Manuel Marcel Murrenhoff
Expat Life in Africa vs. Life in Asia
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Africa. Asia. Both begin with an A. Both are home to many emerging countries. Both are so different from the Western World. Both share numerous similarities and yet are so different. Africa and Asia have been gifting me with the best years of my life. I feel it’s time to put my thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the right words so that you can relate.
For those who do not know me personally: I lived in Vietnam and traveled in different parts of Asia before moving to Kenya and then Nigeria. Vietnam surely does not stand for the whole of Asia. Kenya and Nigeria do not stand for the whole of Africa. Nevertheless, I believe my experiences are a suitable indicator of differences and similarities in these two fascinating continents.
And like always: My blog reflects my subjective viewpoints and does not claim to contain the universal truth.
Let’s take a look at different angles of life and work in Africa and Asia.
Beautiful Kenyan Coast
The cultural differences from the West to Africa and Asia are both substantial and have a significant influence on daily life.
Both African and Asian cultures are very family-centered. Family is the nucleus of most and decisions are mostly taken with the family in mind. In the West we have a stronger feeling of individualism and feel entitled to live life by our means. This freedom and responsibility to shape one’s path is still a rare occasion in most African societies. In comparison to Western cultures, the term family includes cousins, cousins of cousins, and their respective cousins. It’s big. That’s how most Africans and Asians manage to have a vast family network around the world.
Both African and Asian cultures are patriarchal. This is a very important aspect as it shapes most aspects of life and how people communicate and engage with each other. For Westerners, this can be quite a chunk to chew on. From personal experience, I can tell that it is quite a challenge for me to have deep and meaningful conversations with advocates of traditional gender roles.
If urged to come to a conclusion I would still say that the far-east Asian cultures are even more different from Western culture than the African one. My own theory is that the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism – both concepts that the West is mostly ignorant of – in combination with the very different languages are the major reasons for the big cultural gap. In Africa, most countries have dominant monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity. Additionally, most countries have Latin-derived languages as their official languages besides tribal ones. These two aspects create a certain understanding of ‘common ground’.
While I agree with the saying ‘Culture is everything and everything is culture’ I also believe that we humans connect on an even deeper level than culture. If we would strip away our culture, ethnicity, and upbringing, we would see what unifies us all: Our needs, desires, hopes, fears, and dreams. Focusing on those is like finding the signal in an ocean of noise. It allows you to connect on a deeper, more mature, and genuine level with people from different backgrounds.
I still get nostalgic when thinking of the freedom of movement in Vietnam. Going somewhere, anywhere? Just wing swing yourself on your bike and drive at any night and day time. Hungry after a long night out? You and your crew form a convoy and off you go to your favorite street food place in the late-night or even early morning hours. Nothing can beat the feeling of a refreshing night breeze caressing your face after the hectic and smog of the day has settled and you are cruising through Ho Chi Minh City’s empty streets.
Saigon, Dragon from the East
Need an escape from the buzzing city? Take your bike out for a road trip, jump on a comfortable sleeping bus or take a flight. Numerous domestic destinations are waiting for you to be explored.
I always felt energized when leaving home sailing to new shores seeking my fortune. The never-ending hustle and bustle in Saigon’s concrete jungle constantly charged my batteries. It was as if the poison-loaded smog was infusing my blood with a secret substance that kept me up on my feet. No small side hem (Vietnamese term for a small street, basically big enough to fit one motorbike) that wouldn’t be worth exploring: always eager to explore one of Saigon’s hidden gems and curiosities of daily street life.
Exploring the endless streets of Saigon
Between my international assignments, I usually come back home for some time to prepare for my new role and bond with my family, friends, and my home country. I am not sure if it is the comfort of me being home with my family or the missing honking, chaos, and exoticness. While I do enjoy the home leave in my comfort zone, I naturally tend to fall into a certain lethargy. Once I am back ‘out there’, I feel the energy rushing back into my veins, fueling my curiosity, ambition, and spirit of adventure.
Is there a place that can top Asia when it comes to energy? Yes, there is - Africa. This sheer landmass is the epicenter of energy. There is no way around it. When being in Africa, I feel closest to the origin of life. Is it Africa’s mystical spirit or is it simply my projection since I once read that our human species evolved in Africa? Whatever it may be it doesn’t change the sensation I feel when being in Africa. This continent is so extreme in all its facades. Its people are so vocal and expressive with their bodies and tongues. Its tribal cultures are so colorful, diverse, and unique. Dance, music, and expression are everywhere at any time. Nigeria and especially Lagos is the origin of many of the most influential faces of the African music and culture scene. Even all across the continent towards the East, Kenyans are vibing to Nigerian Afrobeats mixed in between their local Swahili records. Words cannot nearly express this sensation. Being able to witness this is an experience that cannot be compensated by any means. It is an experience itself.
I love progress and for me personally, progress is the essence of life. So it doesn’t come surprisingly that I have great admiration for the progress that happened not only in phoenix out of the ashes Japan post World War 2, the industrialization miracle South Korea slightly later, and China’s parabolic rise as of the 90s but in many other Asian countries. There is no doubt that many Asian countries have comparatively high homogeneity in contrast to most of Africa’s nation-states. This among other manifold reasons has led to rather stable environments, which have attracted foreign direct investments, fuelled local manufacturing and R&D. While the metropolitan cities of China have already outpaced their Western counterparts with self-developed technologies, Vietnam is still at an earlier stage. Here progress takes predominately shape in the successful implementation of imported technologies. Definitively a good spot to be for progress and technology enthusiasts.
Africa is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have ridiculous population growth in combination with an incredibly low median age. Nigeria alone has more than 200 million inhabitants with a median age of 18 years. Africa is theoretically the perfect playground for any economy of scale. If there wouldn’t be the constant shadow of political instability, corruption, tribal clashes, and exploitation cast over this continent of possibilities. Africa – and Nigeria is a good representation in that regard – is a perfect real-life example of how opportunities always correlate with risk. It is the imperfection that creates Africa’s very unique charm. And this charm attracts adventures and fortune seekers like myself. While progress is definitely more visible in Asia, I do believe in the power of sleeping giant Africa.
Lagos' Unique Beauty
Asia’s metropolitan cities are huge and comparatively safe excluding a handful of exceptions like Manila and parts of Jakarta. Let’s take Vietnam as an example. You will be fine if the traffic doesn’t kill you in the short run and the constant smog infusion doesn’t let you die from cancer in the long run. Yes, thugs on motorbikes will try to snatch your phone and you will face pickpockets in places of crowded madness such as Bui Vien Backpacker’s Street.
Africa is a different ball game and Nigeria is definitely a top player in the Champions League. Does that translate into ‘you can’t enjoy living here and have to live in constant fear?’ Definitively not! Yes, the statistics do not look rosy and the media does their share to fuel the fear. If you manage to adapt to the environment, you will learn more about life and practical real-life business than any MBA can ever teach you. Remember, Darwin thought us the ‘survival of the fittest in the sense of ‘survival of those who can adapt best’. So, no motorbike cruises at night (or day), no cross-country expeditions on your own, and instead increased level of suspicion with a pinch of Nigerian street smartness.
Lagos at Night
Ease of Living
If you consider moving to either Asia or Africa, expect challenges in your everyday life that you have not seen forthcoming in your wildest dreams. Especially when living in emerging countries even mundane activities like grocery shopping, crossing the street, or ordering food become exciting everyday adventures. You literally feel like Alice in Wonderland. After four years living in emerging countries, I got used to the different dynamics, and still, I am amazed by the curiosities and experiences I am exposed to every day.
Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.
While at home, days, people’s behavior and events appear mostly predictable, you never know what is popping up in the exhilarating East of Asia and the Wild Wild West of Nigeria. Long story short: You do not leave the comfort of your well-protected nest in the search for an even more comforting life out there. You won’t find it. What you’ll find instead is a ton of eye-opening experiences and unforgettable memories.
The Wild Wild West
Cost of Living
If you have never been to Africa you might think that the cost of living is very favorable. Eh eh, wrong! The cost of living in Africa is much higher than most places in Asia (excluding Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong). The reason for this is that you are literally forced to live in a parallel world, which is catered to the 1%. The pricing for a safe living environment is ridiculous and stands in no relation to the quality you will receive. Especially in Nigeria, you are already blessed when you have a functioning power backup system (power outages happen every day), a reliable Internet connection, and a tranquil, safe mold-free living environment without rodent and insect infestation. Another important aspect of inflated prices is Africa’s weak manufacturing setup. Most goods that you are using for your everyday life are imported and their prices are highly inflated.
Sure, potentially you could live absolutely ‘local’ and save on a lot of expenses but in contrast to Asia, this decision is not so much a question of pure convenience but personal safety and health. Africa can quickly gift you with armed robbers paying you a visit. Or you catch some really nasty stuff called Cholera or Typhoid because the street food vendor turned a blind eye on the difference between drinking and sewage water. As an experienced backpacker myself I enjoy staying local as much as possible and in most places it works just fine. And yet again – Africa is a different ball game. It is not a coincidence that any local who can afford it enters and stays in the parallel world. And like anywhere in the world – trust the locals’ judgment when it comes to local matters.
Another aspect that that changes from your backpacking self who survives on 20 Dollars a day and becoming a leader within your organization with responsibilities and expectations put upon him/her. The organization sending you abroad supports you with a comfortable framework since they expect your 100% performance nothing less. That is the primary reason you are being assigned internationally. This given trust and responsibility should be an integral part of your inner compass.
Putting all together
Africa and Asia both are incredibly interesting and rewarding continents to gain intercultural experience working and living abroad. If you have the opportunity I recommend giving both a shot. Anyways, take the first opportunity that comes along and fits your personal and professional path. No matter if it is Africa or Asia – Equipped with a strong mind and an open heart you will thrive in either place.