Although the people of Flanders are usually characterised as home-lovers and eager to own their own house, every year thousands of Belgians try their luck abroad. Their motives vary: work, studies, love. For those who aspire to a long-term stay outside Europe, the highly regarded Belgian social security system is something they would rather not abandon. The good news is that there is no need to do so.
Johnny Browaeys also sees the advantages of taking the leap into the unknown, even while living in a complex society. And with carefree social coverage as a nest egg, thanks to the Overseas Social Security (OSZ).
Johnny had been living and working in China since 2003 until the pandemic put an abrupt end to it. As a bio-engineer with a background in Western sciences, he developed a passion for ancient Chinese knowledge and wisdom. He immersed himself in the local business culture, specialised in innovation and to this day focuses, among other things, on the resilience of companies working with or in China. He delivers integrated solutions and pioneers in new partnerships. In this way, our fellow countryman is a driving force behind various initiatives that focus on inter-cultural cooperation and sustainable innovation.
Moving to China was not an impulsive decision for Johnny. He rolled into his expat journey by coincidence. After a motorbike accident in early 2000, he was forced to lie motionless for months. "When I got tired of staring at the ceiling, I read Wild Swans by Yung Chang." It literally opened up a new world that fascinated him immensely.
In addition, an accidental encounter with a Chinese student precipitated his love for China. "Our first meeting was quite funny, in a typically Chinese way. It was a hot day and I offered her a drink twice but not three times. She said no twice. Consequently she went thirsty. Chinese culture is different and requires patience, as in needing to ask something three times before you can expect someone to open up."
Shortly after his recovery, Johnny left for China with his then girlfriend. "Our house was sold, my parents got the car and friends were invited to take whatever they could use."
The pandemic put an abrupt end to his expat journey. After 18 years, Johnny returned to Belgium with hardly any possessions. When he arrived at the airport, he was met by some friends and taken to an empty flat. "Only 36 hours later I had everything I needed, including little forks and spoons. That reminded me of what my mother used to say: 'Good things happen to those who do the right thing.' Encounters are a common thread throughout my life, especially in China."
Johnny looks back on his expat adventure with great satisfaction. But he also points out that there is a lot involved in such a journey. The most important rule Johnny likes to impart is that you should not overthink it. "Plan how you want to do it, but don't go into detail, because you will always find a reason not to do it. Your plan serves as a guidance, but don't let it paralyse you." In addition, he acknowledges the feeling that foreign countries do not necessarily feel familiar - especially at the beginning - but it is important to be both flexible and curious at all times. "Curiosity is the strongest trigger for learning, connecting and adapting."
Johnny himself feels like "a snail that always carries its sense of home wherever it goes". The Overseas Social Security helped him in all this. The link to Belgium gives expats a sense of security from the beginning of their expat journey until their return to Belgium. "My social security was first taken care of by my employer. He registered me with the Overseas Social Security." But when Johnny became self-employed, it really dawned on him: now he had to take charge of his social protection himself. Fortunately, he could still join the Overseas Social Security.
Broadening the view
Johnny sees an expat experience as an essential learning opportunity. "If I was in charge, I would introduce a country rotation. I find it fascinating how foreign experiences broaden your outlook. It gives you a different perspective on life. When you open up, you see opportunities and opportunities come your way."
What resounds most in Johnny's life is his boundless resilience and motivation to achieve his dreams. The first company in China where he was able to work stopped recruiting after a certain time. "Because I could no longer work as an expat with my employer at the time, my expat adventure really began: I started working for a local company and got a local contract with local clauses." In this position, Johnny had the opportunity to travel from the east of China, which was familiar to him, to the unknown west. "My Chinese colleagues were not interested in the project in Chengdu, so I applied myself in 2005. It became another leap into the unknown for me."
"Change led to constantly seeking out new experiences, and in 2012 even to set up my own social enterprise, e8Resources, which in one and a half years reached 25,000 people, had 35 projects and established five companies in the greentech sector. I couldn't have done this without my previous experiences."
Currently, Johnny works for a Chinese organisation with 300 incubators worldwide. This in an innovation centre that has just been established to speed up the interaction between China and Europe. The focus is on accelerated growth through technology and partnerships.
Johnny is a firm believer in intercultural collaboration and sees it as an important part of the open attitude of expats. "Sometimes you have to go through a more difficult phase to be able to look each other in the eye. If you only focus on the differences, you won't get there. I always try to set aside conscious and unconscious prejudices. For me, interculturalism is related to life wisdom. What really interests you, is absorbed at superspeed." For example, the language issue was not a problem for him. "Normally it takes 10,000 hours to learn something new, but with the right motivation you can cut that learning time in half. So by speaking Mandarin, I was able to speed up the integration process and strengthen the trust among my social circle." Johnny is also a proponent of job crafting, whereby you shape your job yourself. "I don't need a manual to do things. I like to create my own job. If you find something that is valuable to an employer, then you have a job. You are much more valuable if you do certain things on your own initiative and motivation than if you only do what you are asked to do."
The power of meditating
China left an enormous impression on Johnny and fostered not only his professional, but also his personal growth. "In China, I discovered the book by Xuanyuan Huangdi also known as the Yellow Emperor, who was at the origin of traditional Chinese medicine. It gives a holistic view on health, where body and mind are one and part of nature."
This book taught Johnny more about internal communication in the body, with meditation as an important concept to promote 'insight and creativity'. "It taught me a lot. Since then I have understood why some people are happy as leaders and why others find their happiness as followers." From that holistic principle, he found that understanding your own strengths can contribute to your health. "Physical health is not separate from personal growth." The time-honoured principle of "a healthy mind in a healthy body" resonates. "These insights come in handy in my professional life, but also in finding a balance between life, work, family and society."
Types of expat
According to Johnny, there are three types of expat: those who return home because their new expat country takes too much energy, those who find a balance in their new country of work and finally those who are constantly looking for new opportunities and thus systematically raise their energy level. The latter therefore get the most out of their expat adventure. "I belong to that category. It's an internal drive that keeps on recharging my battery."
When asked if he will be return abroad, Johnny answered wholeheartedly "yes". "And once again with the Overseas Social Security as his 'social partner in crime'? "Even more than before, I will rely on them. The strength of the system is its global no limit coverage. As I get older, I will be less able to find complete and affordable solutions on the private market. But for Belgium I will always be a Belgian with an expat dream."
"This article came about in collaboration with Vlamingen in de Wereld (in Dutch)(New window)."