When I stepped outside of the terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2012, I was instantly overwhelmed by a sense of danger, opportunity and, of course, humidity. My co-worker-to-be greeted me with an uncanny certainty it was me (later he confessed he recognized my terrible fauxhawk from my passport photo).
Unfortunately, in the three minutes he abandoned his car to fetch me at the arrivals hall, he managed to land a parking ticket for about $50. I tried a few times to pay for it, to which each attempt he refused more firmly. He then proceeded to help me finish loading my luggage into his car. That car ride — and the following 12 months — rolled by like a murky, stormy dream sequence filled with excitement, wonder, exhaustion, and disappointment, before finally coming to a resolute end.
Before we begin, let's clear up any cloudy assumptions here. Yes, there are numerous differences in Asian culture that Westerners must properly assimilate to be successful in business, friendships and dating here. But besides these fundamental contrasts in thought processing, decision making, and family values, there is a much larger challenge you'll face in the business world, one you can't fully attribute to culture: your intrinsic value.
The Asia-Pacific region is no longer the beacon of growth it was made out to be just a few years prior. The worldwide recession has hit here just as hard as anywhere else. Local currencies are losing value, yet the costs of retaining top talent are not going down. Because of this, you will constantly have to reassert yourself and the value you bring to the table to your employer, your clients and sometimes even your colleagues. The "Game of Thrones" is alive and kicking in business dealings here (just without the violence and blood magic), and you'll have to play the game if you want to get paid.
My intention is not to scare Western Millennials away from experiencing Asia. Moving here and forcing myself to step my game up was the single most important decision I've made in my life. Any politics, rivalries or jealousy you may encounter on the job quickly becomes outweighed by the amazing experiences, friends you'll make and professional experience you'll gain. To top it off, you can say you made unforgettable memories on another continent instead of in Vegas (again).
So how do you stay ahead and on top of your game? Simple: Establish authority in your skillset. If you're a developer, deliver clean code and crush deadlines. Be the go-to teammate who the boss consults when he or she needs that insight. If you're a biz dev guy, let your charisma shine. Leverage that million-dollar smile to close more deals. Help other teammates who may be struggling. If you're a business owner, you can write articles, present at events and put yourself in a position where people will listen. It doesn't matter what your role is, really. All that matters is you do it well.
When I first came to Malaysia, I knew it would be like a corporate version of "Training Day" with Denzel Washington. Unfortunately, I didn't know what that would encompass just yet. I had a boss here that could not for the life of him see what my value was. In between his impossible demands and lying to his own staff, he'd disappear for days at a time.
The stress from the job got to me. I stopped taking proper care of myself and worked up a 104-degree fever. When I was discharged from the hospital, I gladly tendered my resignation. In six months time, his business went under. The moral of the story is this: There are bosses who shouldn't be bosses, and that's OK. Move on, and let karma take care of the rest.
Whether or not you want to be, you are that elephant in the room. People will constantly measure your abilities and compare your results to those who are locals (and presumably cheaper). Be the subject matter expert in their eyes, so when it's time for your evaluation, there's no room for tomfoolery. Worst case scenario, they'll try to give a pay cut to their rainmaker (you). Bosses and business owners do make bad calls from time to time in Asia, just like back home. Just don't let someone else tell you you're worth less than you know.
Establish authority. Know your value. In the end, you can bend a little, but don't break.