Getting Started in International Work

Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), a traditional location for vendors’ stalls in Kuala Lumpur – now modernized image: Erik Mustonen
Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), a traditional location for vendors’ stalls in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – now modernized
image: Erik Mustonen

People interested in working internationally often ask how they can get started. The answer is a combination of preparation, risk, and luck. Part 1 of this three-part post covers six tips for getting started, and Parts 2 and 3 will include advice on logistical considerations for when you actually go overseas for work.

…chance favors only the prepared minds.
–Louis Pasteur

Many Americans are woefully unaware of the rest of the world. Before stepping off a cliff like The Fool in a Tarot deck, it is very helpful to become prepared in terms of languages, geography, politics, health, and finance.

1. Learn a foreign language (or languages) 

Sign at a light rail station, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. image: Erik Mustonen
Sign at a light rail station, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

English is our lingua franca – that’s Latin for French.
–a teacher addressing a class in a New Yorker cartoon

Americans are usually unilingual. I had learned French and some Arabic in the Peace Corps, and was interested in German culture so I studied German with Berlitz and independently. This greatly expanded my options in unexpected ways. It helped to get a job with a German firm that needed an English-speaking landscape architect for a project in Saudi Arabia. Like most mega-projects, it was being done in English because international design and construction firms were involved, and English is the de facto international language. The Saudi client’s representatives had all studied in the US, UK, or Australia and were quite fluent in it while the Germans were struggling. The client had a bulletin board with humorous messages received from the Germans in English, such as “I am coming on Tuesday to prepare all of your problems.”

Being able to also speak German, however, I was able to communicate with the Germans and function in daily life while living mainly in Germany. Also, we could speak among ourselves in German to have confidential conversations in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis would speak Arabic for the same reason. Or we would speak English and everyone would understand.

The fact that I also knew a little Arabic was a bonus. I could read Arabic script, which helped me to navigate in cities where most street signs were only in Arabic, and I could sometimes listen in on conversations that I was not expected to understand.

In countries that are former European colonies you can often get by speaking at least the language of the former colonial power—English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese. However, this will limit your experience, and some countries, like Thailand and Japan, were never colonized.

More obscure languages like Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) can be picked up once you are there. However, learning at least a few phrases makes travel easier, and it is usually well-received by the people there. Learning numbers helped me overhear what prices the Turks were bargaining to in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar. Sometimes you would also need to learn a different alphabet and perhaps different written numbers such as in Thailand, some Arab countries, etc.

You may even encounter versions of English that have evolved almost beyond recognition with different accents, spellings, grammar, and word use. An example: “Send me back (drive me home) or not?”, “Take teksi, lah!”, “Also can” (affirmative but with reservations).

2. Follow international news

Kuala Lumpur monorail image: Erik Mustonen
Kuala Lumpur monorail
image: Erik Mustonen

You will not learn much about the world and the way it works from watching American television, or from any other American media for that matter, except perhaps for The New York Times or The Washington Post (but that would be a lot of reading). The Guardian Weekly comes on thin, airmail-weight paper and summarizes the most important world news incorporated from The Guardian (UK), The Observer (UK), Le Monde (in English), and The Washington Post. It is now also available digitally.

The Guardian has a slightly liberal viewpoint. There is also The Economist (weekly print magazine or online), which is slightly more conservative.

By reading in-depth world news over a period of time, you gain an understanding of the wider world and also get specific ideas on where you would or would not like to work for financial, political, cultural, and health/safety reasons. Things change—sometimes rapidly—so you need to update your knowledge constantly.

3. Attend international conferences

Punjabi musicians at the ground-breaking ceremony for Putrajaya Federal Administrative Centre (planned city), Malaysia. image: Erik Mustonen
Punjabi musicians at the ground-breaking ceremony for Putrajaya Federal Administrative Centre (planned city), Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

ASLA Annual Meetings have the best educational content, but it is important to also attend International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) regional and World Congresses. (Note that ifla.org will take you to the website for the International Federation of Library Associations—the website for IFLA is http://iflaonline.org/.)

These and other overseas conferences are valuable not so much for the content as for the networking. A lot happens in face-to-face meetings and personal contacts are made. This networking takes place not in the educational sessions but at social events and field sessions or pre/post-congress tours where you have an opportunity to meet people—both local professionals and other expatriates—on the bus or walking around. You may not get a job on the spot, but you develop contacts to follow up on later.

At the 1976 IFLA World Congress in Istanbul, one educational session was being given by a Hungarian in German, which was being simultaneously translated into English by a Turk. The presenter tended to ramble and go off on tangents, and his German was a bit sketchy. Finally the translator threw up her hands and said, “I can’t make heads or tails out of what he is saying!” But the 5-day post-congress tour was a great networking opportunity. What really stood out, however, was at the formal banquet, where I was dragged out to do a duet with the belly dancer. Everyone was curious about who I was and what country I was from. This led to my meeting a German landscape architect who said, “Oh, you must come to visit in Germany.” Four years later on an open-ended trip in Europe looking for work, I stopped by his office. He was out, but I was directed to someone who spoke English who asked, “What can I do for you?” I said that I was looking for work in Europe or the Middle East. He said, “Oh, you are looking for work? I am just writing a job description for a project in Saudi Arabia!”

4. Volunteer

El-Kef, a mountain town in northern Tunisia image: Erik Mustonen
El-Kef, a mountain town in northern Tunisia
image: Erik Mustonen

Especially for the young and relatively inexperienced, volunteering for something like the Peace Corps can be a way to get started. It gives you international experience and connects you with networks that can lead to other opportunities. Regular service is for 2 years, but there is also the Peace Corps Response—high-impact, 3-12 month assignments—for returned Peace Corps Volunteers or professionals with at least 10 years experience. The Peace Corps also recruits seasoned professionals, including retirees.

The Medina of Sfax, Tunisia image: Erik Mustonen
The Medina of Sfax, Tunisia
image: Erik Mustonen

My Peace Corps assignment was as a “graduate architect” working on an historic preservation planning study of a medina (walled old town) in Tunisia. Many volunteers end up doing something not directly related to their profession in a country they may not have chosen, but it is still international experience. Living conditions are simple to sparse, but rich experiences and life-long friendships are likely.

The Peace Corps is limited to US Citizens. There are other opportunities such as Cuso International, which unlike the Peace Corps, is an NGO that accepts both Canadian and US Citizens. Other countries have similar organizations.

5. Become culturally aware

Nefta, an oasis town in southern Tunisia image: Erik Mustonen
Nefta, an oasis town in southern Tunisia
image: Erik Mustonen

The “Ugly American” is the old cliché, but it is often true. It is important to learn about the culture, including religion(s), of the countries where you may travel, live, and work. This will help you to have positive experiences with the people and may keep you out of trouble. Lonely Planet-type guidebooks can help, but further reading and, if possible, talking with foreign nationals you meet is even better.

6. Travel internationally

Tourists at a fruit stall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia image: Erik Mustonen
Tourists at a fruit stall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

It is difficult to decide where you would, or would not, like to work without having seen what is out there. Traveling independently and off the grid opens you to new worlds. This travel is best combined with an overseas conference (such as IFLA) at the beginning. You can then meet people in your profession who can suggest what to see locally or in other countries, and they may offer invitations to visit their offices. This can open doors you had not been aware of before.

Erik Mustonen at a trailhead for Malaysian primary forest (“jungle”)  image: Erik Mustonen
Erik Mustonen at a trailhead for Malaysian primary forest (“jungle”)
image: Erik Mustonen

Unusual travelling suggestions are dancing lessons from God.
–Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle

by Erik S. Mustonen, ASLA, CSLA, RLA (CA + MN,) CLARB, LEED AP-ND, a dual US-Canadian Citizen currently based in Edmonton, Alberta whose 40-year career has evolved in Canada, the United States, and overseas (Germany, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Tunisia)

3 thoughts on “Getting Started in International Work

  1. flahertylandscape August 25, 2014 / 2:00 pm

    Good intro, Erik. Got my start via language capabilities and Peace Corps experience, too.

    On top of those qualifications, it took my American degree in landscape architecture, professional practice experience in the USA, my USA state registration and my membership in ASLA to get over a bunch of hurdles to get hired.

    But above all it took persistence and dedication to get my first international job. Once inside that internationally proven coterie, my following jobs were much easier to come by.

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