Once upon a time, Asia was The Wild East, where misfits could recreate themselves overnight, even at a corporate level. Remember the label FILTH, or Failed in London, Try Hong Kong?
That doesn’t wash any more. Asia might have been a bolthole for corporate no-hopers back then, but with economic and social development now so rapid, demands on expats to measure up have increased, and the places where you can go to be a screw-up have shrunk. The Wild East is being tamed, country by country, province by province.
Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia now make it clear that they want quality, contributing expats, not malfunctioning eyesores who knock down the local culture while embarrassing their own.
The openness of Thailand has meant that it has long been a hospice for unrepentant losers, but even that is changing under the present regime. Visa runs for the serial tourist? Not any more, my friend. See that big red stamp in your passport?
Word sees a lot of the downside, being in the journalism business — one of the ‘soft’ options. Sure, they say, I can write. Sure, I can take photos, and, being a world citizen as well as a Western male, I have no problems taking orders from your female, Vietnamese, editorial manager.
They can write, but not what you asked for; they can take photos, but not the ones you wanted, and as for being subordinate to our editorial manager, forget it. They can’t do it. Worse, they then deny it’s an issue.
“I have 100 staff, of whom two are foreigners,” said one (actually several) of the business owners we’ve talked to. “We spend more time dealing with the issues of working with the foreigners than with the rest of the staff put together.”
Foreigners with skills are still needed and indeed embraced in Vietnam, but expats with only one attribute — a sense of personal entitlement — are going to find the going here increasingly sticky.
Vietnam is changing so quickly, it’s not surprising that the role of expats here is also changing. Many of us remember the brigades of charming losers to be seen sitting outside on stools in Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon or in the dive bars in Hanoi, drinking cheap beer until it was time for their next English teaching class. Many of them were delightful people, full of entertaining yarns and unhealed regrets, and most of them were totally useless, which was perhaps how they preferred it.
But modern economic times don’t have much space for them. Regulations have tightened and enforcement improved, leaving expats the choice of shaping up or shipping out, as they say. To get on here, there are three broad categories.
Walk The Talk
First, you can still make it as an English-language teacher — the formal requirement now is that you have a university degree and a TEFL or CELTA certificate. But if you don’t take your work seriously, and everyone sees that you treat teaching as simply a chore, and a way to earn beer money, expect to find yourself out on your ear within a few months.
Second, you go for gainful employment in a different sector. But to survive you’ve got to be the full package. This doesn’t just mean showing talent; you must be a good communicator, you need a tolerance of how things are done here, you’ve got to be dynamic and responsible, and you must demonstrate you’re worth the salary.
The final option, which is increasingly attractive in what is more than ever a land of opportunity, is to go into business for yourself. Increasing numbers of foreigners are taking this route. Some succeed, some fail, and some are just lucky. The issue here is not just finding the right niche, but exploiting that niche to its full.
This is no longer the Wild East, where anything goes, and as Vietnam grows more confident and outward-looking, and as its people gain more worldly experience, unless you’re the full package or you decide to go it on your own, you will struggle to make it here.