Taking the Leap Without a Net

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Photo from Pixabay

What actually happens when you move abroad with no job lined up and little savings?

I’ve done this. Three times.


When I quit grad school, I honestly had no idea what should come next. All I knew is that I had, for the first time in years, a large chunk of time with no immediate obligations. I was 26, single, and childless. My cat had already been living with my parents ever since a breakup after which I couldn’t afford pet-friendly rent on my own. I was also fortunate to be in good health. There were no real barriers to my freedom if I wanted to seize it. I figured, I’ll be moving somewhere for a real job in a few months… but I don’t have to do that just yet. Why not travel for a couple weeks? It’s now or never.

I didn’t realize that it was farfrom now or never: the trip opened my eyes to a whole new set of possibilities in life. The following year, Shanghai became my home. Today, it’s Berlin.

I can’t tell you how to live The Digital Nomad Dream. I’m not very nomadic. Aside from a semester in Quito at age 19 or the month an ex and I rented an apartment in La Paz after college, I’ve moved abroad on three separate occasions to just two different countries. Each time, I’ve been very conservative about my spending. These aren’t vacations; these are moves. I now support myself on location-independent work, but this usually means I face decisions like “home vs. café” rather than “here vs. Bali.”

But I’ll tell you how I ended up in each new overseas home and how I rationalized the risks despite all the “necessities” I lacked: money, job, network, language.

Part of my desire to make my first move abroad was based on my love for the place, yes, and my lifelong dreams of travel. But part of it was also based on the fact that Shanghai just seemed so full of possibility. And possibility — a chance — was something I desperately wanted as an impoverished young single woman from an infamously insular, opioid-abusing, blue-collar town.

There wasn’t much opportunity to aspire to anything more secure, comfortable, or stimulating where I came from.

The prospect of being able to afford living on a flexible schedule — conducive to writing — meant everything to me; in my country, you need to come from money if you hope to cultivate your artistic gifts and honor your creative dreams. I had the “audacity” to imagine I deserved just as much of a chance as any young person who did inherit unearned wealth.

And I was willing to go far out of my comfort zone — all the way to the other side of the world — just to reach for my chance.

My family is very loving. I knew I could always return if my plans crashed and burned. If you’re going to take this huge risk, try to be 100% sure you have people in your world who love you and would take you in too if you ended up utterly broke and homeless. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Without further ado: China.


TWO YEARS living there, and I never saw this. What can I say? Poor af. (Photo: Pixabay)

CHINA (2012–2014)

On that fateful “final fling” vacation, I sensed from my very first hours in Shanghai that it was meant to be my home. I hadn’t yet necessarily entertained ideas of moving overseas after grad school: that was some kind of cool life experience that people like me didn’t have. But my soul just knew it was right.

I went home and spent a year preparing… and still ended up touching back down across the Pacific in 2012 with only minor savings, no job contract, no language proficiency, and just a single “friend” I hadn’t even met yet.

Should you do this? This is very reckless.

…Then again, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a terrible idea. 😉

Can we name this guy Bad Decisions Bob? He strikes me as a great friend to have. (Image from Pixabay)

Let’s examine my choices, shall we?


Going with Minimal Savings:

I didn’t have savings once I left grad school (#student). In the year of part-time jobs before my move, I managed to save up only about $1500 or $2000. Generous, surprise cash gifts from several relatives in the weeks immediately preceding brought me to about $4,000. I was very lucky.

This is not nothing — but this is not real security.

…This is also more than I had before any subsequent moves thus far.

Would I have liked to have more in savings? Yes, but I simply didn’t.

I felt like I NEEDED to go if I wanted a shot at accessing opportunities in life.

I didn’t really have any other choice: securing a higher-paying job the year before moving would’ve necessitated expensive sacrifices I didn’t want to make, such as going deeper into debt to buy a car, and/or losing money on a move to a U.S. city (where more job opportunities would exist, but living costs would also be higher).

My reasoning was, once in China, I could find work quickly to make up for the money I lacked going in.

I was wrong (kinda), but we’ll get to that.

Ask yourself: CAN you practically expect to save much more? Or do you stand a better chance at earning if you just go sooner rather than later?

Awwww yeaaaaaah, look at all this OPPORTUNITY! #highroller (Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

Going Without a Job Lined Up:

Planning to teach abroad, I did some online job-hunting and even an interview from the U.S. — but I didn’t get a good feeling about those gigs. Then my Shanghai contact wisely pointed out that genuinely good teaching jobs don’t need to advertise from thousands of miles away; better check out schools in person after arriving, rather than tie your visa to a place or an employer you might want to bail on as soon as you see the reality.

This bucks all conventional protocol regarding How to Move Abroad for Young People, but holy shit was he right.

Many schools overseas rely on being able to exploit fresh-from-college hopefuls. Having already worked as a teacher in my early-20s, I had the experience to recognize a shitty contract when I saw one. Thank God.

Need I say… red flag? (Image from Pixabay)

Then, when I got there and began interviewing and doing trial days, I noticed all kinds of red flags besides: insane hours, ambiguous terms about bonuses and vacation, extremely inconvenient locations (sometimes not even in Shanghai at all), woefully inadequate resources, and (routinely) the physical and verbal mistreatment of children.

I was glad my visa wasn’t tied to such a place; these jobs weren’t for me. I never expected to try making it on my own, but private tutoring ultimately became my main source of income while I lived there.

KNOW THE VISA LAWS before you go: some places don’t permit you to switch visa types within the country. Laws also vary based on your nationality. But if you can be flexible on this, consider whether you’d rather take a contract on faith from afar — or not.

Going Without a Network of Friends:

My grandma once asked about one of my international moves:

“Why don’t you get a friend to go with you?”

“Grandma, I would love if a friend wanted to go with me. But it’s not like going to get a slice of pizza; there won’t always be someone who wants to join you. If you want to go, you just go. If you wait for somebody else who wants to go the same place, you might be waiting forever.”

So I went.

My friends had their own connections to Shanghai, such as previous study abroad experience. But aside from a guy I’d met during grad school and hadn’t kept in touch with, I didn’t know anybody there. My single contact on the ground was someone I “met” through the internet: a reader of my old blog had put me in touch with her Shanghai-based friend, Dave. Lucky for me, Dave turned out to be a great person. Nowadays, neither of us lives in Shanghai, but we’re still in touch — and the other two closest friends I made there now live in Germany, like I do. Remember:

Ladies and gentlemen, my buddy Dave! (Late-night photo from Wulumuqi Lu, 2014)

You can make friends everywhere.

Even if you plan to move with them, their plans can change. In fact, this happened after I briefly entertained moving to Seoul; two of my friends intended to move there but ultimately didn’t. Lucky I didn’t base my choice of city on them. The same can happen if you go where you already have friends; maybe they’ll be too busy, maybe you’ll drift apart, maybe they’llmove away.

Other people’s lives are their own. You have no guarantee that they will be in it for the long-haul, or even show up. And that’s okay.

So make your decisions for you.

Going without any worthwhile language proficiency:

Important context: I studied abroad in South America when I was 19 and came home with PTSD. For years, I’d been studying Spanish, dreaming of making my life in a Spanish-speaking place… but now I was traumatized. That dream was done. Thus I learned that language is no “guarantee” of living well.

Applying this logic to China, was I supposed to just not move there because I once planned to move someplace else — and therefore hadn’t studied Mandarin?

Nonsense.

My favorite character (Image from Pixabay)

I studied Mandarin when I could, but juggling three part-time jobs was so stressful that the only part I really got down before moving was how to pronounce the syllables. Were I moving to a small city or a village, this might have worried me more. I already knew surviving on English in Shanghai was possible, though, so I felt secure in that.

Bottom line: I would’ve loved to speak Mandarin — but if I’d waited for that to happen first, I’d still be waiting.


How did things turn out?

AMAZING — just not financially. Some problem surprises:

Housing:

Shanghai landlords — I learned only after arriving — want anywhere from 4–6 months of rent right up front and tend to charge what’s called “the white price.” This latter practice involves charging foreigners at least twice what a Chinese person would be charged for housing, and this kept me technically homeless. (The white price also applies if you’re not white; you just have to be Western.) It wasn’t long before I had nowhere near a 4-month chunk of change to front for an apartment.

Between housing hurdles and my reservations about the reality of teaching in China, my savings dipped dangerously low, very early on. I stayed in a hostel for the first couple weeks, then lived with friends for stints of anywhere from 1–3 months. Periodically, I did have enough to dare looking for an apartment again, but by my second year, I was sleeping long-term in $9/night dorms — because even at my poorest, damnit, I still wanted to stay.

Even if that meant taking up residence in a bunk bed at a hostel.

I mean, wouldn’t YOU want to stay? (Photo by Wolfram K from Pexels)

Work:

Though I did look for other jobs, a succession of cosmic absurdities conspired to keep me unemployed. Highlights: being offered work at a spa whose opening date ultimately didn’t arrive, or being invited to replace someone who’d been deported and blacklisted from the country — and then somehow managed to return and resume his position before my start date. #destiny

Another big problem: because I didn’t have an employer, I couldn’t provide the documentation requested to pause my student loans. I slowly drained my remaining savings just to pay them. Awesommmme.

#MeToo:

Another shitty reality I didn’t anticipate was the #MeToo-style job offers. I’ll skip identifying details here and just share that I had to turn down opportunities that would otherwise have brought lots of stability, due to the behavior of the various men in charge. Stuff like inviting me to a late-night dinner, scheduling a meeting with me at a massage parlor, telling me I was expected to share the CEO’s office, or joking that I’d be expected to “perform sexual services without pay.” Prior to my move, one of my Chinese friends had warned, “There is no such thing as feminism in China.” I didn’t realize how frank she was being.

Having to forego a work visa option or a lucrative tutoring agency contract for suspicious terms ultimately meant that I was pushed further into the economic margins, blocking myself off (for safety’s sake) from “opportunities” I can only imagine would’ve had far less creepy terms had I been a guy. I still have to remind myself not to get wistful about all the money I could have made — how much easier life could have been (and could be right now) — if I hadn’t repeatedly encountered gatekeepers hoping to fuck me.

Hmmm… nope, better not to think about the lost earnings at all. (Photo by Ryan Pouncy on Unsplash)

The China Takeaway:

Somehow, between a combination of stupendous luck and the humbling generosity of friends, I always had food to eat and a roof over my head (even if just barely). I’d longed to be in a place filled with adventurous, open-minded people appreciative of the wider world and to meet the warm hearts kind enough to welcome us. Thankfully, I got all of that, pluslife-changing epiphanies, plenty of material for my memoir, and more. The veritable blessings inherent to going broke in Shanghai deserve an essay of their own.

Going in, I’d envisioned enough money to pay off debts, save, and have some extra for personal enrichment: language/cooking/yoga classes; travel; occasional “wellness” stuff that had always been out of my reach (like meditation groups or massage). I didn’t accomplish what I’d hoped. That is, I got none of the cash, but plenty of enrichment — jut not like I imagined.

In 2014, I decided it was time to leave. I still miss Shanghai — hard — and I am thankful for every second I spent there. In fact, even on my hardest days, I woke up indescribably happy and thankful just to be where I was.

So this is a possibility: you will find yourself in a foreign country where you can’t read, write, or speak; lose all your money; find no job; and end up homeless — and maybe that will actually be awesome.

So I took the leap again.

Two years here and I still haven’t seen this major landmark either. Better fix that. (Photo from Pixabay)

GERMANY (2014)

Germany is simpler to explain: when my Chinese visa was expiring, I’d already been getting inklings that it was time to go someplace else. Life was highlighting Germany very enthusiastically. Berlin, in particular.

This time, I didn’t visit first or deliberate for a year; I considered it for a few months, bought a one-way ticket, and went.

Again, I had hardly any money (Some gifts from relatives right before my departure brought me to around $3000? Less?). Again, no job. Again, no language proficiency. And this time, not even the remotest of local contacts.

I chose Berlin because I’d liked what I’d heard about it: cosmopolitan, English-accessible, open-minded, friendly to and affordable for artists, safe for women. I’d heard about the freelance visa, but I wasn’t doing enough editing at the time for that to be possible. I was hoping to teach… until I arrived and learned that I couldn’t. My previous full-time teaching experience wasn’t enough; Germany cared way more about the actual pieces of paper (teaching degrees, certifications), and I couldn’t afford to go back to school or do an ESL program to get those.

Regardless, Berlin was amazing. I cannot fully express why, how, or how much, but I experienced so much personal healing here — even being so poor that I rarely ever did anything for leisure but take walks or go read at a library — and I reached a level of deep personal peace, self-love, and grounding that I don’t think I ever felt before. I also got to experience Oktoberfest, Christmas markets, and the 25th anniversary Mauerfall festivities (fall of the Berlin Wall) — but in the end, the school that wanted to hire me couldn’t get me a visa, and my lack of paper qualifications blocked me from any others. As my Schengen days ran down, I considered applying for a study visa, but I was too poor even for that: that would’ve not just required school costs but also barred me from working enough hours to get by.

So I left. It had only been 2.5 months.

Yet again, I had no regrets about having moved on a whim, nor permitting myself to see more of the world despite my lack of wealth — but now I had absolutely NO idea where to go next or how to make it work. I ended up living with my parents for almost two years.

So this is also a possibility: you’ll go empty-handed, nothing will fall into place, and you’ll have to move home after just a couple months.

But if things fall into place within yourself, can you really say it wasn’t worth it?

Germany’s quintessential monument: the Brandenburg Gate. Since this is right in Berlin, I DID see this! (Photo from Pixabay)

GERMANY — again (2016–now)

Going “home” in 2014 meant living in a 4,000-population town that my family wasn’t originally from, so I had no local friends. Moreover, I had no car, couldn’t incur more debt to buy one, and there was no public transportation from my parents’ address on their rural road. I somehow had to earn money from right there, in their house. I still (obviously) couldn’t afford any kind of training program. So I turned to copyediting.

Deciding eventually that I wanted to give Berlin another try, I chose an editing niche that would be valuable there and spent months cold-contacting places to build my client base. I arrived back in Berlin still very poor: yet again, I touched down abroad with only about $3,000 (and again, some of this was last-minute help from family). My gross income for the entire year of 2016 was barely more than $5,000.

But I still refused to let my poverty prevent me from trying to access opportunities to get ahead. I knew that if I stayed where I was, it could take forever to save much more, and it might never happen.

And miraculously? On my third(!) overseas move things began working out.

I economized by staying with a friend for the first 3.5 weeks. I applied for, and was fortunate enough to obtain, a freelance visa. My client base grew, and the next year I earned more than double the one before — still very much poverty-level, but I count my blessings. My German progresses slowly, given that my finances and erratic work schedule preclude classroom study, but I’ve recently seen progress on that too.

All in all, my life has been more exciting than now, but it’s also been way more stressful. I feel tremendously grateful to Germany for the opportunities it has afforded me. It still feels like a dream that I have a regular(ish) income; affordable healthcare; affordable healthy food; and an entire, well-connected city filled with vibrant, open-minded people right outside my door. I also marvel at how easy it is to travel here, when time and money permit; I’d done little international traveling prior, but since last year, I’ve seen Austria, Spain, Portugal, Poland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, all on a budget — and I plan to visit friends in the Czech Republic next.

This is the sort of lifestyle my childhood self would have wanted but likely never realized a grown-up could have.

I don’t know what will happen when I’m up for my visa renewal early next year. I hope good things. But if I have to leave, I’ll probably go somewhere new yet again. Living abroad has taught me, healed me, and inspired me so much. It just feels right.


Is It Right for You?

I took the leap without a net multiple times: minimal savings, no job, no language proficiency, few or no connections waiting to help me get on my feet. I’m glad I did (for lots of reasons), but at the same time, things got very financially difficult, very fast. And extreme financial difficulties make other things difficult too (e.g., networking, securing adequate personal space for self-care, maintaining a sense of calm rather than constant anxiety, etc.).

In the end, though, if I had the chance to do things all over again the same way, I would make the same choices in a heartbeat. So there’s that too.

Let’s toast to that. Me, many moons ago, in Shanghai (2011)

Some Final Things You Should Consider

Mental Health:

If you have a latent anxiety disorder, let’s say there’s about a 99% chance that it will pop up to say hello if you end up broke abroad. I’m not being scientific here; I’m not a mental health professional. But seriously: constant, extreme, “how will I eat?” stress is hard anywhere. Even harder where you’re an island unto yourself in 1000 senses of the word, yet living in budget accommodations with no personal space. There’s also the possibility of developing new issues abroad, like my teenage tango with PTSD.

On the plus side, you become VERY closely acquainted with your shadow, which theoretically helps prepare you to work with it on its visits back to your conscious mind in the future. On the downside, mental illness — even if it doesn’t become life-threatening — makes any situation more draining (as if trying to put down roots abroad isn’t difficult enough). Nor is it fun to be struggling overseas and realize you can’t afford a counselor.

HAVE SUPPORTS IN PLACE FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH. SERIOUSLY.

Life Milestones/The Value of Community:

It is EXHAUSTING to rip yourself up from your roots and cultivate new ground intensively enough to plant yourself and thrive again. Don’t underestimate the value of your home setting. Particularly, the people. Leaving family, friends, and community to hack your way through underbrush and blaze a new trail — while everyone else continues down the same highway you’re all familiar with in a car full of old friends — means your life will probably “advance” at a pace very different from theirs. You likely won’t be able to call upon them in the same way you could before, whether that be for anything from a simple hug on a bad day (or even a phone call, because time zones), to the chance to design joint business ventures.

This is neither good nor bad. But recognize that this will feel like a setback. At least for a while.


Relationships:

You just moved to the other side of the world; everything about your life is largely unfathomable to anyone who hasn’t. Even when you visit home again, people might not grasp your situation. Healthy relationships are usually a two-way street. If things abroad get tough, some won’t understand when you can’t buy a bus ticket to visit them; can’t afford to eat at the restaurants they like; don’t have good wifi for international calls; don’t have privacy (such as in a hostel dorm) to talk; and especially just don’t have energy after a hard day (of financial stress, house-/job-hunting, visa paperwork, etc.) to email or call.

On the plus side, the people who love you unconditionally will still be there. On the downside, you’ll be limited in how you can invest in showing them your appreciation, and that will make you feel shitty from time to time. It sucks to want to give and be unable.

Some might also feel offended when their How to Improve Your Life advice is impossible for you to enact, be that because they aren’t familiar with the visa laws, can’t grasp the depths of your poverty, etc. Some might thus conclude you’re too lazy to explore all the “options.” But again, those who love you unconditionally will accept and respect you, even if you confound them.

Finally, also on relationships:

Dating & Sex:

It’s hard to have a personal life when your address is a couch, a friend’s parents’ house, or a bunk in a dorm with 5 other people. It’s also hard to have a personal life when you have no money for dates. And I’m not even TALKING about how being broke, unemployed, and more or less homeless disqualifies you in the eyes of many. Let’s just say — again — things are hard.

And not “hard” in the fun way.


In the end, I’m a bit of a mystical-minded person, so you can dismiss this if it sounds like bullshit to you, but my philosophy is more or less this:

You will have the experience you’re meant to have in the place. You can arrive with no money and thrive. You can arrive with tons of savings, and it can all disappear very fast. You don’t know what you’ll encounter when you get there. We like to believe that having a huge cushion of savings, or a locked-in job, will ensure us an easy experience, but that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes, it’s the luck of the draw, and we’re “meant” to experience some challenges. Sometimes we‘re meant, when we take the leap, not to fall but to fly.

And sometimes maybe it’s both.

Make adequate efforts to meet your basic needs (e.g., food, HEALTH INSURANCE!!!)— but also give yourself the freedom to prioritize your values when faced with important decisions, such as where to work, where to live, etc. This will sometimes mean saying no to certain forms of security, like turning down jobs or declining apartment offers. But if you follow your heart, you’ll be less likely to carry a mountain of regrets — even if things turn out harder than you hoped.

Hopefully, whichever way things go, your experience will be more beautiful than you can possibly imagine.

Good luck, and have fun.

Laura
Laura left a Ph.D. program at age 26 to make good on long-forgotten dreams of nomad'ing and writing. She currently lives in Berlin and writes about the magic of everyday life — most especially, the magic we find when we open our hearts and choose to follow them.

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