Interview with a Location Independent Family Man in China

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Location independent careers are a hot choice in today’s economy. Live where you want while you do your work online with Skype? Sounds good!

Today we can take a look into the life of a location independent worker.

William runs the site Business is Personal (Finance) and he and his family recently moved to Southeast China to get in touch with their Chinese roots, live cheaply, and learn the language; all while William continues to work location independent.

If you’ve ever been interested in working locational independent, then this interview is for you. If not, I’m sure you’ll still find William’s story of moving his family across the Pacific Ocean thrilling and intriguing so enjoy!

Austin: Do you have a family? If so, how many kids, etc.?

William: Family unit of husband and wife with 2 kids — 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter.

A: How long have you been in China?

W: Almost a year now.

A: What brought you to China?

W: I was born in China, but emigrated to the U.S. at a very young age. Before this extended stay, I’ve never been back so this is not only time off for me and an opportunity to invest in an economy growing in leaps and bounds.

A: What’s your previous travel experience?

W: Almost none. In the past 15 years, I’ve taken maybe 6 weeks total time off from work as I’ve been on a madman working trajectory.

A: How do you maintain an income?

W: I am a partner in my firm back in the U.S. and continue to work remotely as our lead software developer. My role is evolving as I hired/trained/lead our China QA team and I am now spearheading documentation efforts. Beyond that, my wife and I are on the lookout for income opportunities in China.

A: What’s your average day like?

W: My average day varies. On days where I do a “full day” of work, I will usually work through the night until 7am to match San Francisco working hours and then take my son to school. After a quick breakfast, I sleep until perhaps 3pm.

On days where I do lighter work, I will work from say 11pm to 3am and then sleep until noonish — in this scenario, my wife takes our son to school herself. Upon waking up, my wife and I will often walk out to the central shopping district (30-40 minutes) for lunch/snack/shopping. Our son’s school is nearby so we will then pick him up at 5pm. Afterwards, my wife and kids will head to her parents’ home for dinner — if I’m not sleepy, I will follow them but just spend my time riding a bike (with my daughter in a handle carrier) around the area. I then eat a late dinner at 10pm to keep from constantly snacking through the night when I’m working.

A: How does your family like China?

W: This is where my wife grew up so she loves being back closer to her family and old friends. My 2 year old daughter is too young to notice the difference, but my 4 year old son constantly says he doesn’t want to go back to the United States.

A: What bills do you have? What is the cost of living?

W: We spend roughly $1,000/month for groceries, utilities, school, transportation and medical care. We have another $1,000/month on pleasure spending — eating out, travel, shopping, gifts, etc. — putting our monthly budget at about $2,000/month.

Living back San Francisco, $2,000/month was almost what we spent on rent for a 600 square foot apartment so it’s a big difference in cost of living. After including the overseas tax exemption, we will save at least $50K a year living in China.

A: What’s the hardest thing financially about China? What’s the best?

W: Financially, it has not been an issue as we prepared early for the move. When we had an inkling of this idea, we started sending money to my in-laws in China bit-by-bit.

When the move became more possible, we sent $20K back for my brother-in-law to buy a car — on the surface, it was his wedding gift but it’s turning out to be prepaid transportation costs as we can request rides without too much grumbling. It beats dealing with buses and taxis for regular travel. Although foreigners can buy cars and get driving licenses, I’d rather avoid taking chances in this arena (ie, getting into traffic accidents and dealing with an unknown judicial system).

Managing finances require planning and sticking to a schedule since I have to work within the limits of moving money from the U.S. to China. If we live in China over the long-term, I will have to hedge against future yuan appreciation.

A: Have you sent money home? If so, was it easy/difficult?

W: My problem is the reverse. My paycheck is direct deposited into my U.S. accounts so I can write checks via online banking at any time. For spending money, we simply hit the ATMs as Bank of America and China Construction Bank have a no fee relationship.

For office and staff expenses, I can wire transfer $3,000/month free from BoA to CCB. For larger expenses, I write a check to my father-in-law and have to wait about 6 weeks for it to clear before the funds are available.

A: What do you enjoy the most about China? What’s something you will never forget?

W: The moment I will never forget is walking around the Hong Kong airport after getting off our plane. I’ve lived in a mediterranean climate my entire life so when I passed through a door into an area without A/C, my first thought was “huh, why do they have the heat on in this part of the airport?” Then the shocking realization that this was the summer weather — oh boy.

After adjusting to the weather, living here has been very enjoyable — the new experiences, seeing/participating in traditions and ceremonies up close, being part of a closer-knit culture.

A: Who would you recommend the job to?

W: On a theoretical level, anybody who would benefit financially from living overseas should consider doing so for a few years — jump start their finances, get a different perspective on life, exposure to more opportunities, etc.

Being able to pull the trigger on such a change is a different story though. Many people are tied down to their roots or lifestyle or image or possessions — the pull of the present outweighs the possibilities of the future — so if they can’t make minor changes in their lives, I doubt they’d cross international borders for a major change.

Those with the right personality don’t need my recommendations as they probably are on the lookout already.

A: What are some resources for people who are interested in what you’re doing?

W: I don’t think there’s a website yet with the formula to follow my path. The closest analog would be those who can work online — whether as consultants, software developers, writers, artists, architects or even call support — moving to an area with lower costs of living. The difference is instead of moving from San Francisco to Fresno — your destination is overseas.

After that, the next logical step would be to hire cheaper local workers to do the parts of your work that can be easily separated out and you evolve to reviewing and managing work. As time goes on, pick up a larger pool of clients who think they’re just working with you and continue to pay you developed world rates. If businesses are willing to outsource your job at a drop of a pin, turnaround is fairplay — beat them to the punch, outsource yourself and keep the profits.

If this idea appeals to you, then you do need to plan beforehand. Get your clients accustomed to you working remotely, save up your pennies for the move, bone up on foreign language skills and start getting rid of possessions.

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Thanks again to William for this look into his life in China. You can read more about his Chinese adventures here and make sure to check out his site, Business is Personal (Finance).

Photo: Jaaron and Preetamri

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