The past month marked a big milestone in my expatting adventure: it’s the first time since I’ve been in Asia (not counting my short excursion back to the U.S.) that I took in as much money as I spent.
This basically was a fluke; I got an unexpected end-of-year investment dividend that, coupled with the last month in Siem Reap being my least expensive so far, got me over the line…barely. Still, a win is a win, and this isn’t something I expected to happen until several months from now. No matter how I got there, my reserve fund did not drop. It kicks the entire ball down the road one month, and nothing changes that.
Unfortunately, the two studio jobs that I brought with me are about to go on long hiatus after this week, so putting together a sustainable living is about to get that much harder. My income doesn’t totally fall off a cliff until next month, so I’m toying with the idea of really clamping down on my spending while I’m in a cheap place to see if I can extend my streak to two months. This would rule out the bus trip to Phnom Penh I’ve been contemplating, so I’m not sure if it’s worth it. But whenever I get back to Manila it’ll be costly (both the rent being three times what it is here and needing to get some health checkups soon), so it might be wise to conserve while I can.
I’ve written about this before, but the big challenge for me isn’t figuring out how to sustain myself over here. As long as you have marketable skills you can ply over the internet to the first world, you’re golden…and I do. The problem for me is that because of my shoulder, neck and ear issues, it’s pretty much a direct correlation between how much time I spend typing on a computer and how lousy I feel. Being on a computer also tends to keep one indoors, and if I wanted to be in a self-imposed cubicle with a sore neck all the time, I would’ve just stayed in the U.S.
To anyone thinking about doing this, or organizing their life in general…the big trick is to figure out your needs and prioritize them, because with even the best-balanced life there are some things you’re going to have to temporarily let slide to do other things.
For me at the moment it comes down to four points: money, health, bucket list (e.g. travel), and social (friendships, dating, networking). It’s already clear at the moment that health is the main issue, since when I feel good all the other things become a lot more doable and fun.
Now, I could run off to Bali (or stay here for that matter), live on rice and just do yoga in a hut and go all Chuck Norris. I have, in fact, seriously considered doing that. From a health standpoint it would probably be the best way to go (and it could come in handy negotiating changes that may come in the world as I age), but the fact is my mind is a hungry beast and I would go nuts after about a week from boredom and loneliness doing that, the twin towers of unhappiness that drove me out of the U.S. in the first place. So that in itselfisn’t a good option.
The trick then becomes how do I maintain all those other things, especially the money part, while staying off the computer as much as possible? It’s not that difficult to build a business. It just requires having something people want and are willing to pay for, and consistent effort. But how to pull that off in the most lazy and undercommited manner possible, at least until my poor neck can handle more? Now that’s a trick.
I still plan to move ahead with the idea to merge this blog with the Karma Frog business and do a new music and social platform. That saidI need to be very careful not to let the time I put into it turn into an unsustainable albatross – with this blog already it’s worked out that about 4-6 posts a month is what I can consistently manage, which is a lot less than I’d originally planned though no one seems to mind. I roughly know what I want to do with the Karma Frog platform; what I haven’t figured out yet is how to roll it out a little at a time so it can gather steam slowly, while still having a kick-off concrete enough to allow me to promote it to people as a package of stuff they’ll want to subscribe to.
Even if that goes well, I still figure it will only realize enough income to cover about half – or two-thirds if I’m really frugal – of my nut here. I expect some more studio or promotion work will shake loose from that, but I don’t want to count on it and again there’s the question of how much hunched-over-the-laptop work I really want to take on, anyway. It’s becoming more and more clear that having multiple small streams of income is going to be the best bet.
Going back to performing music is definitely a possibility. Hanging around Siem Reap I’ve noticed there’s a little band of foreigners that play all the clubs here. From watching them, and from the short periods I’ve taken the stage, I know that if I decided to perform here I would likely do very well. What’s less clear is if there’s any money to be made doing it. I haven’t gotten a precise answer to this question but it seems to be “it depends.” There’s another issue with performing in that it really just kicks my ass. I tend to spend the day after a show now in bed recovering. I could probably get re-acclimated to it but again, if my goal is taking care of myself, I need to really watch how much energy I put in relative to what I get out of it.
The other obvious idea people have suggested is teaching English. There’s certainly a demand for it in Asia, but it’s not so easy as showing up and saying “hey I speak English, let me at it.” Generally people want to see a college degree or a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate before they hire you. I have neither, and acquiring a TEFL or finishing my BA would be costly. There’s also an issue with some unscrupulous schools holding your passport for ransom and forcing you to take on a heavier workload than you agreed to.
There’s a bigger issue with these two ideas, though: they are not location-independent. They would require me to stick in one place for an extended period of time to make it work. This is something I’m still not prepared to do. I really like Siem Reap, and it’s clearly the most workable place I’ve stayed so far…but the lack of affordable good health care is really concerning, and I don’t relate to it socially as well as some other places I’ve lived. If there wasn’t the prospect of seeing my friends in the Philippines and Bali (and the U.S. for that matter), or visiting some new places, in my near future, it would probably get old pretty fast.
Have Job, Will Travel
There’s another possibility that’s somewhat inspired by my touring years; one way I was able to make a living was that I had developed a network of places to stay for free and secondarily of reliable go-to jobs. I also took advantage of the tax laws to pocket the difference between my actual gas expenditures and the mileage deduction – which got me audited, but I beat the rap, because it was totally legal.
So there is the possibility that I could just travel where there’s work and barter a bit. I do have some possible music work along these lines in a few places in Asia, and a friend has also put it out there that she might hire me to do some buying for her in Indonesia. So I could go that route. I could even, theoretically, offer to do on-site production work to people in other countries…say someone in Indonesia, Australia or Japan wants me to do their record, negotiate a rate to go there with food and lodging built in. It’s a possibility for sure – but again, there’s so many variables in terms of how much the travel and not having control over my living situation might stress me out it’s not something I want to put my full weight behind. At least not yet. Though I would definitely consider it if the opportunity came up.
Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow
This is a quote from Rush Limbaugh, of whom I am not a fan but I’ll acknowledge a good quote from anyone, whatever the source. I’ve found this to be true up to a point, but you have to be very careful to find a way to market what you love. I did music for many, many years but I really struggled until I got into production, at which point everything started to take off. It turned out that my skill set in music was such that that’s where the demand – and the money – was.
So, what do I love doing over here, and what am I good at? Well the obvious answer is learning languages. I’m now on my fourth self-taught language and despite it being the most difficult thus far I’m also picking it up much faster than the previous three. It’s definitely something that sets me apart and that I’m exceptionally good at, which is what you want when you’re trying to market yourself. But although this is an incredibly useful thing to be able to do and it does create a lot of secondary opportunities, it isn’t something I had thought of a way to monetize until just a few hours ago…but now I have thought of a pretty interesting idea. Here it is:
So it’s clear that what I need to do here is, as I have done in the past, invent a job for myself. I’ve already got the Karma Frog/IJD platform idea to work on, but as I said above I think it would be wise to have a second (or third) thing up my sleeve. Something location independent, that I could do a limited amount of time per day (1-2 hours) that would also be in-demand enough to command a western pay scale. I do already have a few things lined up like this, but they’re not quite steady enough yet to really rely on. More importantly, they’re not things that are based on any kind of big demand for what I do.
But a thought came to me when I was getting a massage this afternoon that I think is pretty cool. (I think everybody should take an hour out of every day to do something to let your mind wander – this is how all my best ideas come)
I ran into a Welsh ex-pat living in Japan here on Pub Street a few weeks ago and over a beer we discussed our respective lives. He was impressed at my Japanese ability and said there was a pretty big demand for English tutors there, and with my Japanese I ought to make out pretty well.
This definitely made me curious, since I’ve always wanted to go back to Japan, but again – it would require me to make a commitment to be in a single country for an extended period of time, and though living in Japan is an exciting prospect, it’s also fricking expensive so if I didn’t pull it off, I would run into trouble much quicker than if I stick to the cheap seats of Asia. Once again – it’s a slightly risky strategy that nonetheless would likely pay off if I committed to it, but it’s not something I’m sure I really want to do yet, or if I have the stamina for. So better not, or at least not yet.
I’ve met a lot of people who have taught English over here – whether it’s in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia or somewhere else. And the one thing none of them has ever said to me is “yeah I got really fluent at the local language while I was living over there.” What I have generally heard is more like “yeah, I lived in ________ for two years but I never got very good at ______ language. I can barely remember any of it now.”
Now, this has always puzzled me a bit…the idea that you go to a class to learn a language that you don’t know and it’s taught by someone who doesn’t speak your language…only the language you don’t know. Now, I’m sure this is a lot of what the TEFL course teaches you, how to build on peoples’ rudimentary knowledge and use specific phrases in order to each the class. And there’s nothing like immersion to learn a language, as my current adventure in Khmer will verify.
But. Still. There has to be a lot that the teacher is saying that the students pretend to understand that they simply don’t. You can of course solve this by having a native teach English, but from my observation their pronunciation generally sucks, so it’s like a third generation audio tape by the time the student gets around to voicing the language. The same was likely true in my small town high school French class. My teacher was wonderful but I have no doubt her French was heavily accented and when I started dating the French exchange student down the street, I learned just how bad my own speech was.
I also run into this problem teaching myself languages, especially Khmer where there are not very good online resources and the written language is unreadable to me. People can answer simple questions like “how do you say ‘cat'” but it’s unusual to find someone who can speak English well enough to understand, say, a question about how subordinate clauses work.
So to me, the ideal thing is to have someone who can speak your native language fluently while being a native speaker in the language you want to learn. You get the best of both worlds – someone from whom you can learn unaccented, gramatically correct English, but who can explain in your own language the direct translations, how to change your pronunciation, and answer questions.
So, bingo. There’s something I can do that very few other people can do. I’m at that level of fluency in Japanese and I’m pretty close in Indonesian, too. And at least in Japan, I know there’s a demand and people that would pay for it.
I have friends that teach English online for various companies, so I know this kind of thing can be done over the internet (and in general it’s probably time I started figuring out teleconferencing anyway, since I could start to be more proactive about doing expat consulting and things like that, too). But I’d want to avoid that – another great rule is to avoid middlemen if possible – and look for people who would want direct tutoring.
I like ideas that work on a number of levels and this checks a lot of boxes. I’d be able to charge something close to what I make at the studio right off the bat. I would only need a couple of clients to start with to make it worth doing. It would be something social where I could make new friends and connections in another country, so it could grow in unexpected ways (particularly since I’m totally open to going to Japan, or other parts of Indonesia for that matter). Also, even though it would be computer based, I wouldn’t have to type much, so I’d have much better ability to control my posture and not jack up my neck and shoulders. I’d also keep my own language skills sharp.
I already have some good resources to put into play on this idea – I know lots of Japanese people and also a good friend of mine teaches an online English course to Japanese students – so once I wrap up my studio work next week, I’m going to be looking into it alongside starting to put the new Karma Frog platform together. And one more thing about turning Japanese – though it’s not good for your blood pressure, when you’re in hungry start up mode, it’s good to get well acquainted with ramen.