This is one of the 3 special interviews – an entrepreneurial edition – prepared within a project funded from the European Social Fund, supported by the Visegrad Fund and prepared in the cooperation with the Human Rights League.
He was born in Malaysia, studied and worked in USA and moved to „exotic“ Central Europe to make a big change in his life. Having background in performing arts and theater, he started his career in Slovakia as an English teacher. Shortly he managed to launch his own company offering not only English teaching but also providing creative classes in speech, drama and improv and organizing arts and culture events for public. We talked to Hon Chong who revealed his Bratislava story to us, told us about his beginnings, biggest struggles, integration and how he feels about living in Slovakia.
Can you tell us about your background and what brought you to Slovakia?
I was born in Malaysia, spent my formative years in the States where I studied theater and film, and for a short time worked in the TV production field. In my mid 20s, I was going through major difficulties and changes in my life and I decided to travel and do something crazy before it was too late. I moved to Central Europe – first to the Czech Republic. From there, I came to Bratislava and I have been here for 12 years.
Why did you choose Europe? And why did you end up in Slovakia?
Europe was always very exotic for me. When it comes to Slovakia, it was not really a decision I planned to make. It just happened! I mean, life is so unexpected. You think that by this or that time, you would be doing something or be somewhere, and you end up at a completely different place doing something you’d never think you’d ever do ☺ For instance, I never thought I would be an English teacher. Actually I never wanted to be a teacher. Yet, this became my first job in Europe. I thought I would teach for a year or two, try it out, and see what happens. I started teaching in Brno and I found myself liking it a lot, to my own surprise. So much that it has become one of the main parts of my current business as well.
When I first came to Slovakia, it was actually just for a summer job in Nitra, while I was still living in Brno. I visited Bratislava but I didn’t have an intention to stay. But, I happened to get a job here with one language school that offered to help me with my visa. For that they made me sign a contract where I had to commit to stay and teach at their school for a specific amount of time. So I was kind of tied to them. When I look at it now, I would say some of the conditions stated in the contract were unfair towards employees. But back then I was in my „adventure mood“ and I told myself, why not, let’s give this a try.
So first you were employed. Why did you decide to become independent, what led you to this step?
I started freelancing after I left my full time job with a language school. I started my own business, applied for the „živnosť“ or Slovak trade license and never look back since. It was better for me in terms of having more control of my own schedule and income.
So what is it exactly that your current business is about?
I have my own learning centre and one of its activities includes teaching English in companies. It is not only about that though. This is a center for creative courses for all ages. A few years ago I also founded a non-profit organization called ISAC – International Society for Arts and Culture through which we run the projects Story Nights and Funnylicious – English language improv theater.
Was it easy for you to get used to working here? What was the environment back then and how has it changed since?
It was the golden era for language schools when I came here. They were very profitable because everyone wanted to learn English. A lot of schools started popping up everywhere, with high demand for courses from individuals and companies. This is different now. Back then, it was all about money – many of the schools didn’t really care about education, just wanted to take advantage of the situation. The owners were not educators themselves, they just wanted to profit from what they considered to be an „easy business.“ Most of those schools went out of business quickly though. The schools now have to face a fierce competition and have to constantly improve the quality of their classes. I am actually happy that things are changing in this direction.
What were your biggest challenges when you were setting your own freelancing?
The paperwork and learning about the process itself was very difficult. I think it is also the same for Slovaks trying to set up their businesses, too, but for me being a non-EU person, I felt like this was almost impossible. I remember I had to get a lot of documents from various government offices; background checks, criminal records, social insurance, etc. It was definitely a lot of bureaucracy.
Did you get some help?
I needed help from my Slovak friends, even my Slovak students. You really need a Slovak person who knows what to do, where to go, who is very persistent, who does not give up easily. Someone who knows how to work around the bureaucracy, who has „good“ contacts and who is patient as well. It took me literally months just to gather all the required paperwork. When I wanted to set up my non-profit organization, ISAC, I hired a lawyer. I just didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy. Setting up a non profit is different from creating a freelancing license. It requires drafting a constitution of what your non-profit is about, and also on an yearly basis you need to do some paperwork to register yourself to be eligible for 2 % tax donation. Luckily, these days I have Slovak volunteers with the organization who help with that now.
How did you find your clients at the beginning?
Finding a job as an English teacher was actually very easy when I came to Bratislava in mid 2000. People came and approached me – at schools, even in cafes – they were desperate to learn English! I also got contacts through recommendations. You need to be resourceful – actually with any business. If you are a foreigner and want to make living this way, you can’t be shy. You need to know how to network and build your clients.
Do you have any struggles at this point, having lived here for 12 years?
My struggles I think are very similar to those of the locals. We all need to go through the unpleasantness of bureaucracy when it comes to dealing with government offices. Simple things like changing the address on your ID requires long waiting at the foreign police, etc. I think in 2018, it should not be so difficult to do simple changes like that. I need to say that if I spoke Slovak better, it would make my life here easier, and I am aware of that. It would open doors for some activities which I am now only capable of doing in English because of the language barrier, like in the field of performing arts.
When you don’t take into consideration the language barrier, how would you say opening business in your country is different compared to here, from the administrative and legal perspective?
I have no experience with setting up a business in Malaysia or the States but I can tell you every country has its own bureaucracy. The big difference is that there, all the information is accessible online. In the USA most information you need is available online and easily accessible. It is clear what you need to do and the requirements you need to fulfill. Here in Slovakia, even the Slovaks don’t know what to do or how to fulfill the requirements, which department to go to and so on. A few years ago when I had to update my „živnosť“ due to changes to my residency, I was sent to the customs office despite the fact that my business has nothing to do with importing or exporting goods. The people from the office told me it was just a required step.
An important person a freelancer or entrepreneur needs to find quickly here is an accountant. Find a good and reliable accountant as soon as you decide to do business here. In the States, you can easily do your own taxes through a simple software. Not that it’s something I would enjoy doing but it’s possible to do your own accounting unless you’re running a big multinational company. Here, it’s impossible. I don’t know what I’d do without my accountant, with the complicated tax law and regulations changing so frequently.
How do you feel as a foreigner living in this country? Do you think it’s easy to integrate among Slovaks?
When I first came here, there were not so many foreigners. The number of foreigners in Slovakia have grown a lot over the last 10 years. I remember I would get a lot of stares in the street back then because it was unusual to see a foreigner. Nowadays, I’d only get stares if I have something strange on my face like bits of tissue sticking out of my nose. A lot of foreigners come due to the ever growing international companies setting up their offices here. The thing is, I have a feeling many of these big international companies don’t do enough to help their foreign employees to integrate into their new host country. The topic of culture shock should be addressed by companies that bring foreign workers to Slovakia. Culture shock is a reality every person moving to a new country goes through. I’m not aware of any international company that tackles the issue of culture shock and other intercultural issues that their multicultural workforce might face. Many new foreigners who come here experience living in a new country for the very first time being freshly out of school and have to quickly figure out what to do by themselves. So then it is not surprising to me that foreigners, after the „honeymoon phase“ feel frustrated, lost and alone.
Having said that, it’s possible to build strong and deep friendship with Slovaks. You will have to first earn their trust.
So how do foreigners solve this?
They stick together. If you are Italian, you will look for an Italian community. If you are Greek, you are probably going to become friends with your fellow Greeks who have lived here for longer and can help you out. It’s similar to Slovaks living abroad who stick with people from their own country. It’s part of survival I guess.
Do you consider Bratislava a safe place?
I don’t have the feeling of being unsafe but then again, I’m not someone who goes out a lot – I’m not a party animal. I don’t like clubbing / bar hopping anywhere in the world. I don’t feel comfortable being inside a small space with only one exit and surrounded by lots of people who are intoxicated or high on drugs. It’s a recipe for disaster.
What about the living standards here compared to Malaysia or USA for example?
The living standard is changing but it’s really hard to compare Slovakia, Malaysia and the States. These countries are very different – like comparing apples and oranges. It depends on what you want in life. The US is great in some respects and bad in others. If you have a good job that covers your health and dental care, then you won’t have much to worry about. If you do not have a good job that covers your health and dental, it is super expensive to pay out of your own pocket. If you get ill in the US without proper health insurance, it’s a nightmare. Higher education is not free there, students have to take out loans to study. So it depends really on what you are looking for. It is very subjective.
People I meet abroad always ask me why I choose to live in Slovakia. But here’s the thing. Is Germany or Denmark or any other country going to be better for me, for what I want to do? Some country may be perfect for some people and horrible for others. Living in a country is very much like being in a relationship. You need to ask yourself: is this a positive, healthy relationship that brings me joy and fulfillment? Do I see my future here?
What would you say are positives of being a foreign entrepreneur? Do you think you are in an advantaged position in some way?
Yes when it comes to teaching English. Let me explain this. Many Slovaks were taught English by Slovak teachers in the past and they very often had a very bad experience. I think the whole educational system was set up for local teachers to fail: they were not trained properly from the very start – outdated materials, theory based methodology and lack of practical training while in university. Not to mention many of them were not trained to be English teachers. Most were asked to take over English lessons in their schools due to shortage of English teachers. And a lot of these teachers were paid horribly. Many good teachers with excellent language skills choose to work for the private sectors that offer much higher salary. This whole situation creates a big prejudice that Slovak teachers are not good enough, and then people prefer to go to foreign teachers for lessons. But it is not true that all native speakers are good English teachers at all.
At some schools, you can see that the Slovaks teach English grammar and writing and then comes the native speaker to do the conversation part. I do not agree with this process. Once you are a good English teacher, you know how to explain grammar and also you know how to have a conversation. You can do everything. Whether you are Slovak or foreigner. This for me is an old school way of teaching and puts the locals into a disadvantaged position. All classes should be balanced. I think it is sad that the system is failing the Slovaks and their future – the kids who are taught this way.
So back to your question and the advantages for me being a foreigner. I‘m fortunate to have acquired many skills from my theater and film studies that I separate me from my fellow colleagues. I apply my knowledge and skills when I work with my clients who most of them require communication skills at work. You need to have charisma, communication skills and the right attitude to be a good teacher. You need to know how to reach your students/ clients and connect with them.
Would you have any advice for foreigners who want to become entrepreneurs in Slovakia?
If you want to be an entrepreneur in another country, you are usually the type of person who is not happy with just the „ordinary“ things. You are a risk taker, adaptable and adventurous. You have a set of skills that set you apart from many people. If you put in effort to learn the local language, it will help a lot with making your life in your new country easier. Don’t be shy, network, talk to people, be kind and friendly, and just work hard on those things that you are passionate about.
Do you have any interesting observations to being a foreigner?
I notice there’s a lot of confusion around the words refugee, immigrant and migrant. For many locals, even for some Slovak journalists, the word migrant is connected to refugees. Among the foreigners, most of us would also not use the term migrant. Even for foreigners who live in Slovakia permanently. The preferred term seems to be ‚expat.‘
Once during a discussion on the topic of migrants with my students, I mentioned that I’m also a migrant and their response was „but you’re not a migrant like those other migrants.“ That got me thinking. Perhaps there’s a lot of confusion with the terms migrants, expats, foreigners and refugees.
Another thing that fascinates me is that the Slovak word for foreigner – “cudzinec” – has two meanings – a foreigner and a stranger. In Slovak, it’s the same word to describe someone you don’t know and someone from a different country.
How do you perceive life in Slovakia? Have you considered moving to another country?
The whole Slovakia experience has been life-changing for me in many ways. I’ve learned so much. Right now, I am not thinking about the location anymore. At my age, I am thinking about the work I am doing and about the goals I want to achieve. There’s a saying in English, if you want ships to come, you must first build a port. You can say I’m building one here, not literally of course, haha. For now I am happy in Slovakia.
EVENT INVITATION: Meet Hon and other foreigners talking about their experience live – at a special Christmas event on 12.12.2018 :)
This project is funded from the European Social Fund, supported by the Visegrad Fund and prepared in the cooperation with the Human Rights League.
You can read the Slovak version of the interview here.
Author: Maria Kecsoova
Photo credits: Zuzana Mytna