When I moved abroad three and a half years ago for work, it wasn’t really part of my original life plan.
My partner, Alex, and I made the decision to leave the United States over sushi one night in our Brooklyn neighborhood based largely on our circumstances at the time. I was unhappy at my job. Our landlord wasn’t going to renew our apartment lease. The economy had just tanked. We didn’t have children. And we both had a desire to try something new after living in New York City for six years.
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So the choice was made: Alex would request a transfer through his company to their offices in Shanghai, China. We’d stay six months. Perhaps a year, at most.
The decision was as strategic as it was born out of a sense of adventure—we figured that both of us could advance our careers in Asia, where there was a surfeit of opportunity and a shortage of talent. Plus, we hoped that working (and saving) in Asia for a few years would put us in a better position when we returned to the U.S. to eventually buy a house, and possibly adopt a child.
We weren't the only ones in this position. The State Department estimates that 6.3 million Americans are studying or working abroad—the largest number ever recorded. And even more plan to go: Two years ago, only 1% of Americans planned to move overseas. Today, five times as many are thinking about relocating abroad.
A move of this magnitude, however, is never quite that straightforward. And, if I’ve learned anything after three international moves in three years (and counting …), plans have a way of changing once you finally decide to pull up roots.
Our Big Great Britain Move
The first hiccup in our well-conceived plan was a change in destination. “Shanghai isn’t an option anymore,” Alex told me one day, mere weeks before our scheduled departure. “But we can go to London if we want!”
Lesson one in moving abroad: Learn to be flexible. The corporate redirect wasn’t so drastic in the end—we were both more than happy to go to England. Plus, neither one of us had cracked open our Mandarin books.
Thinking that we were still leaving for a year, at most, we packed up our apartment and moved nearly everything we owned into a long-term storage facility in New Jersey, where the rates were significantly cheaper than in Brooklyn. We only took with us what we could fit into four giant duffel bags that could be checked on the plane—sweaters were a priority, summer-wear not so much.
This made financial sense in the short-term—we saved money by not shipping an entire household overseas, and many flats in London could be leased with furniture. The tradeoff was saying a tearful goodbye to our things, not knowing when we’d be able to use that KitchenAid stand mixer again.
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
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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