Behind the Curtain: My Pathway to Working Abroad

Through this blog, I have shared the stories and insights of professionals from around the world who are working abroad as well as offered bits of my own experience to help people interested in working abroad to get a better sense of what living and working abroad is really like.

One story I haven’t shared in full is my own journey abroad. I have actually found work abroad on three different occassions, allowing me to live abroad almost exclusively since graduating college in 2014. 

With 12hourdifference.co recently having its six-month birthday, I thought it might be a good time to share my own journey abroad, from the most exciting highs to some of the loneliest lows.

This is my story of how a 22-year old college graduate from Portland, Oregon ended up working for a Danish technology company in Vietnam.

The Beginning: August 2014

After graduating from the University of Portland I left Oregon for New York to coach tennis in the Hamptons. It was a great summer gig; I would spend 12 weeks rubbing elbows with millionaire businessmen and women, movie stars, famous artists, and the like. For a college graduate with no post-college plans, this was a prime networking opportunity.  

Disclaimer: Yes, coaching tennis in the Hamptons is a unique opportunity that most people don’t get. And while this part of the story is not easily replicated, it is an outlier in my story. The later parts of the story do not rely on any special opportunities or connections.  

Throughout the summer, I didn’t have much luck on the networking front. Until, that is, around the 3rd-to-last week of the summer.

One afternoon I walked past a group of parents that were chatting around the clubhouse. As I walked past, I overheard one of them say something about “…wanting an English tutor.” I continued walking, making my way around a corner and then paused.

The muttering of “English tutor” was the prime networking opportunity that had, until then, alluded me. In all honesty, if this scenario replayed 100 times, 99 of those times I would have kept walking. Approaching a group of strangers, especially a group of wealthy and powerful strangers, required a level of extroversion that on a normal day I simply don’t have.  

But this one time, for whatever reason, I turned around and walked back to the group.

As I got closer, a few of the parents turned and locked eyes with me.  I nervously cleared my throat.

“Hi, I am Aaron,” I started,  “I am one of the coaches here. I think I just heard someone mention an English tutor? I actually just graduated from the University of Portland with a degree in Secondary Education and a license to teach English.”

Granted, this was not the smoothest introduction, but after 10 hours on court, it was all I had.  

The group smiled at me, which was a good enough sign, and we all spoke briefly.

Then, one couple — a mother and father of two boys who played at the club —started asking me a few more pointed questions about my plans after I left New York. I explained I didn’t have any plans yet and that I was basically up for anything. The mother and father began to half-discuss with each other and half with me:

“We have two boys who we would really like to get a little more English practice. They play in the morning group here as well and are really getting into the tennis thing. Maybe it would be cool to have you tutor them, but you could coach them in tennis also. We could disguise the extra tutoring that way. We live in Hong Kong the rest of the year, would you be interested in coming over?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My original plan had been to go to Asia after graduating, but I had given up on the dream after not being selected for the JET Program. This was too perfect.

“Yes, I would absolutely be interested in that,” I stammered holding in every ounce of excitement and maintaining as much professionalism my sunburned skin and sweaty outfit could muster.

“Great,” the dad responded, “[the mother] will get your email. We will talk about it over dinner and send you an email after we have a chance to talk it over with the boys.”

Obviously, I was ecstatic. A few hours later, I received an email from the family with all the details of our arrangement laid out.

I made a quick call to my parents to let them know what was happening, and I responded to the family a few hours later.

I was headed to Hong Kong.

5 Months in Hong Kong and a Terrible Travel Blog Later…

I can’t say much about the situation in Hong Kong due to who the family is that I worked for, but it was a unique experience, to say the least.

While in Hong Kong I had a ridiculous amount of free time to do with what I wanted. As an English student in college, I had an interest in writing, but never considered exploring a writing avenue. With no others ideas of how to spend my time, I started a travel blog (the original iteration of 12hourdifference.co) and blogged about life in Hong Kong and tried my hand at freelance writing.

My travel blog was awful, as first attempts at anything tend to be, but I did land a few paid writing gigs and learned about online networking, pitching, and digital copywriting.

The Journey to Hong Kong Begins

After five months of being a male-nanny/freelance writer in Hong Kong, I felt it was time to leave. The opportunity was really incredible, and Hong Kong is still a favorite city of mine, but I felt capable of being more than a glorified babysitter.

Thus, I started my first true international job search. My search criteria for my next job were:

  • Paid in money
  • Not in the United States
  • Not being a male nanny

I touched up my resume and started sending it out, repurposing the pitching skills I had developed as a freelance writer for trying to land a new job abroad.

One of the jobs I applied for was a job as an administrator at a company that billed itself as an international culinary and hospitality school in Hanoi. What did I know about Vietnam? Absolutely nothing, which sounded like just the adventure I was after.

The day after sending in my application, I got an email back from the owner of the hospitality school, and Skyped with him soon after. He told me he was an entrepreneur with businesses all over Vietnam and that I could come work under him as an “Assistant to the Director” and learn some entrepreneurial skills.

Vietnam? Entrepreneurship? Hell yea!

I accepted the job offer.

And so, there I was: 22-years old, accepting a job from a complete stranger, heading to a country I knew nothing about, in a city where I knew no one, to work for very little money.   

Fifteen days later, I landed in Hanoi.  

Hanoi, Vietnam: What Am I Doing?

What in the world had I done? What in Zeus’s name was I doing in Vietnam of all places!?

It was early January of 2015, and after spending my first day in Hanoi with the owner of the hospitality school, I had headed back to the guest house the company put me up in until I found my own apartment.

I remember it clearly: the room I was staying in was a perfect square with white walls and a small bathroom. Sitting on the bed, I watched cockroaches scurry across the linoleum floor. My lungs hurt from breathing the polluted air during the day. Dogs barked and people yelled in the alley below. I leaned up against the headboard; excited, nervous, scared, and lonely.

Hanoi, Vietnam: How Did I End Up Here?

To think: 24-hours earlier I had been living adjacent to opulent luxury in Hong Kong cruising around in a $100,000 sports car on the way to an exclusive health club and tagging along to cocktail parties with Goldman Sachs executives.

Now, I was alone in Vietnam in a battle with monster cockroaches, truly alone for the first time in my life.      

Eventually, I managed to fall asleep. The next morning, the sounds of clucking chickens and government announcements over the city-wide loudspeakers woke me up at dawn. It was Saturday.

My life in Hanoi began.

Eight Months at a Sketchy Business and It Was Time to Move On

It had slowly become evident over the months that the hospitality school I was working for was not on the up and up. The stash of cash I had in my closet (my salary) was a good clue. The fact that employees came and went every other week was another. In fact, my first week the head of the school ran away to Cambodia and was never heard from again. In my classes, more often than not, I had two students, and that was when students showed up at all.

But, while my job was less than ideal, I had fallen in love with Vietnam and didn’t want to leave. I felt that my adventure had just started, and I also had the feeling that there was an opportunity in Asia for me, if I could just find it.

I continued to work hard at my job and in the evenings had started an eCommerce store selling handmade Harem pants online and in a boutique back in Portland. It was a fun side project to keep me busy. Little did I know, it would end up helping me land the job I had come to Asia for.

Frustrated at my job and adamant that a better opportunity awaited me in Asia, I started my Vietnamese job search.

Searching for Work in Vietnam

At first, things did not look good. I sent out pitches and cover letters to hotels, hoping I could teach English to hospitality staff, and maybe even eventually start my own business teaching hospitality English in Vietnam. I sent pitch after pitch, cover letter after cover letter, coming up empty for a few weeks.  

And then I came across a Danish technology company in the eCommerce sector that was looking for an English trainer and had locations in the beachside city of Da Nang, the city that I had long wanted to move to. It was perfect! I sent in my application, excited but not overly hopefully.

My lack of optimism was well-placed. Their human resource department responded to my application the next day, letting me know that they would keep my CV on file, but they were only looking for local Vietnamese for the training position I had applied for.  

No. No, no, no. This felt like the last hope. I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay. I didn’t want the adventure to end, and this company seemed perfect.  

Determined, I popped open my laptop and I found the CEO’s email address on the company website. I wrote up a fresh cover letter, explaining that their HR department had just turned me down for a position, but that I was really interested in working for them. I explained a bit about what I was doing in Vietnam and about my little eCommerce store, hoping that might help my chances.

I mean, who doesn’t want a random American with minimal work experience and a very under-developed lifestyle “brand” on their staff, right? Right?! I hoped so.

Apparently, I was right. To my astonishment, the CEO responded a few hours later. They found my CV interesting and wanted to meet me. They would put me in touch with their Operations Manager who was in Hanoi at the time for an interview.

Thus began the most excruciating (but lovely!) interview process of my life. Over the course of a few interviews, I met with the operations manager, country manager, and conducted a training session with some of their staff.

I wanted the job so badly, and not just because my current job was a mess. This was an international technology company and a mature startup. I could get valuable work experience there, a good salary and still get to live in Vietnam. This was the job I came to Asia for, and it was within my grasp.  

A few days after our last interview, I got the offer I was hoping for.

I put in my two-week notice at my then current job and started my new job as a Project Coordinator at Pixelz a few weeks later.

My Home Since July 2016, Da Nang, Vietnam

1 ½ Years at Pixelz

And that brings us to June 5th, 2017. My first year of working at Pixelz was spent doing a wild assortment of jobs, learning about the company and exploring areas of the business I might be interested in eventually focusing on.

After a year of working at our Hanoi office, I moved to our Da Nang office to live near the beach, breathe clean air, and generally recover from 1.5 years in Hanoi. I got back in shape, dropping 20 pounds and started this blog to share what I have learned from my experience. And in June, I was promoted to be the Head of Global Training at Pixelz.

After 1.5 years abroad, a hundred lonely nights, a thousand doubts, and a truckload of luck, I had finally done what I had originally set out to do in Asia. I was living abroad while also gaining valuable work experience.

I am not one to give myself accolades, but I will say this: I stayed when many others would have left. I built a life in a country where I knew no one, didn’t speak the language and had little work experience to fall back on.

When I saw opportunities, I tried to capitalize on them. When no opportunities presented themselves, I tried to create my own.

Most of the time, I failed.

But a few times, it worked. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.  

                 

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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.