Before I went travelling I had no idea about how to get a job abroad. I was beset by other fears: language, accommodation, money and the difficulty of beating my own complacency. If I had thought about it too much and if I had listened to my inner demons (“Who the hell do you think you are trying to get a job abroad?”) I probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere.
I describe the bizarre process of getting work in Tibet in my travel book 9 Months in Tibet. Those who have read the manuscript have told me that my search for work is the funniest part of the book and I think what’s amusing is the fact that I wasn’t afraid of making a fool of myself.
En route to Tibet I managed to get hired as a mural painter in Vienna, despite having no aptitude, experience or qualifications. But what I did have — the immigrant’s determination to prove himself — made up for this and I learned fast and became an useful part of the team. We were painting murals in the Palais Ferstel and Cafe Central, a beautiful location in that glorious city.
I was a good mural painter in Vienna and proved to myself that I can learn almost any job “on the job”, as long as I am keen as mustard, have an open mind and are willing to help out and learn continually. The fact that I couldn’t draw and hadn’t studied art didn’t actually matter.
When I got to Tibet I went to an ancient Buddhist monastery, presented my glowing reference letter from Vienna (and a fake one from Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, where a former girlfriend worked as a PR assistant) and asked for a job restoring the ancient murals. But none of them knew a word of English and I don’t think any foreigner had the audacity to turn up and ask to work alongside hundreds of villagers and a few highly skilled craftsmen.
They didn’t know what to do me — they couldn’t say yes or no — and both time and money were running out. But I wouldn’t take no for an answer and I can be pushy; it was only when they asked me to draw something, and they saw what an incompetent draughtsman I was, that I was laughed at and sent packing.
This setback was a wake-up call in the sense that I gave up looking for work in a monastery but it didn’t put me off looking for a job in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, a place I fell in love with and was determined to stay in for as long as possible. The year was 1986 and I spent months looking for work as an English teacher (I had a TEFL qualification from England) and eventually got a job teaching the monks from Lhasa’s Buddhist monasteries.
By now I had learned some essential lessons about getting work abroad: choose a location, expect to be rejected continually (hitchhiking was a useful experience for this) and just keep plugging away. I am convinced that if you’re determined enough you will almost certainly get a job and this is particularly true today when most people apply for jobs online and very few seem to actually show up at the site, shop, office or factory and simply ask for work. I think showing up and asking impresses employers a lot more than applying online.
The other essential thing I learned is that you need to be willing to do anything. If anyone at work asks me to do something I will do it cheerfully. This goes a long way to building a reputation and making you an appreciated part of the team. Attitude is key in a job as there’s nothing worse than working with people who are negative and forever complaining.
In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen said “the world is run by those who show up”. I found another quote from him that develops the theme: “showing up is 80 percent of life.” This idea is central in my understanding of how things work in general, and how to get jobs in particular. Let me explain.
Some years after Tibet I ended up in Romania, initially as a journalist and then as an aid worker working in a remote home for disabled children. My brother Moona was my partner in this and he raised a load of cash in Scotland and this went a long way in post-Communist Romania; we were able to start renovating the run-down kids home and hire local tradesmen. Before long scores of other volunteers would show up, asking how they could help (“change nappies and play with the kids,” I would tell them). After a couple of years, my brother Moona moved on; he started up a humanitarian project in wartime Bosnia (repairing houses and water supply systems) and he raised millions of dollars from donors.
At this point it was essential to set up a proper registered charity for these grass-root initiatives. We set up Scottish European Aid which has subsequently become Mercy Corps Europe, a global player, and we had a busy office in the centre of Edinburgh. We got a lot of publicity, became well-known and every week people would contact us asking if they could go to Romania or Bosnia as a volunteer.
I would tell these applicants that we can’t send them to work abroad as we don’t know them (how would be know that he/she’s not a drunk or a slob? – we certainly had plenty of them show up). We would only send out people we’d worked with for a while and that we knew were hard working, flexible and reliable.
But my message wasn’t only negative. “I can’t offer you a job out there. I don’t know you and therefore can’t recommend you”, I would say, “but if you get out to Bosnia or Romania you can ask the local team for a job. I can’t tell you if they will hire you or not but by just being on the ground you will have a better chance of getting a job in aid work than you would have here. I know many foreigners who came to Romania and Bosnia looking for work who, through persistence, have done well.”
Many people take a leap into the unknown and get a job abroad. I got the following comment from Mike Ormsby, an author from Liverpool who currently lives in Romania, under my article Introduction to Working Abroad:
“Once you get a job abroad, it’s surprising how easy you can bounce from one contact to another. I travelled and worked abroad, aged eighteen, for two years before college. I started in the south of France (minding cars near Monaco), moved to the French Alps (winter ski season washing dishes/skiing), then summer in Canada (mending a house), then back to the French Alps for winter #2, then summer in Colorado (construction site in the Rockies), then university in UK.”
My advice to anyone wanting to work abroad is to just show up – in the place you want to work in.
Save up enough money to get there and live cheaply for a few months (and in places like Indonesia you can live on next to nothing) and then start looking around. Head for aid agencies, English language schools (and high schools where you can work as an English teacher) and touristy places where they will invariably need people to help out serving the English speaking clientele. And let me know how you get on.
If you haven’t quite got it together to get on the road yet: get in contact! Maybe I can give you the advice and encouragement you need to get up and go. Perhaps I will write a new blog article based on your questions. I’d love to hear from you.