The daughter of a diplomat turned digital nomad, Cecilia Haynes is the epitome of a global citizen. She has lived across the world from India to Turkey, and has used full-time remote work as her ticket to a continued international lifestyle. I had a chance to speak with Cecilia about living around the world, how to find remote work, and what she has learned from a life abroad. Cecilia is the Content Marketing Specialist at Help Scout, and you can find her at CeciliaHaynes.com and on Twitter at @unsettledtck.
As the daughter of a diplomat you have lived all over the globe, so let’s pick your story up after graduating from the University of Virginia and how you made it abroad again.
When I graduated from UVA, my boyfriend was a PhD student who got a job as a teaching assistant at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. At the time, I didn’t really have any career plans and I also have a Hong Kong permanent resident card–my mother is a Hong Konger–which allows me to work in Hong Kong. With family there already, I decided I would just tag along with him.
I started out as an English instructor at an education center called Story Jungle. After about 11 months, my boyfriend was ready to go off and do field research. Since I got along really well with my boss, she suggested I should continue working for her remotely writing class curriculum and textbooks.
So my boyfriend and I set off to Western China and Northern India, with him doing research and me accidentally launching a career as a digital nomad.
Having had a taste of being paid while traveling, I was determined to keep this lifestyle. After his research year, we moved to Turkey and I started freelancing a little bit more. I created my website CeciliaHaynes.com and started building my portfolio as a writer-for-hire.
Can you explain why you decided to make a portfolio website?
I’m a huge advocate of creating a website and an online portfolio, especially for people who want to work abroad or freelance while traveling. You need to establish a presence online, grow a professional social media identity, and do whatever you can to showcase your skills, even if you are still in college. This lets your personality shine through and allows potential employers/clients to easily access your knowledge and experience.
You need to establish a presence online, grow a professional social media identity, and do whatever you can to showcase your skills, even if you are still in college.
In fact, while I was interviewing for my current job at Help Scout, I found a blog post that my (now) boss had written about durian and used it as a point of connection. This helped me stand out during the interview process, which can be a challenge, especially over video. The whole world is online, so take the time to carve out your own space on the internet.
And are you still freelancing?
After our year in Turkey, we moved to Florida because my boyfriend accepted a job as a professor. This was about the time that I got a bit burnt out on freelancing and started to seek out full-time, but specifically remote, work. Since four months out of the year he doesn’t need to be in Florida, my remote career gives us the flexibility to travel and live wherever we want during school holidays. I am actually in Hong Kong right now, and we are also visiting my family in Washington D.C., exploring Iceland, and doing a Euro trip later this summer.
That is a ton of travel! You do all this just for fun?
Yeah, basically! I work for a fully-remote company, so I have the stability of a paycheck without needing to be in any specific place.
That sounds too good to be true.
It’s been a winding road to get here–luck combined with perseverance and the right opportunities at the right times. I started out as an English instructor in Hong Kong not knowing what I wanted to do and now I am a content marketer and a digital nomad. However, keep in mind that while it may look like a perpetual vacation, I do need to keep up with all of my work responsibilities regardless of jet lag or strange work hours.
How did you find content marketing to be a good fit for the lifestyle you wanted and the skillsets you developed?
During my time as an English instructor and while I was writing textbooks, I had to become well-versed in the nuances of grammar and captivating storytelling techniques–children are more likely to engage if they feel entertained. Then when I transitioned into freelancing, I had to learn how to market myself. I played around with social media and learned how to approach people online through cold emailing and messaging in LinkedIn. Necessity is what pushed me to develop the skills necessary to be successful at content marketing.
It’s incredibly important to learn how to use a variety of platforms and to teach yourself skills that push you out of your comfort zone.
It’s incredibly important to learn how to use a variety of platforms and to teach yourself skills that push you out of your comfort zone. You really have to be proactive in making yourself a credible and attractive job candidate.
Were you worried about starting out in English and maybe getting stuck as an English teacher?
No, not really. I think it is how you brand yourself. If you are an English teacher abroad and you don’t want to get stuck forever teaching English, look for ways to spin that experience. It’s all about how you can present your professional background to make yourself attractive to different industries.
Also, working internationally really allows you to build up huge networks around the world, which can provide connections into a range of companies. You never know what opportunities might come your way.
However, if you do want to continue to teach abroad, I would recommend that you get a IB certification, a Master’s degree, or even a PhD and then try to get hired at private international or embassy schools. Schools like International School Manila (ISM), American Embassy School New Delhi (AES), and Hong Kong International School (HKIS) often have better pay, offer great benefits, and your (hypothetical) children can attend for free.
I am sure you have people reach out to you a lot and ask, “Your life is so cool, how can I work abroad like you?!” What is your advice or response to those questions?
If you want the stability of a paycheck, go onto Flexjobs, We Work Remotely, Remote OK, or one of the other remote work job boards. Check out the types of positions that are more frequently posted, as well as general skill requirements. There are some companies, like my employer Help Scout, that are completely remote while others have partial remote options.
Obviously, another route is freelance. It’s a competitive world, but you can be a successful entrepreneur by researching and cold emailing companies and selling yourself as an expert. Get testimonials from happy clients and try to keep a few regulars that help make sure you can pay your bills on time.
The third way is to start with where you want to live abroad. Do you want to be in Asia or South America or Africa? Once you’ve picked a region, country, or city, start researching the types of jobs that are available and how you can leverage your skillset. Make sure to double check the policy for hiring foreigners and sponsoring visas.
What questions should I be asking myself when deciding if working abroad might be for me?
Well, the first question is, are you sure you want this lifestyle? Living abroad and traveling full-time gets glamorized a lot, but most people don’t ask themselves if they’re truly comfortable with being planted in a foreign city with no community and having to be far away from friends and family. It isn’t easy.
You also need to consider the logistics of living and working in a different country. It isn’t like a vacation to Cabo where you just get on the plane, land on a beach, and it’s party time. You have to research residence permits and work visa requirements, find a place to live, make sure you have stable internet, and figure out your US tax situation.
There are also the sacrifices in your personal life to consider as well. Yes, these days technology can keep you connected, but you are going miss out on big life changes and events with your friends and family. And when you do go back, there are going to be things that you can’t relate to with people back “home,” and vice versa. For example, it can get tough when you’re lonely or stressed out because of culture shock, but you can’t really share this experience because many people just see you living in a foreign country and don’t understand how you could possibly be unhappy.
When you go home, how do you keep from being unbearably pretentious when talking to your friends?
For the most part, you have to censor yourself and tailor your stories to your audience. When I was younger, I moved to northern Virginia and many of my classmates had never been outside of the state, let alone the country. I learned very quickly to not talk about my friends in New Delhi or anything about my life there and instead just focused on commonalities that I had with my new community in Virginia.
I will say that as an adult, I have made really close friends with people who have a similar travel lifestyle so I can share my experiences with them.
Are there any considerations I should have if I am a woman interested in living in a foreign country?
I have been traveling with my boyfriend for the last nine years, so I don’t go solo very often. When I do, I look for places that are seen as safer for women. For example, having lived in India for 8 years, I don’t know if I would go there as a solo traveler. Not to say that you can’t be perfectly safe and have a great time, but there are a lot more factors to take into account, like what you can wear, how covered up you should be, what spaces you shouldn’t visit, etc. That can get very draining.
To be fair, I am a cautious traveler. I know other women who are braver than me and who would have a very different answer to this question.
What else do you take into consideration when you are looking to move somewhere for a longer stay?
Beyond basic amenities, like good internet and affordable housing, it comes down to what places I am interested in and want to learn more about. It’s also important to consider how easy it is to obtain a residence permit or to find work.
And what is your transition period when you get to a new place?
It depends. Hong Kong is easy of course because I’ve been coming here my entire life. I struggle the most when I don’t have a variety of food to eat, when I don’t have a comfortable home/hotel to return to where I can recharge, and when I don’t make any friends. My rhythm is to go through a rocky transition at the start, but then I adapt and never want to leave.
What is your advice for people during the transition period?
Be prepared for a roller coaster. There is going to be that immediate high when you first arrive where you are like, “Oh my gosh, I am in a new place, this is so exciting and everything is amazing!” And then as you come down from that high and reality sinks in, there can be a sense of alienation. And that’s why culture shock isn’t the best term, it is really more like culture fatigue. Be braced for things to not work the way that you are accustomed to, and be prepared to start adjusting how you think or approach aspects of daily life.
Be braced for things to not work the way that you are accustomed to, and be prepared to start adjusting how you think or approach aspects of daily life.
You’ll also likely have times where you get irritated and think, “Why are people standing so close to me?!” or “Why is the bank closed again in the middle of the day?!” or whatever the cultural differences are that irk you the most. That’s when you need to recharge in a comfortable space like your home or with people in the expat community who can relate to your frustrations.
Finally, I’d HIGHLY recommend making local friends. It can be easy to slip into an expat bubble, but taking the time to really learn about your overseas home can help you adjust even faster and form a more lasting connection.
How do you find those expat communities?
Online forums are a great way to find friends. It is also how I got my apartment in Turkey. Another way is to lurk around touristy places like country-specific pubs or restaurants until you start to figure out which people are there for the long haul. Make friends with the bartenders and baristas at your local watering hole. You can also look online to find international bloggers writing about your city. But I’ll caution you again about sticking only to expats–it’s important to make local friends.
What has your experience been with loneliness?
I travel with my boyfriend, so we can lean on each other when times get tough. I will say that if you ever want to test out a relationship, start traveling together. That will tell you real fast if you are with the right person. However, even with the most amazing partner in the world, one person can’t be your end-all-be-all.
It’s why I strive to make local friends or go to coworking spaces and coffee shops. When I get really lonely, I have a Vonage phone which acts as a local US number and is a direct line to my friends and family in the States.
What else are you using to stay in touch with home?
Aside from the Vonage phone, I use Facebook Messenger, Instagram, iMessage, FaceTime, and Whatsapp.