December 23, 2010
Auckland, New Zealand
The other night in Auckland, the alternative rock band Gorillaz performed at Vector Arena down the street from my flat. I didn’t have to go to the concert– I had the best seat in the house right from my own balcony, sort of like the Wrigley Field Rooftops in Chicago.
It was the first summer evening of the southern hemisphere, and I sat listening to the band with a few expat friends and a nice bottle of one of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs… and once the music faded, we started talking about expatriation– what makes people stay and what makes people leave.
I’ve met a lot of expats over the years and seen the psychology of people’s decision-making processes up close and personal. For many, the decision is driven by emotion: fear, anxiety, sense of adventure, etc.
Some people react to this wide range of emotions by packing up overnight and heading to a place they’ve never been before expecting it to look like Topeka, Kansas. It doesn’t usually work out for these folks– they encounter challenges that don’t meet their unrealistic expectations, and frustration sets in.
The successful expats I’ve met all made calculated, rational decisions after a few boots on the ground trips and a lot of research. When they properly set their expecations and maintained the flexibility to deal with the unknown, they almost always ended up happy with the decision.
As many of these successful expats have found out, sometimes the grass actually -is- greener… sometimes life actually can become better, more interesting, more fulfilling when they step away from the grind, think clearly about what they want, and follow a new direction.
Earlier in the day I had a meeting with Iain MacLeod of IMMagine New Zealand, a local immigration specialist who will be speaking at our upcoming offshore workshop in Panama. Iain’s a great guy, very knowledgeable and experienced, and we were swapping expat stories at his office.
Iain’s known quite a few expats who have made New Zealand their home– from England, South Africa, the US… meanwhile there are a lot of Kiwis heading overseas themselves.
You see, there’s a bit of a brain drain here, particularly among the talented youth. Many of them find New Zealand to be too small, too provincial, too limiting… and they run like hell to places like Los Angeles.
Ironically, I’ve met a lot of Californians who are beating down the door to get into New Zealand– they find LA to be too crowded, too dangerous, and too stifling. To them, New Zealand is paradise.
As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure… and with the expat game, it’s a bit of a global merry-go-round.
For example, I once met a young Filipino who went to Malaysia to work at a call center because he heard they were hiring English speakers. Later, I met a Malaysian entrepreneur who went to Thailand to open a successful computer hardware factory because he got better tax incentives there.
Naturally I’ve met many Thais living abroad, working hard in places like Dubai, and then of course many Emiratis from Dubai living in London. The merry-go-round comes full circle with the British expat from London who ends up living in the Philippines.
In a way, this phenomenon illustrates what I consider to be a [relatively] free market for citizenship and overseas residency; people are free to choose the locations that are most suitable for their needs based on opportunity and lifestyle.
My expectation is that as the geopolitical landscape continues to change, the barriers to entry in many countries will fall; governments will be forced to compete with each other to attract residents.
For example, I expect that countries with terrible demographics like Japan and Italy will start being very liberal in their immigration policies because they need young blood to work, pay taxes, and support elderly social programs.
The same may even happen in the US eventually, with the government offering immigration incentives to foreigners who can help mop up the housing inventory and recapitalize the banks with their savings.
The thing is, many countries are already doing this. Singapore and Chile are aggressively courting investors, professionals, and entrepreneurs. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE advertise in the help wanted sections of Sri Lankan and Indian newspapers to staff their colossal infrastructure projects.
Places like Panama, Brazil, and Costa Rica have passed favorable legislation and tax incentives in order to attract foreign retirees… and as my friend Iain was telling me, they even have some investor and retiree programs here in New Zealand.
The bottom line is that for a creative, inquisitive mind, there are plenty of options available for anyone seeking lifestyle or financial opportunities overseas. The first step is the most important, though: breaking free of the serf mentality that ‘you are what your passport says you are’.
More on this in future letters.