Monday, August 29, 2011

20 Things to Know Before Moving to Sweden

There's more to Sweden than snow
Photo by Herry Lawford
Usually I don't just provide a link and run as that seems cheap, but in this case, 20 Things You Need to Know Before Moving to Sweden is an awesome list which gives you just the tiniest hint of what it might be like to live in another country.

A tip 'o the keyboard to Mark M. for sending this along. Thanks Mark!

Update: That link appears to be down, but this identical version on the sight appears to be working.

Friday, August 26, 2011

6 Reasons Your Plans to Move Abroad Will Be Fine

So I've had a few people send me this Cracked article about why moving abroad is about as fun as a barrel of dead monkeys. I mean, this is Cracked, people. You probably aren't going to cite this as a source on that term paper you're rushing to finish, unless you're trying to see if your professor is paying attention.

Got that? It's Cracked. Sometimes funny. Sometimes offensive. Not a "reliable source". They exaggerate for humorous effect. That's their job.

The article lists six reasons why your plans to move abroad will fail, so let's look at what the reasons are.

#6: The People There Probably Don't Want You

In short, turns out that all foreigners are a bunch of anti-immigrant bigots, waiting to stab you in the eye with a fork.

Not true. Yes, you will encounter them. Yes, you will encounter them more if you don't try to appreciate the culture or if you're a jackass. I've had people in the US tell me that they hate atheists but "you're OK".  Seems once you get to know someone, it's a different ballgame. So you might encounter a few anti-immigrant bigots who can't get over their prejudices, but it's been my experience that this is the exception rather than the rule. In fact, as I tend to read a lot about expat issues, it seems many other expats have the same experience.

#5. Their Governments Don't Want You, Either

OK, there's a bit of truth to this one. Frankly, many governments simply can't afford to open the floodgates of immigration. For example, while the UK tends to be extremely anti-immigrant (and they can be damned offensive about it at times), if they simply let everyone in, they would quickly be overrun. That's the sad reality of the world today. As a result, immigrants who can fill roles that locals cannot fill are the first ones governments let in. They have to have some immigration policy in place.

#4. Other Countries Treat Illegal Immigrants Worse Than America

I have no data on this one. I should read up about it, but since I focus on legal immigration, I can't comment.

#3. What You Hate About America, You Find Everywhere

Hah! Hah hah hah! Snort! Hah!

That's hilarious.

What I hate about America is a society in which the slightest suggestion that our government can help my fellow human being means that half the damned population thinks I'm some form of Satanic Communist Baby Eater. What I hate about America is a society which has rejected compromise in favor of an apocalyptic fight to the ideological death. What I hate about America is a society in which people who've never seen another country (much less lived in one) arrogantly talk about how awful those other countries must be.

No, what I hate about America, I don't find in Europe.

Of course, what I love about America, I don't find it in Europe either: tasty Mexican food.

(I'm kidding, of course. There are plenty of great things about the US, but that's not what people come to this blog to read about)

#2. Adapting Will Be Harder Than You Can Imagine

OK, the author nailed this one.

#1. You Will Likely Just Hang Out With Other Americans

Well, I can't speak for other expats, but there are no Americans I've regularly hung out with since I've moved from the US. I've met a couple now and then, but I simply don't do this. And it's not even a matter of conscious choice.

Maybe this will be more true if you hang out in cultures which are further from US culture than I've experienced, but so what? Do we object to China town? Why should the Chinese object to America town? There's nothing wrong with appreciating your own culture and wanting to spend time with those who also appreciate it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why is Dutch drug use so low?

A fun little anecdote which sums up US drug use.

A number of years ago I was working for a fairly small company where I knew most of the employees. One day I did something rather stupid and the owner of the company (a rather influential Republican businessman, I might add) came by my desk to chew me out for what I did. He said "I should send you down for a drug test!"

I replied, "I'm probably the only employee in this company which would pass a drug test and I know for a fact that includes you."

His eyes widened, he shut up, and walked away.

Such is the prevalence of drug use in the good ol' US of A.

In college, part of the reason I managed such high grades is that I studied drug laws extensively. I found that I could use this extensive knowledge to write papers for English, philosophy, statistics and economics classes. Thus, I could present high quality, informative papers on a subject that I knew fairly well. It's a good strategy and leads to a fairly in-depth knowledge of a given topic. In fact, had I continued my with my plan to become an economist, I would likely have focused on the externalities (positive and negative side-effects) of government regulation of illicit markets (primarily drugs, prostitution, and gambling).

Though many years later means I no longer have the depth of knowledge in this field that I once did, I'm still fascinated by it. It's a bewildering topic because the laws around these areas tend to focus on belief systems rather than reality. When confronting someone with facts contrary to their expectations, usually there was simply denial that the facts presented were true. If they accepted the fact, here's the general pattern of the response:
  1. Acknowledge the fact
  2. Rummage through their world view for something which might explain the fact
  3. Present this "something" as the truth
It's actually an easy thing to do. When we talk about the amount of skilled labor emigrating to the US instead of Europe, I often hear people simply say "that's because the US is a great place to live", ignoring that there are many legal and social issues impacting said emigration.

In the case of drug policy, whenever someone claimed that legalizing or decriminalizing drugs automatically meant that drug use would increase, I would counter by pointing out that Dutch per capita drug use is far lower than the US, as it their crime rate. Some would simply deny this is true. For those Americans who acknowledged it, they would invariably repeat something along the lines of "the Dutch simply don't have the same social tensions we do in America." When I would press them on this, inevitably they would start mentioning racial tensions. Obviously, this raises a lot of questions, even if we ignore that the argument which veers dangerously close to racism. Specifically, even if US racial tensions were greater than those of the Netherlands, what would that have to do with drug use?

As it turns out, Amsterdam, the largest city in the Netherlands and the one where the most drugs are consumed (and still at a rate far less than the US), we find that 45% of Amsterdam residents are ethnic minorities, yet we still find that Amsterdam is a fairly safe city to live in. You can do plenty of research on this and you'll find it confirmed repeatedly. So clearly it's not a given that a mix of different ethnic groups and a different attitude towards drug laws guarantees that crime and drug use will increase.

So why is there less crime here?

I can't prove it because I haven't done extensive research here (back when I was in college, the fledgling Internet wasn't widely available for research), but I suspect that it's related to lack of money going to criminal organizations. It's generally acknowledged that Prohibition in the US was the driving factor in the rise of US organized crime and much organized crime around the world today is financed through the sale of drugs. Obviously the Netherlands does not have the same problem, thus eliminating a powerful financial tool for criminals.

But what about the lower drug use? I suspect it has something to do with being a little more mature about drug policy and not giving in to hysteria. When you can have a rational discussion about a topic rather than shouting "no" at the top of your lungs, you might learn a bit more.

And hey, Portugal's has also decriminalized drug use and it looks like it was a resounding success in controlling per capita drug consumption. The USA will, of course, be rather late to this party, but given that the Drug "War" in the US has become a literal drug war in Mexico and it's spilling over into the US, sooner or later people need to step away from ideology and start asking some hard questions. It's paid off handsomely for the Netherlands.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dutch Culture/Tea Party Culture

Today is simply me rummaging through my brain and tossing out the junk.

The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
[From sociology] — A simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group: The cowboy and Indian are American stereotypes.
So what, precisely, is the difference between culture and stereotypes? The former is held as descriptive and the latter tends to have a negative connotation. However, when many people describe "culture" they're actually describing customs or habits of a people. This isn't unreasonable because, for example, you could spend years studying Dutch culture, but many people are mainly curious about day-to-day behavior and attitudes.

For example, the Dutch tend to be forthright, reserved, and conservative in their personal life, but their tolerance for other people's lifestyles stems from a rather pragmatic "we have to get along" attitude and a desire to minimize problems which could lead to harm rather than take a hard-line "zero tolerance" approach. This is why they tend to tolerate soft drugs, but their per capita consumption is less than both the UK and the US. Having many Dutch friends and talking at length with them about politics, I think it's fair to say that, at least from the Dutch point of view, I've not said anything controversial about Dutch culture. At the same time, one could easily argue that this is a Dutch stereotype. I'm hard-pressed to make a distinction.

Obamacare wagon at Virginia Square
Photo by Ken Mayer
Given that context, I recently posted to my Google+ account a link to an opinion piece about the US Tea Party.  The authors of that piece were two professors who conducted a study of trends in US politics and they found:
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.
In addition, they also found that Tea Party members were overwhelmingly social conservatives and want to comingle religion and politics. So basically, Tea Party members tend to be white, religious, and racist (see "low regard" above and look up racism if you're still struggling with this).

So if the study's findings are true, have I unfairly stereotyped the Tea Party? Or is it fair to say that as a culture is a description of normal behavior and attitudes of the people in the group in question, that the Tea Party culture is white, religious, and racist?

Regardless of which is true, I certainly managed to offend a few people on Google+ by referring to the Tea Party as "white, racist, religious fanatics". Some took offense due to the overgeneralization, but curiously, if I describe the Dutch as "hard working, conservative and tolerant", few people take offense at that overgeneralization. So I guess positive stereotypes are OK and negative ones are not. I can understand why, but it still doesn't help us approach truth.

So in the interest of fairness, let me temper my positive comments about the Dutch with the following: Dutch cooking can give British cooking a run for its money. Take that as you will. (That being said, a well-made Dutch Mustard Soup is awesome).

However, if you really want to sum up the difference between Dutch and US culture, at least in regards to politics, the Dutch very firmly believe that consensus is important, while the US appears to believe in winner-take-all ideological warfare. So out of curiosity, for those of you who are married, which style do you believe works better for your household? I think the fact that every person we recently spoke with at OSCON about coming to work for us in the Netherlands, if we asked why they wanted to leave, all cited politics as a driving motivator, might shed some light on that question.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

US law again treats expats as second-class citizens

From this article regarding a new law about an American wishing wishing to move back to states, but with their non-citizen spouse or child:
The U.S. immigration authorities say the new [law], which involves the processing of a visa document known as the I-130, allowing the entry of a citizen’s alien relative, will be more “efficient and consistent and centralized”; most applicants abroad will now mail their applications to a central office in Chicago, as Americans in the United States with foreign-national relatives now do. The authorities predict a five-month maximum for processing there; applicants then have to apply to the U.S. State Department for the actual visa.
Actually, what it means is that the new is designed to save the government a bit of money without caring about the realities US expats face.

If I was to accept a job offer in the US, I naturally would want to go there with my wife. It would have just been a walk down to the consular's office, fill out some paperwork and wait a few weeks. Often that "few weeks" would be the time it takes for me to get packed and ready to move back to my native country.

Not any more. Now I would have to mail my documents to Chicago, hope my critical legal documents don't go astray, and wait many months hoping my wife can join me in the US. In the meantime, where does she go? What does she do? Do I try to pay rent in the US and Amsterdam? Not bloody likely.  Do I convince my new employer to pick up the tab? That doesn't exactly make me an attractive candidate. Do I send her home to her parents with a pat on the head and tell her to stay put until Uncle Sam says she's worthy of joining me?

Of course, reading further into the article, we see that some immigration lawyers are stating this process is going to actually take nine months to a year. I believe this is more accurate than the government estimate. Now all such applicants have to go through one bottleneck. And that's hoping there's no issue with the paperwork. By heading down to my local consular office, if there was a problem,  they could point it out and we could correct it on the spot. That's no longer possible.

I really get tired of my government treating me like I'm not as important as someone who physically resides in the US.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Singapore: the "soft landing" in Asia

Because my employer imports workers from all over the world, I sometimes bug them to find out if they're willing to write a guest post for this blog. I finally found a sucker contributor, Iftekharul "Ifty" Haque, one of my recent colleagues who's traveled the world and found himself in Amsterdam. He provides us with a first-hand account of Singapore. (Here's my photo collection for Singapore)

Singapore is Asia's "soft landing." It's in Asia, but it's very orderly. There are no cows in the street, public services are reliable, the bureaucracy is razor-thin, the economy is massively liberalized, corruption is virtually unheard of, and it's more English-friendly than many cosmopolitan European cities.

Singapore Skyline at Night
Copyright 2011 by chensiyuan,  CC 3.0 license

Coming into prominence as a British colony and entrepot, it is a historical rarity as a country thrust into independence against its will. In 1965, secession was forced upon it by greater Malaysia, and its relations with its neighbors remain prickly to this day.

Public services are top-notch, and match or beat any modern city's. By 2020, Singapore plans to have as many kilometers of metro rail as the London Underground, and expansion plans are aggressive. Chronically short of water, it has inherited some fresh water reservoirs from the British era that it has maintained, but it has also begun a project to make a fresh water reservoir out of what used to be a salt-water bay in what is called the Marina Barrage.
The average Singaporean worker is many times more productive (as calculated by per-capita GDP) than any of its neighbors in South-East Asia. An intensely hard-working, Confucianist ethic is pervasive in the island-state, with extremely low unemployment. It is a regional financial hub, as well as one of the world's leaders in offshore oil technology, and after New York and London, is one of the main centers for the trade of oil futures.

singapore has slick streets
Wet Singaporean Streets
Photo by Jason Anfinsen
Housing in Singapore is extremely expensive, ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in the world. Despite this, food and beverage are extremely competitive, to the point where most average Singaporeans rarely cook meals at home, and take to eating out in the many food courts dotted in all residential and commercial neighborhoods in the city. In Singapore, you are never far away from a food court (locally called "hawker centers") anywhere in the city, and at any time of day. Prepare to forget cooking.

Singapore has a very liberal foreign labor policy. Foreigners with an appropriate skillset and a job offer promptly receive their paperwork in good order. Companies rarely discriminate on the basis of nationality, although the recent financial crisis in 2008 hit Singapore's economy hard (it clocked in significant GDP shrinkage post-crisis, though it has since begun to recover), and an increasingly politically aware and nativist reactionary voice has emerged in Singapore calling for locals to get priority over foreigners. This has resulted in some constriction in the local job market for some commoditized skillsets, but the island-state has begun a robust recovery post-crisis, and continues to import foreign labor to drive its economy.

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown Train Station, Singapore
Photo by Khalzuri
Immigration policy in Singapore is a hotly debated political issue, and is shrouded in government opacity. The government publishes aggregate numbers of how many new permanent residents and citizens have been included, but no further information is published, including criteria for acceptance or rejection from the immigration program, and the income and education level of said immigrants. Eligibility to apply is extremely low (6 months of employed residence to apply for permanent residence, and 3 years of permanent residence to apply for citizenship), but whether an applicant gets accepted or not is completely up to the government. Based on anecdotal evidence, there are applicants who barely qualify in their basic eligibility, and received their papers in good order, and those that have remained in the island-state for extended periods, sometimes 10 times more than the stipulated minimum stay, only to be rejected time and time again. Any attempt at deciphering the reasoning behind this is conjecture, so it is difficult to say what the government considers. Applications cost nothing, though, so an applicant can apply as many times as he or she likes, and gainful employment ensures a right to stay in the city-state.

Despite this, the ICA (Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority) has a special class in its "social visit" category, as a social visitor "seeking employment." Providing the government sufficient proof of one's qualifications, the government can grant a foreigner a visa that gives them a year to live in Singapore, to seek employment. So despite tightening its grip on permanent residency and citizenship, the policy of bringing in foreign skillsets through an employment pass program, remains firmly in place.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Riots in London

Of course by now you've heard about the London Riots. Of my family there, my sister is OK, one of my brothers narrowly escaped the burning in Croyden and my other brother (who I'm sure is fine), is not responding to text messages, though this is not particularly unusual for him. I have other friends there who have not been able to get home, though I don't know of anyone who has been hurt yet. Had I been there, I've noticed that the rioting has been close to three places I've lived. Very unsettling.

Much of the commentary appears to be very much "society has failed us" or "the rioters are all criminal thugs", neatly reducing the entire mess into a useless sound bite serving only to reinforce the opinion of the person uttering it. The only thing I can think of, after having lived in the UK for years, is that I doubt that a happy, healthy society would so spontaneously erupt into violence. It's also worth noting that that this is part of a continuing trend in the UK and I don't think that the underlying problems are as simple as anyone would like to portray.

The UK is not a particularly good place to be right now, but I think the politicians are so far removed from daily life that they're just not seeing it any more. The people in the UK are great and my heart goes out to them, but I wouldn't want to live there right now.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What's a fair salary in Amsterdam?

People constantly ask me about what a fair salary is in Amsterdam, but if I give a number, it's going to misleading. I've tried to explain the foreign cost of living before, but this is an update specifically aimed at nailing down a couple of points I should have covered better.

Here's what generally happens to the inexperienced expat:

1. They calculate the exchange rate and either drool or cry at the expected salary.
2. They might consult a cost-of-living calculator.

First, you have to remember that the exchange rate only matters when you're exchanging money. Got that? If you're on holiday from Thailand to France, converting Thai bhat to Euros is important. If you're moving from Thailand to France, it's not as important any more unless you regularly send money back and forth or are using this to build a nest egg and return home. Then the exchange rate is important. If you're not exchanging, forget it!

Second, the cost of living calculators are very dicey. Not only are they often out of date or rely on questionable assumptions, they may simply not apply to you. Again, consult my cost of living overseas post to get an idea of why they are dicey. Just one or two differences in your lifestyle can have a huge financial impact.

London, England
London is expensive.
Photo by TJ Morrison
What does this mean? Well, if you compare the cost of living between Boise, Idaho and London, UK, you see that London is twice as expensive as Boise. By Boise standards, London looks unaffordable. Except that London has roughly 32 times the population of Boise and obviously they can afford to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even the fast food clerks can afford to live there. Do they have the same standard of living as in Boise? No way, but it's not that it's worse. It's different. It may not be for you. Who knows?

Boise and Foothills
Boise is not expensive
Photo by Boise Metro Chamber
You want to know how much you get paid here in the Netherlands? You can check out and that might give you some insight,  but you also have to remember that as a foreign knowledge worker, there's a good chance you'll get the 30% ruling which will mean that for an equal salary, you'll still earn more than a native Dutch worker.

More importantly, these are salaries that Dutch people live on and the Dutch are quite happy. If you do a naïve exchange rate calculation, it's useless unless your plans to move to Europe all involve "making a fortune". However, if your plans to move to Europe are for "better quality of life" and a comfortable living, then you'll be better prepared to accept that things here will be different, including salaries. How does five weeks holiday and dirt-cheap medical insurance translate? You'll have to decide that for yourself, but if you're coming over, you're probably doing it for reasons other than to strike a fortune.

So what do you? Study their market and learn what the locals make. Once you do that, you can know what a "fair" salary is and leave behind your expectations of what you think you should be earning.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Escape from the US

I returned from OSCON 2011 exhausted, but happy. I've attended this convention several times before, but this was my first time doing so with the specific role of trying to recruit people. I even gave a well-received five minute "lightning talk" explaining what the information economy is and how it lets IT workers move to other countries:

The most interesting bit, though, was one of my Dutch colleagues mentioning that he had many potential candidates from the US and every single one of them gave the same reason for being interested in a move to Amsterdam: they wanted to escape US politics. Make of that what you will.