The International Career Compass (revised and simplified for Startup Weekend: Immigration)

In May 2015, I attended a Startup Weekend: Immigration event at Galvanize in San Francisco. Fellow entrepreneurs and mentors challenged me to rethink the International Career Compass as a more scalable and accessible business model.

Here’s what I came up with at the event:

I actually didn’t have the chance to pitch this on stage… was busy assembling furniture! So I’m glad to be able to share it here.

I drew inspiration from the Business Model Canvas, a widely-used visual language that gives people a common starting point for discussing the core elements of any business.

I think visual thinking is especially appropriate for thinking about international career opportunities, but I couldn’t put my finger on *why* until I spoke with Christine Martell, founder of VisualsSpeak, during a conversation facilitated by Cate Brubaker of Small Planet Studio. Christine has created a set of visual tools to make international communication easier and smoother. Here’s how she describes it:

“The experience of moving cross-culturally is something you can’t often put into words. The visual realm gives you access to different sides of the brain.”


This is why I’ve collaborated with Chilean artist Ignacio Barceló to create this visual language. This is why I ask my students to draw pictures in class. Accessing different sides of the brain is powerful!

How to Find a Career-Building Job Abroad: An Illustrated Guide

I’m so excited to finally share this with you.

This deck features whimsical nautical drawings by Chilean artist Ignacio Barceló, and shows that finding an awesome job abroad requires a bit more than a Google search — it’s a collaborative process that involves understanding your own motives and goals, doing your research, taking leaps, building strong local networks, recognizing your value in the local economy, and so much more.

Based on my 7+ years in China and Chile, as well as countless conversations with current and future expats, I’ve put together this illustrated guide to answer the most burning question I’ve heard:

How can I get a job abroad?

“I’m looking a fulfilling job that will also help in future endeavors. My background is in journalism, marketing and media. I also wouldn’t mind teaching English when I first land…” —Natalie

“I am a 31-year-old professional looking for a job in China. I have a Master’s degree in International Commerce so I am looking for work in a multinational company, but really a good job in general. I am flexible in what I would take, to get my “feet on the ground.” I have experience in graphic design, in politics for a member of Congress, and international work experience in Argentina and speaking Spanish.”—T.

I’m curious to hear what you think. Do you these questions sound familiar to you?

If you’re an experienced expat, does this resonate with your experience? What might you add?

If you’re dreaming of the possibilities to live and work abroad, what more would you like to know? I’m thinking of creating various offerings around these questions and I want to make sure they’re as useful as possible.

Feel free to email me directly to continue this conversation.

Thank you so much!

— Leslie

Hotpot on Thanksgiving? Gnocchi in Jiaxing? "Edge" in Mandarin? How Creativity Makes Global Life Easier

I believe that the most crucial component of building a global life is creativity. Not checklists, not a roadmap written by someone else, but trust in your own creativity.

In a new place, and especially in an unfamiliar language and culture, you need to figure out new ways to meet your needs. 

I love Thanksgiving, so I celebrate it wherever I am on that day. In the small-town-of-a-million-people that was my first home in China, it probably would have been tricky to find a turkey and serve it with stuffing and cranberry sauce. But I don’t particularly like turkey.

For me, Thanksgiving must have lots of people, lots of food, and plenty of gratitude. So this is how we celebrated.

hotpot for Thanksgiving in Jiaxing China
Thanksgiving in Jiaxing. A Filipina, a Cameroonian, a Chinese girl, a New Yorker and I feasted on all-you-can-eat-and-drink hotpot buffet. I remember that this restaurant cost 20 RMB per person (less than $3 with that year’s exchange rates, but they would add a fine to the bill if you left uneaten food on the table. Definitely not the most traditional Thanksgiving menu, but… good times! Circa 2006.

That same year, I would make “5-minute butternut squash gnocchi” out of the baked sweet potatoes you can buy on the street and niángāo, a kind of glutinous rice dumpling. I would cut open the sweet potato and spoon the soft insides into a pan with a bit of water, and then cut up niángāo into the same size as gnocchi and added them to the mix, with some herbs. An Italian purist (or someone with a more literal interpretation of vegetables) might not approve of this recipe. But it was a quick, easy, and cheap alternative to the spicy, oily Chinese food we ate most of the time.

Creativity also helped me at work. During my short stint as an advertising copywriter in Beijing, I needed to explain a headline I’d written to my Taiwanese supervisor, who spoke zero English. It was 4am. The headline was a play on the word “edge.” Google Translate never came close to capturing the sense of edgy / cutting-edge / competitive edge / edge of the world, and my Mandarin was nowhere near thesaurus level.

Here’s a photo from my ad agency job. I was on edge.

So I typed “edge” into Wordnik, a cool online tool that shows dozens of definitions and usages. Then I copied the most useful meanings into Google Translate and shared those with the manager. So much more nuanced, and not impossible at 4am.

I’d love to hear your stories! How has creative thinking helped you meet your cross-cultural needs? 

Originally posted in September 2012.

Get Your International Career in Gear: Advice, Diagrams, and Links from our Cal Career Center Presentation

I just got back to Chile after a trip “home” to San Francisco. [February 2013] The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of catching up with family and friends, showing a certain chileno the best parts of the Bay Area, stocking up on clothes and shoes (which are much cheaper and more stylish than in Santiago), and giving a presentation at my alma mater with the fabulous Ms. Natalie Tan!

Natalie Tan
Natalie Tan

Natalie and I share an obsession with living and working abroad. We met as students at Cal, and have pursued international careers in completely different ways. Natalie’s path has been more linear than mine. She majored in Mass Communications at Cal, and studied abroad in Paris. While working for a major public relations firm in San Francisco, she negotiated a transfer to the London office. Now she’s back in the Bay Area and managing digital projects for Lonely Planet and preparing to enter an MBA program in Hong Kong. A few months ago Natalie got in touch with the Cal Career Center and was invited to lead a workshop called Get Your International Career in Gear. The workshop happened to be during my visit, and I was so glad to participate.

Here are the slides from the event.

These summarize Natalie’s experiences and mine, and include flow charts that explain each of our career paths. Mine is about to going from a starter position to a local hire. Natalie’s is about how to transfer within a multinational company. Many students took photos of these flow charts! A good sign.

A few more comments on topics that came up during our presentation:

1) Network, network, network!

The best way to find international opportunities is through friends (and friends of friends.) If you’re interested in, say, urban planning in China, or social entrepreneurship in Singapore, or ways to live in France, tell everyone you know. Your aunt’s friend’s daughter might be a fantastic contact for you. Search LinkedIn for people with similar interests. Ask them about their experiences. Make it easy for these people to help you, by being specific, concise, friendly, and grateful. Through this blog I get quite a few emails from people considering a similar path and I am more than happy to listen to their ideas and connect them with my friends.

2) Opportunity Benefits and Costs.

The big benefits of living and working in another country are that you can immerse yourself in a different culture and experience the world in a new way. You can master a language, get involved with new industries, and connect with fascinating people. And so much more. I’ve talked about these benefits at length in this interview for Atlas Sliced, this podcast on Brazen Careerist, this post for Untemplater, and Why China? Because I could.

Would I be able to invent a new course at a university in the US, like I have in Chile? No, especially not without a graduate degree. Would I be able to work in such a wide range of industries and build the portfolio career I have now? Probably not.

However, the opportunity costs of these choices are less commonly discussed. One student asked if I thought I was missing out on career growth by working overseas. I answered by saying, “It depends on what’s important to you and how you’re defining career growth.” If I were looking for a steady job in the Bay Area right now, would a recruiter look at me just like a 2006 Cal grad who had spent the past 6.5 years working for the same company in the Bay Area? No. Would I be offered the same position and salary as that hypothetical person? Likely not. If I’d had tens of thousands of dollars in student loans from college, would I have been able to pay them off by now? Maybe, but I might have made different career choices in China and Chile to ensure more stable income.

A friend of mine served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Latin America and then did an International MBA in one of the best programs in the US, which included a year of study and internship in China. When he finished his MBA, he applied for jobs in the US in his field, and it took him more than a year to find a job, and he described that job as less than ideal. He’s bright and hardworking and his experience is all related, but he noticed a mismatch between his experience and what company recruiters were looking for, since the recruiters are used to seeing MBA graduates who’d had more traditional pre-MBA experience.

If and when I decide to move back to my home country, I know I’ll need to carefully package my experiences into something that people can understand and see specific value in. I will likely continue to pursue an entrepreneurial portfolio career. Cate Brubaker at Small Planet Studio has written extensively about re-entry, and she interviewed me about my re-entry experiences in this podcast.

If your dream is to live and work abroad, you can make it happen. Do your research, build your connections, and get your international career in gear.

Here’s the text of the handout we gave out at the event, to guide students in their initial international career research:

Websites About Working Abroad:   

The Cal Career Center is a great place to start researching international opportunities! Other resources that Leslie and Natalie recommend that aren’t already mentioned on the site are discussed below.

On, twenty-something Alexa Hart interviews dozens of young people about their international career paths. Her site also features excellent resources about how to volunteer or work abroad.

At, Lillie Marshall shares stories to help more teachers travel, and more travelers teach!


Go Global! Launching an International Career Here or Abroad by Stacie Berdan
$4.99 Kindle/$11.99 paperback on
Stacie draws from her own experience to give practical, step-by-step advice. She worked for a top global PR firm in Hong Kong for many years, during which she gained the skills and experience to skip several levels on the corporate ladder. (I previously reviewed this book here.) 

Delaying The Real World by Colleen Kinder
$5.18 on for the paperback
This book changed Leslie’s life by giving her the idea to move to China with a Latin American Studies degree! It lists hundreds of ideas on things to do after college that do not involve law school or a cubicle. (I previously reviewed this book here.) 

Fellowships, Internships, Traineeships:

AIESEC is the world’s largest student-run organization, and it offers placements for internships and traineeships all over the world.

The Luce Scholars program is a competitive fellowship program to enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society. It’s designed for young leaders with limited exposure to Asia.

Teach for China is part of Teach for All, which is the international arm for Teach for America. American and Chinese teachers work side by side at schools in rural China.

Princeton in Asia/Latin America/Africa. Princeton University offers year-long fellowships in lots of countries in the fields of journalism, international development, business, and teaching, even for students who do not attend Princeton full-time.

English as a Second Language (ESL) Teaching Resources: is a site with everything you need to know about teaching ESL. A key feature is that you can post your resume so schools can contact you about relevant opportunities. This is the program that brought Leslie to China. It is run like a study abroad program and offers placements in Chile, China, Dominican Republic, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and Vietnam. NOTE: You may have to pay an initial placement fee, but the administrative process is a lot smoother than going out on your own.

Contact Us:

Leslie Forman | |

Natalie Tan | |

Flashback: How I decided to move to China after graduating with a Latin American Studies degree

Back in 2013 I met an enthusiastic reader of this blog who had recently landed in Chile (Hi Ayanna!) and she asked about how I got started with living and working abroad. Here’s one story.

leslie forman graduating from the university of california berkeleyOn May 18, 2006, I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.

I had no idea what to do next.

A few days later, I sat in my childhood home in the suburbs of San Francisco, as rain poured outside, reading Delaying the Real World, by Colleen Kinder.

That book contains hundreds of ideas of what to do after college. Go work on a cruise ship! Or teach at a ski resort! Or join the Peace Corps! It all sounded more exciting than going straight to graduate school or getting a job in a cubicle.

Given my nostalgia for Chile (where I’d studied the previous year) and Costa Rica (where I’d led a high school summer program) and my interest in all things international, I started looking up everything in the international section.

And so I found out that the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) had a program called Teach in China, and they were looking for native English speakers with college degrees. I met those requirements. And the deadline was just a week later. I’d never been to China, never taken any classes about China, never studied Chinese. I’d always focused on Latin America.

But I was curious. I wanted to be the kind of person who could pack up my life and move across the world into the unknown. So I called the CIEE office.

“Great!” the CIEE representative said. “Let me send you the list of program veterans.”

So I quickly wrote this email and sent it to the people on the list, one at a time.

I’m thinking of teaching English in China through CIEE. I got your email address from the office in Maine. I just graduated from Berkeley with a major in Latin American Studies, and I’m interested in exploring a completely different region. I don’t speak any Chinese, but I lived abroad for a year (in Chile) and I love taking on new challenges. I would really appreciate it if you could answer a few questions about the program for me.

What has been your favorite part of this experience?

What has been you least favorite?

Did you feel that the training adequately prepared you to teach ESL courses?

What are your students like?

What are your living conditions like?

Would you recommend this program?

Thank you so much!

Within a few hours, my inbox filled with encouraging notes:

Go Leslie, do this thing and you won’t regret it. I had been to Asia before this and studied in China during the SARS scare for 4 months (crazy times) but my Chinese was still crap and I still will never forget that year. I’ve been back for almost a year now and would go back again without hesitation if i gave up this insane idea of the “family business.” Go, travel, see some unforgettable things and make friends that you’ll get to know way too well. You’ll never be the person at the table without a story again for the rest of your life. — Bob


Do it!  I got so much out of the experience. Much more than the study abroad programs that I did in college. I loved it, and will probably go back to study in Beijing next summer. — Andrea


I had never taught before, but I felt pretty comfortable teaching. My school had pretty low expectations of me though, so I didn’t feel much pressure. Honestly, most schools just want a foreign face to give them bragging rights. This sounds bad, but I did sometimes feel like I didn’t serve much of a purpose and I know other teachers have felt that way too. But I always kept in mind that I went to China for ME. And I do think a lot of my students took something away from my class. Most of them had never talked with a foreigner before or had an oral english class. Also, you only teach a 2-3 hours a day, so you really have a lot of time to research and prepare on your own, if need be. — Rosalie


This will be short note as I just had a baby and he is sleeping (for the fleeting moment) right here next to me. I love loved LOVED teaching in China. I had virtually no teaching experience and spoke no Mandarin beyond ni hao and xie xie. I didn’t even know where Yantai WAS (the city in which I was placed). The arrival was a bit rough in the middle of winter and I was their first foreign teacher and let’s just say they were a lot more prepared vis-a-vis living conditions etc. when the next teacher arrived the following year. But I got moved to my permanent apartment and while it wasn’t the Taj Mahal by any stretch of the imagination — and others in other cities had MUCH ‘better’ living conditions — I’ve gotta tell you that I cannot imagine having been anywhere else. Yeah my apartment was a little rough in terms of things breaking down a lot and it was small (when I say small I mean one small room and a tiny bathroom on the 3rd floor of a weird old house) but I ended up LOVING it — big bright window and two old guards who left me spring flowers and whose wives brought me home-cooked treats and whose grandchildren came to visit me. My students were beyond LOVELY and eager and enthusiastic and, just this morning, I have woken up to an inbox full of baby wishes and funny-sweet notes from fellow teachers and students about bringing their ‘nephew’ back to China to visit them. — Cathleen

And along with encouragement, these program veterans sent me practical advice about what to ask for:

You should really think about what kind of city you want to live in. I lived in a small city (Chengde) near a big city (Beijing). This was ideal for me. In a small city you are more submerged in the culture because there are fewer foreigners/foreign influence. You’ll also spend a lot less money because prices are cheaper and expensive foreign restaurants and bars aren’t around. However, it can be a bit boring at times! If you do want to live in a smaller city, I recommend one near a large city like Beijing, Shanghai/Nanjing, etc. This way you can get away for a weekend and go traveling. Also, you might want to consider the weather. If you hate really hot and really cold, Beijing is not the place to be — as I have found out! Anyways, bottom line: you should go for it! — Rosalie

I filled out my application, asking to be placed at a university in a small town near a big city.

The day before the deadline, I stood at Kinko’s, getting ready to FedEx it in. Terrified. I stood at one of the high tables where people staple papers and stuff envelopes, speechless and staring at my passport for a solid hour, asking myself: What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?

I’d never studied Chinese, never visited China, never been particularly interested in mooncakes or Mao Zedong, but I was on my way to China.

That same day, both of my parents mentioned to their colleagues that I’d decided to move to China. And a few hours later, a colleague of my dad’s (who was in charge of the company’s China business) and a colleague of my mom’s (who’d taught in China several years before) both emailed me, ready to answer any questions I had.

That summer, I volunteered at Berkeley Adult School, assisting in a basic English class for adults from China, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Laos, Mexico, Thailand, and many other countries. There, I learned how to talk like a teacher: Hello, my name is Leslie. It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?

Here’s a photo from a party we had in class.

dance party at berkeley adult school

I also bought a Pimsleur language program, a series of CDs with listen-and-repeat Chinese lessons. “Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén” – I can speak Chinese. “Wǒ bu huì zhōngwén” – I cannot speak Chinese.

I was diligent with these CDs. I lived in a house in Berkeley with a bunch of students and I’d play it while cooking lunch. One lesson explained the word “ma” which is like a question mark in Chinese. Like, “Nǐ huì shuō Zhōngwén ma?” – Do you speak Chinese? So, my roommate would say things like “Leslie make lunch, ma?”

Less than three months later, I was on a plane to China.

walking into jia zhi yuen

I’d love to hear your stories about your first step into living and working abroad, or any questions you might have about making this sort of leap. Leave a comment or email me (leslie at leslieforman dot com). Thanks!

From Sketches to Sailboats: Behind the Scenes

Inspired by the Business Model Canvas, Happy Startup Canvas, and other visual thinking tools, I started to sketch out my international career progression. After many sketches and conversations with fellow global citizens, here’s what it looked like:


When I met Ignacio (everyone calls him Nacho) I showed him this sketch. He opened his notebook and showed me his growing collection of sketches.

An idea popped into my head: What if we could collaborate and take the International Career Compass to another level of precision and style? I knew I wanted to use illustration rather than photos, to make this tool accessible to people from anywhere in the world that aim to live and work in any other place. Plus, it’s easier to imagine yourself in a drawing than in a long series of photos of me!

A few days later we met in a neighborhood coffee shop to discuss the possibilities. Nacho’s training in both philosophy and illustration has given him a logical way to ask big questions and answer them in pictures that leave space for imagination. He listened carefully to my vision to create an international career guide that’s practical and inspiring and makes space for each person’s imagination and life experience. Nacho explained his process: hand-drawing, scanning, fine-tuning in Illustrator.

For some concepts, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to illustrate them.

The first question is: what motivates you to embark on this adventure? I imagined this as a gust of wind filling the sails of a boat:


And I imagined the boat as a sailboat on the open sea, filled with each person’s education, experience, family and finances. I believe that uncertainty is at the core of any international career, and a boat image seems to connote a higher tolerance for uncertainty than other modes of transportation.


For other sections, I didn’t have a clear idea about how to express them visually. As you settle into a foreign country, and get accustomed to the language, culture and ways of getting things done, how does that feel? I’d come up with the phrase “local fluency” but I wasn’t sure how to take that further.

Nacho created this:


An elegant rollerblader, gliding through life. Nacho’s illustration focuses on what is most essential here: forward motion. Once you’ve gotten past the headaches of “Where to live?” and “What do I need to do at the bank?” and “How do I get the right visa?” you’re ready to glide forward.

Of course, it’s never all a smooth glide; there’s always some climbing and slipping and climbing back up again:


Nacho positioned all of these pictures into one poster that I imagined on the wall of a university career center.

Poster Career Compass Sin Texto

But when I showed it to friends and colleagues, I always needed to give a detailed explanation of each picture. The progression never truly explained itself.

When the Network of Business Language Educators invited me to speak about this tool for one of their webinars, I turned it into a SlideShare.

This project is far from done! Nacho’s illustrations will play an important role in the next iterations of this international career compass, which might include e-books and videos.

I’m incredibly grateful to Nacho for lending his unique blend of philosophy and art to this project, to transform it from a collection of scribbles and arrows into a polished and unique visual language for international career possibilities. He’s wonderful to work with: enthusiastic, talented, hardworking, collaborative! I highly recommend Nacho to anyone who is looking to express emerging ideas in a distinctive visual style.

“Really, there’s free coffee in the bank?” 4 Tips for Adjusting to “Home” After a Life-Transforming Extended Stint Abroad

Returning home after living abroad is often even harder than moving across the world. You feel like a foreigner. The supermarket selection: mindboggling, hypnotic. You can understand strangers’ conversations on the bus. The world feels static. You have a million stories to tell but no one wants to hear them. You feel alone. Trust me, you’re not.

I’ve experienced two severe bouts of reverse culture shock, and I’m sure I’ll hit another as soon as I move back to California. (No, I’m not sure when. I get asked this question every day! Edit: I moved back to California in July 2014.)

After Chile, Back to School

At the end of 2005, I finished my year studying abroad in Chile.

As I packed my suitcases, I tried summarize my experience in one sentence: “Chile’s a country of contrast between rich and poor, traditional and modern, liberal and conservative, city and country side and as an international student, I was able to see the extremes of all of these different contrasts often in the same day.”

In December I left Chilean summer and landed in California winter.

I overcommitted myself. I needed two classes to graduate, but signed up for five, including a social entrepreneurship seminar, a student-taught women’s leadership course, and ballet.

About a month into the semester, burnout hit me. I missed Chile. I rushed between classes and activities and internships, fueled by fear of missing out, exhausted.

A few months later, I graduated, right on schedule. I marched in cap and gown to celebrate my degree in Latin American Studies. Then I moved to China. (Here’s that story!)

After China, Hometown Adventure

In December 2007, after a year and a half in China, I moved back to San Francisco.

As I packed my bags, I tried to summarize my experience into one sentence and came up with one word.

“Harmonious.” A word I’d heard many times in China. “Build a Harmonious Society” is a Chinese government slogan that refers to hierarchy, stability, peace and respect. This was the topic for a student speech competition I’d judged and a favorite buzzword for Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.

But when I arrived home, I realized that this convoluted story about “harmonious” was not what anybody wanted to hear.

When people asked me about China, I said: “Fun, interesting. Lots of people.” And then we’d move on to another topic.

I’d say things like, “Wow, there’s free coffee at Bank of America, and you can understand exactly what I need and help me in five minutes! I fully expected to be here all afternoon!” and “Wow, Trader Joe’s has so many choices. And I can read all the labels!”

From my previous re-entry experience, I knew it was going to be hard. I needed time to adjust before taking on responsibility. I traveled around the US to visit friends and family. I spent time with my parents.

Three months later, I found a new job in San Francisco. I treated my hometown as a new adventure. I’d grown up mostly in the suburbs, so I didn’t know many neighborhoods in the city. I moved into a flat with people I’d met on Craigslist. I started dating.

This adventurous attitude helped me move forward. I didn’t try to go back to the same life I’d had before my trip. I created a new life rather than settling into my past.

4 Tips for Going Home After Living, Working, or Studying Abroad

(1) Give yourself time to adjust.

There are lots of subtle, mental shifts that you don’t necessarily recognize until you’ve lived them, but if you’re in the supermarket saying “Omigod I can read all the labels!” you should give yourself that moment to pause and think about it rather than jumping right ahead to “I have five minutes to buy all these things on this list.” Give yourself time to recalibrate.

(2) Your friends and family probably don’t want to hear all the details.

This isn’t because they don’t love you, or because they don’t care about you, but it may be because they can’t relate. An analogy: one of my best friends earned her PhD in biophysics. If we were to sit down for coffee and she were to talk for an hour about all of her experiments, I probably wouldn’t understand it all. She and I are better off talking about things we have in common: friends from high school, what her sister’s up to, our love lives, a bit about what we’ve been doing since we last met. But it can’t be a monologue. If it is a monologue, it is not really a conversation.

(3) Don’t go back to the same living arrangements as before your transformative international experience.

It’s important to re-negotiate the major relationships in your life, as well as where you’re living and how you’re spending your days. You’ve changed. It’s important to figure out ways to acknowledge and account for these changes. It’s easier said than done, and it takes time.

(4) Get professional help.

Working with a counselor who’s familiar with re-entry issues — or a career coach that can help you translate your international experiences to communicate clear value in the local labor market — can be helpful. Cate Brubaker has excellent resources about Re-Entry Reality on her website, Small Planet Studio.

Re-entry is not about re-adjusting to your past life. As you figure out how to merge the person you were at home with the person you became while abroad, you’ll create something new.