Are you an Accountant who wants to quit your corporate job and do something unconventional…but scared?
Then this article is for you.
Today we have Craig Lai King a qualified Chartered Accountant who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo and preconceptions of this title.
Immediately after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant Craig quit his Investment Banking job and went all the way to China to teach English!
Presently working at New Development Bank (NDB), Shanghai.
Here’s his story.
My Journey from South Africa to China
I am Craig Lai King a fourth-generation South African born Chinese. I grew up in Johannesburg and studied at the University of Cape Town.
Growing up in South Africa has meant that I have inherited its culture but have always been proud and mindful of my Chinese heritage.
I grew up during a time when South Africa was just beginning its journey as a democratic nation.
I experienced the inevitable teething issues any country would face in the early years of a country adjusting to its new age of democracy.
However, my parents, having had to face the injustices of Apartheid, taught me at a young age that only through diligence and dedication to continuous self-development could life’s challenges be overcome.
I was highly fortunate to have grown up in an environment where my parents provided me with the platforms and opportunities to learn and develop. These lessons I have never forgotten and attempted to emulate throughout my life.
Becoming a Chartered Accountant
As I approached the end of my school career, I was filled with equal measures of excitement and apprehension as I considered my future.
At the outset, I wish I could say I chose the CA out of a deep passion for accounting but at that age, only the lucky few can say they know exactly what they want to do.
Rather, I allowed myself to be guided by my interest in business and researched which degree would pair well with business.
I also did a lot of internships and vacation work while still in college which gave me an opportunity to engage and learn from professionals in the workplace which helped in making future career decisions. It also helped build my CV which is important when starting your career.
I also sought the advice of people within the industry which ultimately led me to pursue the CA qualification.
Having never done accounting in high school, I found it frustrating as it took me longer than my peers to understand certain principles and I couldn’t understand why.
I teetered on a knife’s edge of giving up but for some reason, Winston Churchill’s quote of “If you’re going through hell, keep going” came to mind. So into the fire and brimstone of accounting, I continued.
Although the remaining journey wasn’t without its challenges, from that day I realised that there would be no getting away from hard work.
The more diligently I worked, the easier the work became and the better the results I was able to achieve. Imagine that.
I completed my articles at Nedbank, one of South Africa’s largest financial institutions.
I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2016 from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).
Moving to China from South Africa as a Freshly Qualified CA
I have always been immensely proud of my Chinese heritage and so have felt a strong affinity to travel to China, immerse myself in the culture and learn Mandarin.
When I was in my final year of articles (early 2016), a friend of mine who had recently qualified as an attorney, decided to travel the world while teaching English.
I admired his courage and daring and realised that the longer I stayed in the corporate world, the opportunity to explore and do something completely against the grain would only become more and more difficult.
After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in Dec’2016, I found myself at a critical crossroad in my life.
The one path would lead me to continue climbing the corporate ladder while the other allowed me to pursue personal goals I had set myself during my university years.
That is when I decided to move to China and explore a different world and culture.
Finding a Job Opportunity as a Teacher in China
I initially searched for jobs within finance but finally decided to go ahead and take the opportunity to teach English in China.
I felt that to truly take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I wanted to push myself as far out of my comfort zone as possible. So, I not only changed my environment but my industry as well.
While still in South Africa, I applied to EF, a globally recognised international learning institution to start teaching in March of the following year.
As a world leader in international education, I wanted to be associated with a company that would help add weight to my CV even during my short hiatus from banking.
Additionally, their reputation gave me comfort that they would help during the visa application process and provide a community for when I would first arrive in China.
Challenges to Overcome
At the time of making the decision of moving to China, I could not, and did not, anticipate how significant a decision this would be.
The most difficult moments came when I felt doubt over what I had done and began to fear the potential outcomes of my actions.
Doubting my decisions can be attributed to our ever-increasing interconnected world, where it’s easy to get distracted by what others are doing and accomplishing.
The pressures of social media at one point became disruptive and almost destructive as I began to question my decision halfway through.
I had to keep reminding myself not to focus on what I was sacrificing, but rather what I was gaining.
I took a step back and re-assessed what I was trying to achieve, let go of my ego and allowed myself the freedom to not actively compare myself against others and continue to travel the journey that felt right for me.
My China adventure has not only given me a different lens through which to view the world but also provided me a clearer perspective into what I considered important when making my next career decision.
Getting Back into the Banking Industry in China
After almost 18 months of moving away from Financial Services and working as a Teacher in China, made me appreciate that I had a genuine interest in the banking industry.
That’s when I decided to look for opportunities in the Banking industry in China.
My decision to return to financial services felt like it was truly on my terms and not because I had to follow the norm and do so.
Serendipitously, a friend of mine had just moved to China to work at the New Development Bank (NDB) Shanghai headquarters and began introducing me to some of his colleagues.
I found myself in the right place at the right time.
Through my conversations with NDB employees and coupled with my research of the bank, it became clear that my personal and professional goals aligned with the strategy on which the institution was founded.
And that’s how I took up an opportunity to work at NDB, Shanghai.
Best Way to Find a Job in China as an Expat
- The Chinese job market, especially within financial services is highly competitive. Therefore, leveraging your network is key.
- Seeking an international secondment through your current firm, making yourself irreplaceable during your time and expressing a desire to continue working there will provide a good chance to being offered a permanent position.
- Another avenue is to seek a strong referral from a senior manager within your company when applying overseas as this will go a long way to securing a job opportunity in China.
- Business networks, in general, can be extremely powerful but especially so within a Chinese context.
- If you are already in China and looking for other job opportunities, making contact with your country’s embassy for a list of companies from your home country operating within China is also a good starting point.
Companies Hiring Finance Expats
- The skills and expertise of accountants should always be in demand.
- From a technical standpoint, there will always be finance and accounting roles within any industry, however, the CA qualification, particularly the way it is structured in South Africa, is meant to equip you with a sound understanding of systems, risk mitigation and general business logic.
- I believe CAs can greatly add value as project managers and leaders regardless of sector or industry.
- The greatest challenge of seeking an opportunity in China would be the language barrier.
- From a business perspective, being able to speak Mandarin is a huge advantage and if you are seeking a local job opportunity it is essential. However, some companies may adopt English as its business language, which predominantly include international companies such as NDB.
Living in Shanghai, China as an Expat
I have always enjoyed the dynamism that comes with living in a big city and when deciding which city to move to in China, one doesn’t have to look much further than Shanghai as a leading example of the country’s rapid economic development.
The Jingan district is a popular area for foreigners and so finding international-friendly services and shops around this area is seldom a problem.
Contemporary luxuries and modern-day indulgences are all offered by Shanghai but this also adds to Shanghai being one of the most expensive cities to live in within China.
Being one of the most populous countries in the world, understandably, rental prices are expensive especially if I compare it to South Africa.
However, if you embrace the local lifestyle and eat local cuisine (which I find tasty, nutritious and affordable) it’s not difficult to have money at the end of the month to save.
The public transport system is highly sophisticated so as long your apartment is located near one of the major subway lines, it is convenient to navigate the city.
“Nothing ventured nothing gained” while being a complete cliché, is something I have always attempted to integrate in my life.
Any experience is valuable as it will educate you more about what you like or don’t like.
My move abroad has proved to be a pivotal moment in my life and set me on a path I had never before considered and for that I will always be grateful.
One of my greatest learnings was whatever decision you take, see it through to its absolute completion and be completely unapologetic about it as this will provide the self-assurance required to live in the moment of your decisions.
Key Takeaways from my journey
- Living in China gave me pause to think about the scale of business outside of my carefully curated world in South Africa.
- My foray into education (teaching in China) provided clarity that my next job should incorporate elements of social and economic impact.
- Finally, my hiatus from banking made me appreciate that I had a genuine interest in the banking industry. Given all of the above, my move into development banking made complete sense.
Now It’s Your Turn…
Have you considered moving to China? Let us know with your comments below. You can connect with me on LinkedIn at Craig Lai King.