Founder’s Diary: Shanghai

Off to the see the “Paris of the East”: InterNations founder and co-CEO Malte Zeeck visits our expat community in Shanghai.

The next stop on my grand tour of China was Shanghai, our largest community in mainland China, with over 21,000 members in the area. After just a two-hour flight from Beijing, I arrived at Hongqiao Airport, which serves as an extremely busy traffic hub for domestic flights.

The Arrival

With innumerable other passengers arriving and departing around me, I was really impressed by the efficient organization of the sheer endless taxi line at the airport terminal. The line of cabs moved rapidly along a platform of about 10 taxi stations, where cars pour in without an end in sight. Everybody got their taxi quickly, and I barely had to wait.

However, writing down the hotel’s address in pinyin (i.e. the Western alphabet) was a typical beginner’s mistake, so to speak. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Shanghai_Pic 1 My poor taxi driver was a bit confused as he, like most cabbies, needed the Chinese characters to understand where I was going.

But we did work it out eventually: Slowly making our way through the heavy traffic, we finally arrived at the Hotel Les Suites Shanghai at the Bund, the city’s famous waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River.

The Bund

Fortunately, I still had enough time to take a walk along the embankment, enjoying the area’s eclectic architecture and the great view of the Pudong skyline across the river. I could easily spot the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai’s contemporary landmark, as well as the looming Shanghai Tower – still under construction and already the tallest building in town!

This time, I wasn’t so lucky with the weather, though. It was a grey and misty day, and the view of the cityscape wasn’t quite comparable to the panoramic views from the Great Wall. But the buildings were really fascinating. Allegedly, my travel guide told me, Shanghai has one of the richest collections of art deco-style architecture worldwide.InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Shanghai_Pic 2

Most of these houses – now the headquarters of banks and corporations or high-end shopping centers and luxury hotels – date from Shanghai’s colonial era. The Bund was part of the Shanghai International Settlement, a foreign concession within the city, whose extraterritorial privileges lasted for 100 years.

The Ambassadors

But as the event was to start at 7 pm, I had to hurry up a bit. The venue, Face Bar Pudong, was located in a secluded landscaped compound on the other side of the river – a lovely green oasis in the middle of a 24-million mega-city. Due to the rain, the event had to take place indoors, and not on the terrace by the little lake, which is a favorite for many of our members.

Though the taxi ride took me longer than expected, I made it in time to meet and greet two of our three Shanghai Ambassadors before the event. Jared and Bryonie were recently appointed InterNations Ambassadors for our Shanghai Community, but both of them have been living in China for several years. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Shanghai_Pic 3

Jared is a German-American expat who specializes in Spanish wines and runs a tapas bar on Dagu Lu. Bryonie, an expat woman from Jamaica, owns the first hair saloon in Shanghai that caters specifically to clients of color. She’s also an active member of our InterNations Shanghai Volunteer Group.

Together, they’d organized a big barbecue with tons of food, and I was delighted to thank the two officially for such a great evening.

The Shanghai Community

In general, it was a pleasure for me to thank not only the Shanghai Ambassadors in my welcome speech, but also our Group Consuls in Shanghai. They organize such fun activities as cooking classes for Chinese food, meet-ups for expat women, or city walks.

Our Shanghai Volunteer Group also deserves special thanks: They support “Head Start Heart Go”, an NPO committed to supporting disadvantaged children in Western China. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Shanghai_Pic 4

After the official introductions were over, I enjoyed the opportunity to talk personally to our members. We had guests from several dozen countries attending the event, and I chatted with Christian and Elisabeth from Austria, Ross from the US, Nicole from Germany, and plenty of other friendly people.

Some of our local members have lived in China for years while others arrived only recently. I really enjoyed seeing the “old hands” support the “newbies” with information and helpful tips.

Eventually Elisabeth from Austria, a seasoned expat who lived in various other Asian cities before she came to Shanghai, kindly offered me a ride back to the city center. She dropped me off at the Bar Rouge right by the Bund – one of Shanghai’s most popular nightlife spots and the ideal place for one last drink on the rooftop terrace, with the glittering skyline for a backdrop.

(Image credit: Malte Zeeck/InterNations)

Book Review: Secret Copenhagen

Are you a curious traveler? If you like straying off the beaten track and exploring the little-known corners of a city, we may have just the right travel guides for you.

Tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Copenhagen, there are many curious traces of the past. Few of them receive as much attention as more well-known attractions do.InterNations Expat Blog_Book Review_Secret Copenhagen_Cover_Pic 1

Secret Copenhagen tells the stories and anecdotes behind the city’s many curiosities in order to help you explore its every corner. The book is one of Jonglez Publishing’s newest additions to their series of “Secret” city guides.

Like the other volumes, Secret Copenhagen zeroes in on a city that hosts droves of tourists year round. Rather than describe the most popular of sights, however, the books explore what is there to be discovered by those who, in the words of the authors, “thought they knew the city well.”

The Landmarks

Save for the most adventurous among us, our exploration of a new place is generally guided by what we have been told. And most guidebooks tell us roughly the same things.

This is by no means a bad thing: Of course we want to see what other travelers recommend seeing. But if you’ve already laid eyes upon the Little Mermaid and the royal mansions of Amalienborg, you may be hungry for other adventures.

Secret Copenhagen features many little oddities throughout the city, a number of which would, quite frankly, be of little interest if it were not for the charming anecdotes the book attaches to them. From an iron chain in a wall, or an old window, to a row of decrepit sheds, many of these artifacts can indeed seem fairly unremarkable at face value.

However, for those interested in history, culture, and their manifestations in our day and age, Secret Copenhagen can be considered a small, portable goldmine. With this book in hand, you will be able to walk the streets of Copenhagen and spot otherwise unseen signs of past times. You will learn that one of the old window’s eight glass panes opens from the outside, a pivotal feature of what is actually an early 1900s pickup point for hot topic news leads.

InterNations Expat Blog_Book Review_Secret Copenhagen_Christianshavn_Pic 2 You will learn the seemingly purposeless rusty iron rings in the Royal Library Garden are remnants of warship moorings, part of King Christian IV’s once busy harbor. Or that the name “Iordano” on a tombstone in the Sculptor’s Garden in fact refers to a loyal dog, who swam and ran tirelessly to catch up with the boat of its master, Nicolai Abildgaard, an 18th-century painter and architect.

As a guidebook, Secret Copenhagen indeed adds some depth and hidden meanings to little things around the city that would otherwise, in all likelihood, go unnoticed. Of course, a few museums and galleries are listed as well, such as the Copenhagen Prison Museum and the Storm P. Frieze.

The Structure

I’m a big fan of the book’s layout. Lots of guidebooks try to do everything at once, and it’s easy to get lost in all their different chapters, sections, and subsections. In Secret Copenhagen, each flip of the page reveals a single new landmark, easy-peasy.

The content of the pages itself is very intuitive to navigate as well, as the structure is very consistent. The left page (nearly) always shows a full-page picture, while the right holds the textual information.

On the text page, below the name of the landmark at the top, you see the address, the closest public transport station, as well as any other relevant details such as contact info, opening hours, tours, and so on. The few times they do deviate from this layout, they do it for good reason.

InterNations Expat Blog_Book Review_Secret Copenhagen_Park_Pic 3 In general, I feel it’s important that guidebooks can function as a useful tool for the reader, or visitor. All in all, the information in this travel guide is structured and arranged very conveniently, proving an easy reference on the go – a major plus for Secret Copenhagen in my book.

The Style

While I have very few issues with this book, I do feel obligated to briefly comment on the writing. For reasons related to the use of colloquial language, I (as a non-native speaker of English) more than once found myself rereading sentences to understand exactly what was meant.

The book’s idiomatic inconsistencies are not so glaring, however, that Secret Copenhagen fails to convey its stories. In fact, it does so quite capably. My only concern is that some anecdotes lose a little bit of their magic to the at times uneven flow. Regardless, while the book perhaps wouldn’t make for an exciting bedtime read, it gets across the information to the busy tourist, who will probably read just a few sections in a row.

Whoever is exploring Copenhagen in depth will be happy to have this mini-encyclopedia in hand. The stories of Secret Copenhagen do have a lot of charm, and anyone who considers themselves a true history buff would be remiss to leave this book behind.

Special thanks to Jonglez Publishing for the free review copy of their book!

(Image credit: 1) Editions Jonglez 2) & 3) pixabay.com)

Founder’s Diary: Beijing

On the road again: InterNations founder and co-CEO Malte Zeeck looks back on his recent travels through China.

My latest trip brought me to China, which is well known for its large expat population.

Actually, InterNations has nine Local Communities with over 70,000 members scattered all over China, from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta, as well as Hong Kong off the southern coast.

In just one week’s time, I’d get to visit three of China’s booming mega-cities and their respective InterNations Communities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

A Hutong in Beijing

First stop: Beijing. I’d barely got off the plane after a long nine hours’ flight when it struck me how much the city had changed in the course of a decade. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic9I’d last been to Beijing about ten years ago, and there were many things I didn’t recognize.

My taxi ride from the airport showed me that most of the bicycles and rickshaws had vanished in favor of cars. Dense smog was hanging over the streets, and I understood at once why expats in Beijing frequently complain about air pollution.

This time, my destination in the city wasn’t a hotel, though. Luckily, I could combine my trip to China with a visit to my sister and her family. They live in a typical Chinese neighborhood – a hutong, a narrow alley lined by courtyard buildings.

In these small apartment complexes, families live very close together, often sharing a bathroom with their neighbors. Local life basically happens in the little backstreets, and it’s quite different from living in an expat compound. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_2014_Pic 13

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of these courtyard dwellings left. Lots of Beijing’s old-fashioned neighborhoods were torn down to make room for high-rise buildings and apartment towers with glass façades.

Bavaria in China

The family reunion, however, had to wait a little. I could just hop into and out of the shower before I needed to set out for our InterNations Event.

Our Beijing Ambassadors team had organized an Oktoberfest-style party at the Kempinski Hotel’s Paulaner beer tent, and the event started at noon. So I put on my Lederhosen and Janker (Bavarian leather pants and woolen jacket) and called a taxi to take me to my first Oktoberfest in China.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic7I still remembered the Kempinski Hotel from my time at Lufthansa, and they’d done a great job with the Paulaner beer tent. Some people wore Tracht (Bavarian-style clothing), there was German beer, and even a brass band “imported” from Bavaria, so to speak.

A dancing troupe performed several folkloristic dances and demonstrated how to make music with a collection of cowbells. However, when the lead singer reappeared on stage dressed as Elvis Presley, it all started to feel just a little surreal.

Jaime and Catalina, our Beijing Ambassadors, gave me a warm welcome and presented all guests with an InterNations Lebkuchenherz (gingerbread heart), which served as a nice souvenir. Both of them have been InterNations Ambassadors for quite a while.

Jaime’s an architect from Colombia, and Catalina is a fashion designer from Craiova in Romania. But the two of them share more than their expat background, their Ambassador position, and their passion for design. They found love abroad – and eventually got married in Greece.

The InterNations Oktoberfest Event went on until 5 pm, and right after I needed to dash to the next taxi. I’d promised to meet up with my sister’s family at Dadong, a local restaurant famous for the best roast duck in Beijing.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic1 Walking into the restaurant in my Oktoberfest leather pants felt a bit weird, and quite a few of the Chinese guests couldn’t help having a look at this odd laowei (foreigner).

But the duck was definitely worth it! Beijing duck is a delicious meal, where little pieces of meat are rolled into mini-pancakes, together with plenty of vegetables and Hoisin sauce or sweet bean paste.

On Top of Town

Luckily, I still had time to get changed after dinner for the day’s second InterNations Event. It took place on top of Beijing’s highest building, at China World Summit Wing, a luxury hotel in the China World Trade Center complex.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic10The Lounge on the 80th floor is perched over 300 m above the city. From here you are supposed to have a marvelous view of Beijing, but all we could see was a soup-like mixture of smoggy clouds.

The venue made up for this disappointment. The manager, Imbi from Estonia, made the InterNations Community feel welcome immediately. In contrast to the Oktoberfest Event, the members were dressed up very elegantly, and just like before, everyone seemed to have a great time.

In my brief welcome speech, I got to thank Jaime and Catalina and all of our InterNations Group Consuls, who organize fun activities like tennis matches, live music gigs, and professional networking. By now, there are over 35 Activity Groups in Beijing!

I was also happy to promote the Beijing Volunteer Group, organized by Semih, a Turkish expat working for a French hotel chain in the Asia-Pacific region. He and his fellow Group Consuls support the “Stars and Rain Institute”, a local NPO for autistic children and their families.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_2014_Pic 14 In addition to finally meeting all these committed InterNations members in person and getting to chat with friendly folks from around the globe, talking to Rurik from Sweden was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

Rurik wanted to thank me because he’d met his wife, an expatriate from Taiwan, at one of our InterNations Events. It’s occasions like this that show me how our idea of an expat network truly touches people’s lives.

The Great Wall

The following morning, I woke up early as we wanted to go on a family trip to the Great Wall of China. In stark contrast to the previous day, a glance out of the window of the courtyard house revealed a blue and sunny sky.

It took about 1.5 hours to get to Mutianyu, and we were lucky that we did not end up in a traffic jam. Along the way, we passed the newly built conference center and hotels designated to house the APEC summit in November. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic2

Factories were to shut down for an entire week to avoid major air pollution, and most cars would be forbidden from driving in order to keep the streets free for the visiting heads of state. Even the facades along the convoy’s route had received a fresh coat of paint!

In Mutianyu, there’s now an entire tourist village for visitors coming to see the Great Wall – complete with Chinese restaurants next to a Starbuck’s and a Burger King. A bus took us from the village to the foot of the wall. From there, a chair lift brought us all the way to the top.

It was exactly as spectacular as every tourist guide claims: originally 21,000 km long (or “only” about 6,500 km, if you count just the fortifications erected during the Ming dynasty), more than 2,000 years old in some parts, and the only building so far to be photographed from the International Space Station. You can’t actually see it from the moon, though. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic3

Nonetheless, it always served its purpose well – to defend China from countless armies and invasions. The Chinese soldiers patrolling the Great Wall must have been really strong walkers: It was rather steep in some places, and we did a fair bit of climbing.

But the view from the wall was the best reward for our exertions: Under the blue sky, the surrounding forests had begun to turn red and yellow, and it was a glorious autumn day. For the way down, we opted for a toboggan ride, which was great fun for my nephews and niece.

Before heading back home, we also got to try Chinese dumplings with various fillings. As a perfect ending to this day, we enjoyed a traditional Chinese reflexology treatment – a special massage for your feet, which was a nice relief after a day of walking up and down the Great Wall. (And I bet the imperial soldiers didn’t have that luxury!)

The Temple of Heaven and Sanlitun

On Sunday morning, I was up bright and early once again, as there was such a lot to discover in Beijing. Taking the Beijing Subway, which is a very convenient, though crowded way to get around the city, I arrived at the Temple of Heaven.

In the park surrounding the temple grounds, lots of local residents were enjoying their leisure time. I spotted people dancing the tango, doing tai chi exercises, or playing badminton.InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic8

Others had assembled a whole choir and a small orchestra to sing, make instrumental music, and practice opera arias. Along the main pathway, groups of card-players and mahjong enthusiasts were sitting down for a game, and women relaxed on a park bench while knitting or crocheting at record speed.

The Temple of Heaven itself is one of the most beautiful sacred buildings that I have ever visited. It was erected for the Emperors of China to sacrifice to tian, the deity of heaven, and pray for good harvests.

In the southern part of the temple complex, you’ll find the so-called Heavenly Center Stone. Legend has it that this is the center of China and thus, naturally, the center of the universe. In imperial China, only the Emperor was allowed to stand here. Today, everybody can do it and make a secret wish, so of course I did.

After a quick stroll through the neighboring pearl market, I met up with Jaime and Catalina, our Beijing Ambassadors. We had lunch together at the Park Hyatt Hotel and enjoyed some wonderful Chinese seafood while talking about the development of the InterNations Beijing Community.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic4 I got to spend the afternoon in Sanlitun to do some souvenir shopping before heading off to try Beijing’s finest hot pot, a really spicy fondue-style food from southern China.

At the restaurant, a traditional noodle-maker impressed the guests, especially the children, with his artistic way of food preparation. In other parts of the room, waiting guests could while away the time by getting a manicure right there at designated tables. But I decided to limit myself to tasting the hot pot, which really lived up to its reputation.

The Forbidden City and Houhai Lake

On the following day, I took the metro to Tiannamen Square. It is the site of several important events in Chinese history.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Beijing_Pic5

Plenty of people come here to see the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Great Hall of the People. Foreign visitors are often on their way to the Forbidden City, located just north of Tiananmen Square. I, too, joined a private tour given by a Chinese student, who showed us round the former home of China’s emperor and his court.

After the tour, I climb Prospect Hill, a public park situated on an artificial hill behind the palace complex. From there, you get a wonderful view of the sprawling Forbidden City with its 9,999 rooms.

A rickshaw then took me to nearby Houhai Lake in Xicheng District. The neighborhood is famous for its scenic areas, former royal mansions, and hutong streets. Today it’s full of bars, restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and hotels attracted by the popularity of its picturesque ambience.

In the evening, we got to have a good-bye dinner at Dali Courtyard Restaurant, which specializes in regional cuisine from Yunnan. Once again, I noticed how much the fabulous Chinese food differed from the dishes you usually get in Chinese restaurants back in Europe.

The dinner party was a lovely end to my trip to an amazing, ever-changing city. I couldn’t wait to see how Shanghai, the country’s business capital, had developed.

(Image credit: 1: Beijing Cityscape by flickr user Kentaro Iemoto; 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11: Malte Zeeck/InterNations; 5: The Lounge @ China World Summit Wing; 10: Temple of Heaven by flickr user Fioshoot)

Survey Spotlight: Expat Women

One of the topics still missing from this year’s Expat Insider survey report is a focus on expat women, as compared to male expatriates. But we hope that this blog post can provide some valuable insights instead.

Gender Split and Average Age

Among our general survey population, women slightly outnumber men, with 53% to 47%, or a ratio of 1.13 to 1. The average expat woman is slightly younger than the men moving abroad.

Woman sitting on floor at stationWhile the average age of male respondents is 41.8 years, a female participant is, on average, 37.4 years old. That’s a noticeable age difference of more than four years! We’ll talk about one potential reason for this discrepancy below.

Popular Countries of Residence

There are also visible differences between men and women as far as country of residence and nationality are concerned. The five most frequent countries of residence in general are Germany, the US, the UAE, Switzerland, and the UK.

For expat women, this list barely changes, except for the UK and UAE changing places. However, among our male respondents, the top five list by frequency includes Germany, the UAE, the US, Saudi Arabia, and China.

The results get really intriguing, though, when we look at the countries of residence that show a distinct gender imbalance among their current expat residents.

In Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, and New Zealand, more than two-thirds of our respondents are women. On the other hand, in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Nigeria, between 70% and 80% of participants are male.

Nationality Groups

Several nationalities skew heavily female or predominantly male as well. Graduation Interestingly, a number of nationalities from Eastern Europe, East and Southeast Asia include over 70% women moving abroad.

In our survey population from various South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, it’s mostly the men opting for life abroad, with 70% or more.

In the predominantly female nationality groups, the average age is fairly low, too. For instance, of our respondents from Ukraine, an astonishing 80% are female. They are also the youngest nationality altogether, with an average age of barely 31.

There’s one more thing that stands out in the mostly female groups: Up to 20% of these expats are students or former students, who moved abroad to attend university.

Compared to a global average of 8% (ex-)students, this figure is a disproportionate amount. No wonder they are all still pretty young!

Expat Types and Motivations for Moving Abroad

Generally speaking, 60% of all (ex-)students in the survey are women. There’s a similar percentage of female expatriates among the globetrotters, who relocated for an extended vacation or embarked on an adventure abroad.

Both of these groups also have a somewhat lower age then the respondents in total. This could partially explain why our female participants are, on average, somewhat younger.

InterNations Expat Blog Survey Spotlight Expat Women Pic 1When it comes to our expat typology, two other “types” of expatriates are even more clearly female-dominated.

Among the romantics, who moved abroad to live in their partner’s home country, nearly two-thirds are women. And more than eight out of ten traveling spouses are women, moving for their partner’s job or education.

Among our three career-centric expat types, however, women are somewhat underrepresented. The foreign assignees and “top job” recruitees in particular include fewer than 40% women each.

Careers

The academic qualifications are about the same, regardless of gender. 85% of the men and 89% of expat women have a college or university degree.

Their careers may, however, look as different as their motivations for moving abroad. For example, twice as many women describe their current employment status as teachers or academic staff, or work in education/research/translation.Mature woman standing next to the bookshelves.

For the construction sector, it’s exactly the other way round: You’ll find more than twice as many male expats working in this industry.

Mums and Dads

While up to 6% of expat women identify as home-makers or stay-at-home parents, the number is 0.34% for our male survey participants. That’s 22 full-time dads worldwide. And that’s despite the fact that our male respondents are more likely to have kids than the women.

In general, our survey population turned out to be a “biased sample” with regard to children. Only 25% indicate that they have kids under the age of 18. But about one in three of our male respondents has children, while it’s only one in five among the female survey audience.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

The Five Worst Places to Live as a Newly Arrived Expat

Every expat knows how difficult it can be to find accommodation upon arrival. Sometimes, this leads to rather absurd housing situations. Here’s a more humorous take on a potentially stressful topic.

1) The Single Room:

InterNations Expat Blog 5 Worst Places to Live_Pic 3It’s actually perfectly fine, and it has everything you need: kitchenette, bed, desk, TV, etc. There is only one tiny problem: Whenever you have someone over, it kind of feels as if you’re bringing a victim back to your lair.

2) The Hotel/Motel Room:

Though it’s meant as a short-term solution until you find your feet, you sometimes end up staying there for a bit longer than you should: It’s the VIP lifestyle, and it just feels so good. The bathroom is always clean, the towels are dry and fluffy, and your bed is neatly made with close-to-military precision when you come home.

But when you realize that you’ve spent the last twenty minutes drumming your fingers on the reception desk, politely turning away to fondle brochures when new guests arrive to check-in and sardonically rolling your eyes at Gustav, the affable Swedish clerk, when they leave, it’s probably high time to find your own place.

3) The Unfurnished Room:

In the movies, it would be great. You’d dine by candlelight, dance across oakwood floors with your romantic interest, and would be gently awoken by the caress of the sun’s rays while cuddling with your new-found love on a chic futon. InterNations Expat Blog 5 Worst Places to Live_Pic 2

But in reality, you wake up feeling like you returned home to a scene from a news report on a campsite bear attack – crisp packets and empty Coke cans strewn across the floor, a jumbled-up sleeping bag in the corner, dirty laundry lying in chaotic heaps, and a general sense of “why? What am I even doing here?”

4) The Sixth-Floor Apartment Without Elevator:

A classic case of “I don’t mind! It will force me to exercise more and keep me fit.” You were wrong. You have never been more wrong.

And when did you realize? Quite often actually. InterNations Expat Blog 5 Worst Places to Live_Pic 4From the first day you lugged your suitcases up the stairs, to the days when, breathless by the third floor, you had to grab the bannister for leverage and quite literally hurl yourself up the stairs.

Or whenever your six-foot tall, gorgeous German neighbor easily glides by, a lycra-clad appearance who’s just finished running ─ you decide in your self-deprecating humor ─ at least five consecutive marathons. Gosh, how you love to hate him.

5) The Somehow Always Dirty Dump:

Despite putting on a hazmat suit, grabbing a can of weapon-grade bleach and a sponge so rough it would make a hedgehog blush, somehow you can’t get your new abode as squeaky-clean as you’d like.

The small studio always seems vaguely grubby, and the flies make it look like the set of an Oxfam ad. But, hey, the rent’s still affordable and it wasn’t hard to find that room. Now you also know why.

Does this sound all too familiar? Let us hear your stories!

(Image credit: pixabay.com)

Book Review: Times New Romanian by Nigel Shakespear

Times New Romanian – no, you read this right. This is not a typo, and this post doesn’t actually describe popular fonts and typefaces.

Times New Romanian: Voices and Narrative from Romania is the title of a recent book edited and published by Nigel Shakespear, himself a British expat in Eastern Europe. He has lived in Romania for about ten years, working with a government organization to improve the living conditions of the Roma population.

Over and over again, he was asked the following question: “What do you, as a foreign resident, think of our country?” This book is an attempt to answer that question, or rather an attempt to provide a wide range of answers.InterNations Expat Blog Times New Romanian Pic 1

Times New Romanian is a collection of interviews with about 40 expatriates, who talk freely about their life in Romania and their impressions of the country.

The Contributors

The editor has included a fairly diverse group of people to represent expat life in Romania. They come from Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the US. Some of them actually have Romanian roots, returning to the country that their parents or grandparents left behind.

The interviewees also represent a variety of occupations, from the business man working in the finance sector over the farm manager to the owner of a small B&B. However, the creative types, such as writers, journalists, or filmmakers, as well as social workers or people affiliated with NPOs and NGOs, may be somewhat overrepresented here.

Still, the expats in question don’t live in Bucharest only. Instead, the editor has taken care to select interviewees who have settled in all parts of the country, from the capital to rural Transylvania, from the Bucovina to the Banat, and from the Carpathian Mountains to the Black Sea.

The Conversations

The short chapters with the individual conversations make for an easy read. Sometimes, the anecdotes or observations come across as slightly banal or somewhat random (though the excursions on, for example, water buffalo farms are still entertaining). More often than not, however, the expats provide some vivid quotes and insightful comments, e.g. on the slow emergence of a civic society in Romania’s public sphere.

Tower and walls of fortified church Alma Vii, Transylvania. RomaniaAt times, the interviewees clearly share their enthusiasm for pursuits like ethno-musicology and Romanian peasant traditions; in other instances, their stories are very personal and very moving. The account of a NGO worker from Wales who used to look after HIV-positive children in a hospice really stuck in my mind.

On the downside, the book is occasionally a little disjointed. The editor obviously wanted to let people talk for themselves, with candor and authenticity. But the natural flow of conversation can turn rambling, or start jumping from topic to topic.

Maybe it would have been better to group their observations and opinions according to the subject at hand, so you could easily compare what they think, for instance, about life in the countryside or family life in Romania.

Readers like me, who know little about Romanian history and culture, may also find themselves wishing for more context in some cases. For example, the interviewees talk repeatedly about the various demographic groups within Romania.

It would have been nice to get more background information about ethnic Romanians, Hungarian-Romanians, “Saxons” (Transylvanians of German descent), the Roma and Sinti communities, and their respective place in Romanian society.

The Conclusion

Times New Romanian is neither a guidebook for travelers or expats-to-be, not is it a systematic overview of contemporary Romania. But I think if you are planning any sort of longer stay in Romania, it will serve as a useful complement to these kinds of books. It offers a good look at what you may expect, both positive and negative aspects. InterNations Expat Blog Times New Romanian Pic 2

The expats in this collection can be rather critical of Romania sometimes, but most have close ties to the country all the same: co-workers, good friends, partner, spouse, extended family. Some of them are probably going to settle down forever in their adopted home.

And despite their criticism, most clearly oppose the negative stereotype of Romania of some backwards, benighted place that is still trotted out in foreign media every now and then. There’s a deep conviction of an ongoing transformation in many conversations, a fascination with the country’s “amazing vitality”.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Survey Spotlight: Expats’ Language Skills

As for the Expat Insider Survey, there are several topics we’d have liked to cover in our survey report, but had to exclude due to various constraints.

Expats and their language skills is one of these subjects. Fortunately, our blog provides plenty of space to make up for this lack.

Number of Languages Spoken

Let’s start with the basic facts about language proficiency: the number of languages that our survey respondents speak. Only 12% of expatriates are monolingual (i.e. they speak just one language) in spite of living abroad.

Leadership Signpost Showing Vision Values Empowerment and Encouragement Fewer than three out of ten (27%) describe themselves as bilingual, and more than 60% speak at least three languages. An astonishing 11% of survey participants even speak five to eight different languages (their mother tongue included) – an impressive figure.

One or Many? Monolinguals vs. Polyglots

Language proficiency varies wildly among the survey population. Those expats who left home to go on an extended vacation, or to enjoy life abroad, are far more likely to be monolingual (23%, as opposed to the global average of 12%).

The oldest demographic group of expatriates aged 51+ also includes a fair share of monolinguals: One in five speaks only his or her mother tongue. The biggest factor by far, however, is nationality.

Expats from Anglophone countries, such as Canada, the UK, and the US, are frequently monolingual. Aussies (50%) and Kiwis (55%) in particular stand out. Unsurprisingly, up to 20% of these nationals move to countries where English is one of the local languages.

What about the polyglots? (Ex-)students who moved abroad to attend university have above-average language skills. About four out of ten speak four languages, or even more. A similar number (44%) would consider their proficiency in the local language to be “very good”.

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Again, the differences among the nationalities survey are the most salient feature. Belgians, Ukrainians, and Swiss expatriates win at multilingualism: More than two-thirds of each group speak four or more languages.

Frequent Languages Spoken

The top five languages reported by our survey respondents don’t yield any surprising results. A good working knowledge of English was necessary to complete our survey: English is thus the undisputed #1, followed by French (32%), Spanish (27%), German (26%), and Italian (12%).

This list roughly overlaps with the most frequent nationalities. Among the top ten, you’ll find expats from four large English-speaking nations (30% of respondents), as well as from Germany (6%), France (6%), Italy (3%), and Spain (2%). Furthermore, the languages listed above are widely taught in secondary schools, especially in North America and Europe.

Dutch nationals (3%) and expats from India (6%) also appear among the top ten nationalities by number of participants. Accordingly, up to 8% of respondents say that they speak Dutch, and another 8% chose Hindi.

The “Other Language” Option

Hindi by no means represents India’s linguistic diversity. The 2011 census recognized over 1,600 mother tongues across the country. When we looked at the responses for “other language (please specify)”, this diversity soon becomes apparent.

InterNations Expat Blog_Survey Spotlight_Languages_Pic 3Quite a few South Asian languages appear in this data set, for example, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, and Kannada. However, Bengali – India’s second largest language by number of speakers – got very few mentions.

If we do this survey again, we may need to expand our selection of language options! Our respondents also mentioned several other language groups rather frequently:

• Baltic and Slavic languages from Eastern Europe: Czech, Slovak, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, as well as Lithuanian and Latvian

• various African languages: Amharic (Ethiopia), Wolof (Senegal), Twi and Ewe (Ghana), Igbo (Nigeria), and the languages of South Africa (especially Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu)

• several European regional or minority languages (e.g. Catalan and Irish Gaelic)

Language-Related Fun Facts

One jokester deserves a special mention. The respondent listed “Klingon” – the constructed language invented for the Star Trek movies and TV shows – under “other” language skills. Either that person is a really dedicated sci-fi nerd, or this expat is indeed very far from home.

Maybe he or she should rather give Hungarian a try? It might prove to be a worthwhile challenge.

55% of local respondents – the biggest percentage by far – describe Hungarian as a very difficult language to learn. Given that Hungarian has up to 18 noun cases, tends to construct super-sized words, and uses four different forms of speech to express politeness, they are probably right.

If you’d like to know more about multilingualism among expat children, please check out the official Expat Insider report!

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Preparing for Your Move: What to Ask Yourself Before You Go (Part l)

Are you considering a move abroad? Our guest blogger Ben discusses important points to think about before you leave.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend. During our conversation, she told me that she was thinking about relocating abroad for a while. Her life was in a rut and she needed a change.

My friend asked me for some tips because she knew I had some experience with this. I was flattered that she came to me for advice and that some of my stories about living abroad had provided the impetus to think about doing the same. InterNations Expat Blog_Preparing for Your Move _Part 1_Pic 1

I completely understand and empathize with her feelings. I think at some point in our lives, we all feel that things are not going the right way and we need some kind of change to get us out of a funk. I didn’t tell her what to do because I feel the only person that knows what is best for you is you.

However, I did ask her a series of questions (a very long series, actually) that I hoped would help her understand her motivations and emotions better. I thought these questions would be helpful for all those who are also contemplating moving to a foreign country.

Since our conversation was very long, I broke this blog post up into two parts, the “psychological” and the “practical”. Let’s start with the psychological aspects of relocation:

1) Why do you want to go and what do you hope to achieve?

This is an important question because it gets to the heart of your motivation.

A friend of mine, who happens to be an expert marketer, once told me before making any decision for his company, he asks the question, “Why should we do that?” After coming up with an answer, he then asks “why” again four more times and that is how he gets to the root intention.

Checklist2) What do your friends and family think about your idea and how will your absence impact them?

None of us live on a desert island. We all have friends and family who we care about and who may even depend on us. While going away may change your life, it could also affect theirs as well.

3) How adaptable are you to situations that are completely foreign?

Are you prepared to be immersed into a totally different language, culture and mentality; one you might not understand for a long time?

There is a very romantic notion of running away to some distant exotic land, into the sunset if you will, and you live happily ever after.

However, that is often not the case and sooner or later reality hits you. Just have a look at my earlier post “The Stages of Culture Shock” to see how this worked out for me.

Once you realize that it’s no longer fun and games and there are real challenges to deal with, are you mentally flexible enough to handle them and resilient enough to endure them?

4) How do you handle loneliness?

There will be many times when you feel incredibly alone, especially in the beginning – can you cope?

This is piggy backing on the question above. When you encounter hardships, sometimes you feel like no one understands and you are completely alone. This feeling is compounded when you are in a foreign environment.

At the end of the day, when all your tasks have been completed and challenges handled, sometimes you find yourself sitting alone in a dark, uncomfortable place with only your thoughts for company.InterNations Expat Blog_Preparing for Your Move _Part 1_Pic 3

5) How do you handle racism in a foreign country?

This is important, because although the vast majority of people are kind, warm, and welcoming, unfortunately racism is a reality. Growing up as an ethnic minority in the US, I have experienced racism there, too, but it’s different when it happens at home versus abroad.

At home, you can find comfort and safety with your friends, your family, and with the things you are familiar with. When abroad, you are not surrounded by these sanctuaries, and although the action may be the same, it’s a completely different feeling.

6) Are you prepared for the time when your journey comes to an end, you will be a completely different person and you have no idea in what way?

I believe that it is our experiences that shape our identity and I have never met a person who has lived abroad and not been changed by that experience. Oftentimes the experience is positive, but not always.

I think many people focus on the “going” part, but don’t pay enough attention to the “coming back” part, including myself. The “going” is exciting and fun, and “coming back” is mundane, but it is upon coming back that you will realize the extent of the change you’ve undergone.

Look out for my next post “Preparing for Your Move (Part II – Practical)” in the coming weeks!

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Survey Spotlight: Expat Insider, the BBC, and the OECD

Last week we had several fairly intense discussions in the comment sections on the InterNations Facebook fanpage. They involved the overall country ranking of our Expat Insider Survey, the survey’s Quality of Life Index, and a BBC article touting Canberra as the “best place to live”.

Actually, the BBC presented the results of another worldwide ranking, the OECD Regional Well-Being study, where several Australian cities made it to the top.

Canberra Parliament HouseIn the Expat Insider of top expat destinations 2014, Australia “only” shows up on rank 9 (out of 61). So, which report gets it right?

Spoiler: It’s not a question of “right” or “wrong”, but rather a matter of what you look at and how you do it.

This is a great opportunity to discuss country rankings, with an emphasis on methodology, to see how they come about and what they mean.

Australia and the OECD Regional Well-Being Initiative

First of all, the OECD index that sings the praises of Canberra – once charmingly entitled “the most boring capital in the world” – looks neither at entire countries not at individual cities. Rather, it compares larger administrative units.

In Australia, these regions include the nation’s eight major states and territories. The small Australian Capital Territory is more or less identical with the city of Canberra.

For each of 362 regions in the OECD’s 34 member states, researchers have collected a variety of statistics from local or national authorities. These figures are drawn from nine different areas:

• educationBig Data Concept.
• jobs
• income
• safety
• environment
• health
• access to services
• civic engagement
• housing

Most areas comprise one or two statistical indicators only. For example, education represents the members of the regional labor force that have at least completed secondary school.

The OECD statisticians used a mathematical formula to assign values from 1 to 10 to every single indicator. This makes it possible to combine such different units as percentages of the population or disposable income per person. If one area is represented by more than one indicator, they used the mean value to arrive at one score per category.

If you assign equal importance and weight to all nine scores, you’ll get a top 10 list that features several Australian states or territories: the ACT (Canberra), New South Wales (Sydney), Queensland (Brisbane), and Western Australia (Perth).

These four regions boast individual indicator scores from 6.9 to 10.0 (Queensland), or even from 8.5 to 10.0 (ACT). But what do these figures mean in concrete terms?

From Data to Descriptions

“Translated” back into easy-to-grasp explanations, the OECD Regional Well-Being study states, for example, that the top Australian regions have very low homicide rates (safety), high voter turnout (civic engagement), and barely any air pollution (environment). In the ACT, people also tend to have a fairly cushy income.

SafetySo far, the study doesn’t include any other factors that might be relevant from an individual’s point of view, such as childcare facilities or leisure activities. It doesn’t say, either, how people feel about their region. After all, it compares hard facts, not personal opinions or emotions.

It’s not about whether or not the residents of Canberra are happy. It’s about enabling policy-makers and researchers to quickly compare certain data, like local unemployment rates (jobs) or the availability of broadband Internet (access to services).

Expat Insider – the Methodology behind the Ranking

The Expat Insider Survey had a completely different approach. For starters, we only reviewed results on a national basis. Since we didn’t rely on official statistics, but on people filling in a questionnaire, breaking down 14,000 answers to smaller units than a whole country would no longer yield any valid results.

InterNations Expat Blog_Expat Insider OECD Regional Well-Being_Pic 2Secondly, it’s a subjective snapshot. It was explicitly aimed at the expat population, which isn’t representative of the national population in general. And we asked them explicitly how they feel about life abroad.

For example, we featured the question: “How satisfied are you with personal safety in Australia?” Participants could respond on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (completely satisfied). We didn’t look at the crime rates for Australia and compare them with Germany.

With this rating scale, you’d get a mean value for every single factor. Several mean values (for safety, quality of medical care, etc.) could then be combined in one sub-index (e.g. Health & Safety).

Several sub-indices make up one topical index (e.g. Quality of Life); all topical indices, plus an individual happiness rating, form the overall country ranking.

Interestingly enough, when we look at the sub-indices touching on similar topics as the OECD Regional Well-Being study, there are certain similarities.

Expat Insider Results for Australia

According to the OECD, most Australian states do pretty well with regard to health and have low rates of violent crime. Among our survey respondents in Australia, about two-thirds think that medical care is good or very good. Just 7% give it a negative rating.

Moreover, more than 80% feel safe or completely safe in their new home. All in all, Australia ranks on #2 when it comes to health and safety for expats worldwide.

In other respects, subjective perception among our expat residents and large-scale data don’t match. Income-wise, all Australian states are among the top 25% of the regions analyzed by the OECD. InterNations Expat Blog_Expat Insider OECD Regional Well-Being_Pic 3

In the Expat Insider survey, though, Australia ranks only 47th out of 61 in our Personal Finance Index. If we consider just the OECD member states listed in this ranking, Australia is still #20 out of 28 countries.

Indeed, one in four participants in Australia think that their income is lower than the local average. This might help to explain between the discrepancies between the two studies to a certain extent.

Generally speaking, Australia does particularly well in the Expat Insider rankings for “soft” factors that weren’t measured in the OCED index. When it comes to general family life, it’s the #4 worldwide. Respondents also appreciate their work-life balance and quickly feel at home down under.

Lastly, Australia is the #1 country for leisure activities worldwide. This may or may not include Canberra.

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Founder’s Diary: Birthday Celebrations in London

Last month, on September 11, 2014, InterNations turned exactly seven years old to a day. What better place to celebrate this special occasion than our largest InterNations Community worldwide?

So I got myself on a plane to London in order to meet up with our three local InterNations Ambassadors at that night’s event location, the Buddha-Bar, a trendy nightclub/restaurant hybrid in swanky Knightsbridge.

The InterNations Ambassadors Team in London

Our Ambassadors in London, Rosa, Alex, and Francesco, have been organizing events for our community for quite some time, and they complement each other well, forming a great team for one of the most diverse and dynamic cities on the globe.

InterNations London Birthday CelebrationsRosa is a polyglot banker with Irish-Peruvian citizenship, who really enjoys hosting InterNations Events and volunteering for causes that matter to her.

Alex, a Russian expat, works in the finance industry as well, though he also has a background in communications and international relations and used to work for one of the EU institutions in Strasbourg. He appreciates the amazing opportunities that London can offer – be they gallery visits or vintage parties.

Last but certainly not least, Francesco has made the leap from Italy to London (with a little detour via NYC) to start working as a cardiologist at a local university hospital. After a hard working day, he thinks that London has just the right cultural events and socializing opportunities to forget about the stress!

The three of them are definitely fun to talk to, and they seem very dedicated to the InterNations idea of bringing people together.

An Inauspicious Date?

Speaking of bringing people together: Our founding date has a rather tragic connotation, since 9/11 will always be a reminder of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001, as well as all the international crises and conflicts that have followed. InterNations London Birthday Celebrations 2 Understandably, a few members have asked me if it is a good idea to celebrate our network’s anniversary on that very day.

Well, actually our “birthday” in 2007 was pure coincidence. We were originally aiming to go live on September 1, but just like an actual birth, our InterNations “baby” took a little longer. (If you’ve ever worked in IT or tech, this may not surprise you. We have learned by now that even the best of roadmaps don’t always work out as accurately as planned.) So we were suddenly stuck with a less-than-fortunate date of birth, so to speak.

Two years later, for our second anniversary in 2009, we attended a birthday reception for InterNations in Berlin’s diplomatic quarter. The former Egyptian ambassador to Germany gave a short introductory speech that I still remember very well. He said that in 2001, people from different nations, ethnicities, and faiths really started drifting apart. But that was all the more reason to find new opportunities to bring them together.

InterNations is, of course, not a political organization. We aren’t an NGO or NPO or a think tank, but a social networking site. However, we do bring many very different people from all around the world together, and I think this is an achievement very much worth celebrating, regardless of the date.

Birthday Parties in London and around the Globe

Our birthday event in London united several hundred guests from dozens of countries – an impressive turnout. But before most of the attendees arrived, I seized the chance to talk to our London Ambassadors about the truly astonishing development of their Local Community, which has over 50,000 members by now.

We clinked glasses to the 7th birthday of InterNations, and then I gave a brief interview to the Daily Telegraph about the InterNations story before our members started pouring into the event location. InterNations London Birthday Celebrations 3

I tried to talk to as many of them as possible and listen to their feedback. Quite a few had attended InterNations Events in other Local Communities before, so it’s always interesting to get a glimpse at our various get-togethers across the globe. Our site relaunch and a mobile-friendly version were also popular topics.

Somewhat later, Alex, a former journalist, introduced me officially, thus giving me the chance to thank our InterNations Ambassadors, Group Consuls, and all our members for making InterNations what it is today. A delicious birthday cake topped off this occasion perfectly.

Below, you can see some more yummy cakes and lovely snapshots from other birthday parties worldwide. After all, we didn’t just celebrate in London, but in plenty of our 390+ InterNations Communities around the world: Just have a look at our snapshots from Johannesburg, Dubai, and Toronto.

Here’s to the next seven years of connecting global minds!

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