularly on the telephone for several years. There were also a number of other American expats in the office; some on assignments similar to mine, a few on long-term localised employment arrangements. In terms of adapting to new circumstances, it certainly is helpful that an ongoing employment role provides a familiar grounding.
As an international city, Frankfurt was reasonably easy to settle in. The transport links also provided a great opportunity to visit other parts of Germany and the rest of Europe. That said, it was a very different city from Atlanta and, because of the emphasis on financial services, it could sometimes have the feel of a “company town”.
At the end of my two-year assignment, I decided I didn’t want to go back to Atlanta, and agreed a transfer from the Frankfurt office to London with the same firm. As an expat, London was a very different experience. As London is much larger than Frankfurt, choosing where to live was a big decision for me. The London office itself was also much bigger and correspondingly harder to get to know.
In my mind, I expected to be in London for two to three years. I then met my wife Helen, who is a Brit, at a party in Kensington. The rest, as they say, is history.
Going and coming back…Carlo Gray
Having spent my career helping individuals move to new countries, I am used to hearing from my clients about their amazing experiences of expat life abroad. Coupled with my passion for travelling, I was keen to put into practice what I preached. So when the opportunity arose in 2013 of going on assignment to Hong Kong to set up Buzzacott’s first overseas office arose, I jumped at it!
I made the rather bold decision to move to Hong Kong four months before my family so that I could get settled and focus on starting the business. Although it was tough at times being away from them, I kept myself busy with work, meeting new people and exploring the delights of a great city! As a result, those first few months went by very quickly.
By the time my wife and children arrived in August 2014, along with 70 boxes of belongings, I had found my bearings and had secured a lovely flat for us to live in on Hong Kong’s Gold Coast close to where my children were to attend school. My children had previously lived in a quiet village in Surrey so were quite taken aback by the busy swarms of people on the streets, but they soon found their feet. They went to a British international school where half of the children were expats and half were Hong Kong Chinese.
There were 1,200 boys and girls ranging from the age of 3 to 18. Although the school followed an English curriculum, it was compulsory for pupils to learn Mandarin for three hours a week. Despite it not being their favourite subject, my children picked up the language quickly and became rather good at it. My wife became involved with the PTA at the school and was on various committees, which meant that she met a lot of parents who became close friends. Hong Kong soon became a home away from home.
Over the following three years, we lived a great expat life. We travelled to many places in Asia such as Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Borneo, to name a few – places that are otherwise more challenging to get to from the UK. We had lots of visitors from the UK too – family, friends and work colleagues.
We returned to the UK in July 2017 with heavy hearts (and this time with 140 boxes of belongings!), very happy memories and an incredibly rewarding experience under our belts. We rented out our home while we were in Hong Kong (coincidentally to another expat family) so are looking forward to moving back in and immersing ourselves in the local community again. The children are starting at a new school. To their delight, Mandarin isn’t on the curriculum but with over a billion people in the world speaking it, I am keen for them to continue learning it. It helped that we moved back in the British summer and had the long evenings (sunset in Hong Kong is at 6.30pm at the latest) but with winter around the corner, I will definitely miss the warm weather in Hong Kong. I mistimed my relocation though, as the Waterloo upgrade meant that my trains were either been delayed or cancelled. That wouldn’t happen in Hong Kong. The transport system there is incredibly efficient, clean, air-conditioned and cheap!
Since we’ve been back, we’ve kept in touch with our friends in Hong Kong and look forward to visiting again soon. As someone once said to me, you can leave Hong Kong, but Hong Kong never leaves you…
Going for the first time…Allan Wilkinson
When I put myself forward for a two- to three-year assignment in Hong Kong, my career in London was going well but I felt the need for change, both in my career and my personal life. An overseas assignment offered complete change on both sides but with the protection of an employer with which I have a strong and trusting relationship, and the added bonus of regular contact with a familiar and supportive team back home.
Having been on overseas assignments in exotic locations before (Japan for 18 months and India for six weeks), I was fully aware of how badly things can go wrong. Cultural differences, for example, can sometimes present seemingly insurmountable barriers to you achieving your goals if they are not recognised and addressed appropriately. However, I was also aware of the positive and life-changing experiences on offer to those who dare to take the risk.
Being single, it was easy to move at relatively short notice. Some aspects of the move did not go as smoothly as hoped but I was lucky enough to have the support of a HR team and colleagues back in London. On arrival, there were also the everyday challenges of dealing with jet lag, an unfamiliar climate and a very different diet from the British one which my body was used to. These things can combine to make you feel very unsettled in your first few weeks in a new location and some people will adjust more quickly than others. It is important to make sure you give your body plenty of time to rest and recover while you adjust.
As is often the case with international assignments, my opportunity to move to Hong Kong came with an important strategic role. This is a privileged position to be in so now my principal challenge is making a success of the project I have been entrusted with. I have some feelings of trepidation about that, but an open mind as to how I will achieve the objectives I have been set and meet the expectations of my colleagues both here in Hong Kong and back in London.
My advice to others about to embark on an overseas assignment is to be ambitious but realistic about what you can achieve and be aware of the expectations others have of you in your new role. Be prepared to change your way of thinking and doing things to be as effective as possible in your new environment, and be sensitive to cultural differences. Embrace them and don’t let them become barriers to your success. Above all, enjoy the wealth of new challenges and experiences on offer. They will change your life.
This article first appeared in the fifth issue of our firm-wide magazine, Beyond the Numbers. To download the full magazine, click here.