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The Search Party: Three Ex-Pats Tackle the Job-Hunt from Hong Kong


The grass is always greener in Asia… or at least it was. Gradspot's Asia correspondent, Emily Post, reports on Americans facing unemployment in Hong Kong and how they handle the search for professional stability while abroad.

If misery loves company, then all of you sad, currently unemployed souls in the States will be happy to know that around the world, even in the most blessed of all urban jungles and finance centers, your American peers, too, are facing unexpected layoffs and an increasingly long time spent “in between opportunities.”

Though we all know the crowned king of depressing finance centers is currently NYC, Hong Kong has also had its fare share of difficulty. American expats are now feeling the crunch. Having sought Asia as the golden land of opportunity, highly competitive compensation, extremely generous relocation packages, and an overall lower cost of living, some young American guns are asking themselves: what now?

We asked a few of Hong Kong’s Alpha-Americans who’ve faced job losses how they’ve coped in the past few months as the waves of recession and downturn have washed up on the South China shores.

1. How long did you have to throw the "in between opportunities" line at parties?

N.H. (Georgetown S.F.S. ’07) was laid off when his entire global team was cut back in December, and is starting his new job as a broker this April.

D.B. (Hobart ’07) was unemployed for a full 10 months before landing his current internship at Bloomberg, a stepping stone that will help him secure a spot as an analyst this summer, he says.

L.D. (USC ’06) was luckier than others. “I had been in Hong Kong a little over three months when I was given the news that I had a week left. The week eventually turned into three months.” Using those months to her advantage, L.D. went on an aggressive hunt, and after a brief trip back to L.A. to feel out other opportunities, L.D. was back in Hong Kong weeks later – with a job in P.R. that she’d found before she left.

2. Glass half-full, or half-empty?

Happily, these Americans fulfilled their optimistic stereotypes and saw glasses full of opportunity, if still empty of a regular paycheck.

“Glass was always half full,” says D.B. “I knew I wanted to stay in HK and I was not going to give up... if I were back home the glass would be half empty.”

L.D.: “As it was my decision to leave, my glass was always half-full. There were times when the situation became a bit overwhelming. For me, much of the stress came from the unknown. It was the thoughts of leaving what was comfortable, safe, familiar and consistent to taking on a new, more challenging role in a still foreign city. Now it has been 4 months that I have been in this new role and I would say my glass is almost completely full again.”

N.H. looks at his job loss as both impersonal and anticlimactic. “It was a function of laying off an entire team globally whose business could no longer generate income in the current economic environment. Therefore it’s pretty hard to take personally. I had already begun to look at new opportunities and although nervous about the forced change was excited for something new.”

3. Rise and shine, or sleep all day? How did you fill these newfound hours?

Though L.D. admits she’s stuck to her normal 6 a.m. up-and-at-‘em routine, the boys can’t say the same.

N.H. found some much needed relief from the intense hours he’d been plugging for years. “Being able to wake up at 9 instead of 6 and have the whole day to actually do normal things like buy groceries, work out and enjoy Hong Kong was great.”

D.B. told himself he was on vacation, and was excited to have all that free time – at first. “I planned out what I was going to do and set lofty goals for myself to accomplish, like read more books, teach myself more [about finance], work out more. The first month was great.... I would meet with a lot of people for potential jobs thinking I would get a job soon.” But then a few months went by, and there was no job. “I got frustrated. My days seemed to be go by too quickly and I felt wasn't getting anything done. I started feeling guilty if I worked out, if I read, if I didn’t do anything for the job search or if I did too much for my self….I realized that this new-found freedom was really more like jail.”

4. Networking it - what were some of the strategies you used to get the next hook up?

L.D. knew to use head-hunters and her wide network of friends to get her in gear, but still faced other challenges. “I went on a few interviews and found that the international scene is much harder critic than the US. In Hong Kong, what matters most is one's age and experience. The several interviews were also executed differently than in the States. In my interviews where I met with a local interviewer, the meetings were direct, fast and involved little interaction. None of the interviews went further than the 2nd or 3rd round. For some, I may have not been the right fit and for others my salary was difficult to justify given my age and experience.”

L.D. suggests taking advantage of some well-rooted organizations: All the Chambers of Commerce, U.S. university alumni groups, YMCA, Rotary International, Oxfam, and other service-based clubs.

Her insider tip: Some recruitment firms also throw happy hours and meet and mingles. Attending these events and luncheons may not lead to a job, she says, but it does expands one's social network and introduces new ideas, thoughts, and potential new career paths.

D.B., too, took advantage of the AmCham directory book and e-mailed everyone he could, after exhausting his family and friend connections. He admits to even resorting to cold calls, “anything to get out of the apartment (aka the holding cell)!”

5. The expat's dilemma – Do you stay or do you go now? Why?

L.D. summed up her decision to remain abroad this way: “When I returned to headquarters, I added to my pros and cons list. I analyzed not only the current economic situation but also where I saw my life heading within the company and in life over the next several years. After about three weeks and a half, I decided to resign gracefully from my Fortune 500 Company and head back to Hong Kong to fully immerse myself in the culture, the working ethics and lifestyle that is so truly unique and vastly different from America.”

Like D.B., who has no plans of returning to the States anytime soon, N.H. still sees being in Asia as his best option. “Economist Jim Rogers said it best with some line like, ‘If you were smart in 1808 you moved to London, if you were smart in 1908 you moved to New York City and if you were smart in 2008 you moved to Asia.’ No matter what is happening in equity and job markets in the short term, Asia is without a doubt the growth engine of long-term global economic success. It is and was an easy choice to stay as no other place offered such overall long-term opportunity.”

Emily Post is a Fulbright teaching assistant living in Hong Kong. She is a regular Gradspot contributor.

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