When the U.S. Economy Tanked … I Moved to China

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In London, we rented a tiny apartment for three months to start, before deciding it was smarter to sign an actual lease on a place—even though we didn’t know how long we’d be staying. Not only would this be cheaper—short-term lets are harder to come by and therefore priced higher—but it was also important to feel like we had a home to mitigate the feeling of being adrift somewhere unfamiliar. Plus, with a six-month break clause in our lease, there wasn’t a huge risk financially.

Cost-wise, the British capital wasn’t as expensive as I’d feared. The rent where we lived in East London was comparable to New York, and we got more space for the money. There were other life set-up costs—utilities, mobile phones, health-care plans, the countless trips to IKEA—but they were roughly the same expenses we would have paid living in America.

We learned quickly how to save on the small things in an expensive city. I took the bus to work nearly every day, and cooked at home more frequently than I did in New York—restaurants were costlier in London, by and large. We also relied on Skype for phone calls home.

Our biggest expense was travel—we weren’t about to compromise with all of Europe so close by! But we traveled wisely … most of the time. Speed cameras on rural English country roads were definitely a financial pitfall.

A Shanghai Surprise

Justin_China 2

Justin in Shanghai, China

After a year, Shanghai became an option again and we were faced with yet another major life decision: Do we return to job uncertainty in a shaky economy back in New York or uproot ourselves once again and take a chance on Asia’s biggest boomtown?

Three main factors were instrumental in steering us toward China—sheer momentum, the excitement of a different kind of adventure … and the fact that we had packed lightly.

Professionally, it made sense for both of us, as well. We had opportunities in Shanghai that probably didn’t exist elsewhere for the mere reason that every major global corporation wants a stake in China these days—and Shanghai is the new gateway to the country. Alex became a managing director at a consultancy that was growing steadily and expanding. I was able to turn freelance writing and editing into a successful small business—there were far fewer English-speaking writers in Shanghai than in New York or London, and foreign publications couldn’t get enough stories from China.

Plus, we believed that we could save some money in China, too. The cost of living in Shanghai was well below that of New York—or most cities in the West, for that matter. A taxi ride might set us back $2, and we could usually eat out for under $30 … for the two of us. We even had the luxury of hiring an ayi—a woman who cleaned and cooked for about $150 per month. We never could have afforded this back home!

Bringing Brooklyn Abroad

When the time came earlier this year to decide if we wanted to transfer yet again with Alex’s work to Singapore, the choice was much easier to make. Although the physical act of moving never becomes less tiring or onerous—I have come to loathe the sound of packing tape being unrolled—and we have far more belongings now than when we left Brooklyn (including an adopted street cat from China named Hongbao), the idea of picking up and starting over again is way less frightening. Singapore is also a city with massive opportunities for foreigners, so we knew that we’d be able to keep saving—even despite the fact that it has a higher cost of living than Shanghai.

Three years into this journey, we also came to a very important conclusion: We were tired of living out of duffel bags, and wanted our KitchenAid stand mixer. So, for this move, we unpacked the storage unit in Mahwah, and shipped our things to Singapore.

In some respects, it feels like our old life in Brooklyn again, surrounded by our books, photos and well-worn furniture … except for when the Asian koel (a Singapore bird with a very distinctive cry) starts to sing in the morning, and I’m wishing for just five more minutes of sleep.

Justin Bergman is a freelance writer currently based in Singapore. He is a frequent contributor to TIME, The New York Times and The Associated Press. He also teaches through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio.

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  • Foreverowing

    There’s “shortage of talent” in China?

    • Themartinsrj

      Enjoyed the article but hated that sentence too. I think he meant American companies looking to move there want more current employees to make the move internationally with them.

  • Kelli Culbertson

    I wish I could move to a different country and live for a year. I would have to figure out what to do for a job. Are there any good websites that list job opportunities in different countries?

    • Shannon4peace

      teach English

      • Colleen

        Not to rain on that idea, but teaching English isn’t the safest option. In fact, I would treat it more as a last resort option. Although there is a demand for English teachers, the pay isn’t all that stellar. If you’ve got a connection who can get you a position with worthwhile pay, then go for it. Otherwise, do seek out other options. This hasn’t been my experience, but my friend is trying to move abroad temporarily, and has considered teaching English. Many of her friends who did so in the country where she’s going got paid only 10-15 euros/hour. Add on the stress of teaching, housing costs, food, and social activity (low or moderate) and you just might end up pretty frustrated/feeling underpaid. If you know how to live (very) modestly though, then you have nothing to worry about.

      • PhilChance

        http://www.hess.com.tw/en/ I don’t work for this company but I know people who did.  Best to work for a larger company for sure. 

  • Rachel

    This story is absolutely awesome, and so inspiring! I feel like this could be me and my husband (except we do have a small son). We’re tired of our jobs and the expense of the city and have been ready to leave New York/Brooklyn for a while now, and, until I read this article, I had been thinking of relocating to possibly Boston, Philly, or DC. But, and it’s a big but, maybe I haven’t been thinking big enough. If we’re already relocating, why not to London, or Shanghai, or Singapore, or Berlin, or New Delhi, or Rio, or…

    Thank you, Justin, I think I just completely revamped my entire job hunt strategy.

    Asia, or Europe, or South America, maybe here we come! 

    • Cathy

      There is a travel blog I saw somewhere (don’t remember the name, you may want to try a google search) which was created by an american woman and her husband (they had one toddler and another on the way)…traveling the world for a few years. And they were picking up and moving every couple months. Definitely not impossible with a family! Your children will become worldly! :)

  • talia

    An inspiring story for sure!

  • BD

    I love stories like this. I would be interested to read more about how others live/save abroad.  Stories about how to make an international career transition would be great too, since not ever company offers the chance to transfer abroad.

  • Db

    I felt the same way after growing up in Manhattan. I just needed to get OUT. There was no job opps for me there, so I moved. Not to another country, but to another state and even though I am still in America I feel like it is a whole new world and beginning for me.

  • Betty

    As a native New Yorker I am intrigued by how many people are willing to stay and deal with crowd expensive living conditions. As a single childless person I easily packed up and  left 7 years ago for the midwest to the surprise of many. Bottom line is it is cheaper to live here and I have a better job than I would have there. I thing it was bold to move abroad, but good call if things aren’t going well why not leave.

  • Cathy

    This is so timely–I’m currently looking at moving from the West Coast to Singapore for work. It looks much more expensive than my frugal life here and I’m trying to figure out how to have this life-changing experience without breaking the bank! I’d love to connect with others who have done this or are considering this.

    • PhilChance

      Look for expat sites or on FaceBook groups and ask people how to live more cheaply.  You get a more local experience and hopefully can save some money.

  • aguacate

    I left Brooklyn in 2008 and have lived and worked on 3 continents since and married someone from one of them (although we met while both expats on another continent.) Never look back. Lovely NYC visits and time with old friends is more than enough!

  • Guest

    Although the cost of living in China may be cheaper in U.S. dollars than living in a city like New York, I am curious to know if Justin’s and Alex’s salaries are comparable to what they would have been paid in the U.S. (in which case it would then make more sense to move abroad to help save money, versus moving abroad and taking a substantial pay cut).

  • http://twitter.com/Rhianon896 Crystal D Williams

    My family and I moved to China for four years and oh what a wonderful and challenging experience it was for all of us, but glad we did it but glad to be home using our Kitchen Aid mixer again. I did miss that :)

  • terrilynnmerritts

    There is NO shortage of talent in China. That sounds rather racist. The country has a billion people who are every bit as smart and talented as those in the USA and Europe and education is a huge priority for most people. 

  • rita

    Seems that everyone is doing it.  The Chinese are also branching out with their expertise.  I lived in Luanda, Angola until recently.  There the Chinese are building the city infrastructure as well as starting to own many businesses large and small.  Now I live in Bucharest.  I have a girlfriend here from Shanghai who has lived and worked here for six years.  Many nationals from other countries are moving abroad to work.  It can only make the world more comprehensible and peaceful for us all to mix and work together—no matter where we are.

  • Kjp_asian

    Hope you took the cat

  • PhilChance

    Great story. We’ve lived outside the US since ’97.  One of us still works for a US company so that provides a salary & health insurance.  Our food is cheaper in HK than the US (CA-TN) or in R. PH.  Housing can be more but we live in a local neighborhood so it is 1/3 that of many.  Health insurance can be an issue.  Some countries have a price structure for locals and 5-10x as much for you.  Thanks to the internet you can find this in advance.  Some things are cheap-some expensive.  We don’t travel with much & thankfully offload most everything via Craigslist when we move. The volage differences/shipping aren’t worth the hassle. IKEA is also a wonderful thing for this lifestyle.  My salary is higher than a local only because they are paying me for my English skills and US management training.  I think our lifestyle choice has been worth it & we continue as long as possible. Some visas limit who can work so be careful.

  • LF

    I seriously doubt there is a shortage of talent in China! Great article though.

  • AmericaninOz

    My husband and I left NYC and traveled before settling in Australia.
    Despite the high cost of living we earn a much higher salary(almost double!).
    I want to go back to the US one day but for now we’re doing better in this country.