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Interview with Phoenix Zerin – an American expat living in Chile

Updated 15 Jul 2013

Phoenix Zerin is an American expat living in Chile. He initially moved to Santiago as part of a five-year plan to experience life abroad. For now, he calls this South American country his home, but over the next few years, he also plans to explore life in Asia and Eastern Europe. He has also begun a podcast series, Five Years AbroadCAST, for those looking for a guide on how to plan and execute a successful strategy for living abroad.

Read more about Chile in the Expat Arrivals Chile Country Guide, or read more about Expat Experiences in Chile.

About Phoenix

Phoenix ZerinQ: Where are you originally from?
A: I was originally assembled in the United States. I moved around a bit while I was living in the US, but most recently, I lived in Texas.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Currently, I’m in the Las Condes comuna in Santiago de Chile.

Q: When did you move here?
A: Oh goodness. Let’s see I arrived in November of last year, and except for a um, failed attempt to live in Paraguay early this year, I’ve been in Santiago for eight months.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children? 
A: Negative. There’s just me. At the moment.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: Two huge questions together! Let’s start with why I moved.

So about two years ago, I was what you might call – statistically speaking – a “typical American”. I didn’t have a passport, my work was in the US, my investments were in the US — my whole life was in the US. And I really didn’t think about it; maybe one day I would take an international trip or something, but I would have been just as happy to visit Hawaii. I mean, it’s such a big, scary world out there!

Well, in late 2011, everything changed.

I came across a website called Sovereign Man, a site that was built for people who want to internationalise their lives — foreign bank accounts, dual citizenships, offshore businesses, that sort of thing. And it got me wondering — all this time, I’d been living in this teeny tiny part of the world was I absolutely sure that this was the best place with all the best opportunities for someone like me?

So I made a promise to myself: I promised myself that by the end of 2012, I would be living outside the US, and I would stay out for at least five years. I would spend two years in South America, two years in Asia and Oceania, and the last year in Eastern Europe. I would live in as many places as I could, and when I was done, I would decide where in the world to call “home”.

On 26 September 2012, I started my Five Years Abroad. It’s a day that I will remember for the rest of my life — because it’s the first day I really started to live.

As for what I do. So, when I was living in the US, I was a career software developer. When I left to live abroad, I wanted to see if I could transition to entrepreneurship.

Three failed businesses later, I’m now doing freelance software development.

I’m still trading time for money, but now I’m doing it on my own terms. I spend three days a week working to pay expenses, and that leaves me with four days free to dowell, whatever I want. Work some more to earn a little more money, travel, publish a podcast episode, explore the city anything I want!

At some point, I want to get back into launching a product-based business, but until the right opportunity comes along, I’m really happy with how things are turning out!

About Santiago

Q: What do you enjoy most about Santiago, how’s the quality of life?

A: Man, I love Santiago! I’ve lived in a few cities in South America so far, and Santiago is my favourite. I’ve met so many awesome people here. People come to Santiago because they want to create something, because they want to build something. So I’ve met a ton of entrepreneurs, professionals and businesspeople. It’s been fantastic.

Santiago is a very modern city with plenty of infrastructure. With a few exceptions, it’s almost the same standard of living here as what I was used to in Dallas back in the States.

There are a lot of differences between here and the States — and I don’t just mean the Spanish! But it is definitely a comfortable and safe place to live.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 
A: “Home” is kind of an ambiguous concept for me. I never really felt like I was home when I was living in the US. To be honest, Chile feels much more like home to me than the States ever did; in fact, when I moved to Asunción in Paraguay earlier this year, I actually got homesick for Santiago!

There’s a lot of reasons for that, and I’ve been exploring them in my podcast series. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the problem wasn’t where I was; the problem was who I wasor more accurately, who I was forced to be when I was living in my culture of origin.

But anyway, negatives about Santiago. Let’s see here.

Chilean culture takes a little bit of getting used to. I’ve encountered a fair amount of passive aggression that I don’t think was intentional; it’s just sort of how Chileans have been taught to handle negotiation and confrontation. I’m still in the process of learning how to not take that personally, but in the meantime it is a little frustrating.

Also, food tends to be expensive here. There are a lot of places you can eat and buy groceries that are really cheap — but you’re gonna need Spanish to shop there! (laughs)

Q: Is Santiago safe? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Yes, and yes. Next question?

Ok, I’ll go into a little more detail.

Generally speaking, Santiago is a very safe place to be. I’ve never had any problems the whole time I’ve been living here, and although I know a few people who have been robbed, it was always snatch-and-run crimes. No violence.

If you are in a place like Las Condes, El Golf, Ñuñoa, Providencia basically the northeast part of the city, you will have no problems at all. Gringos can take out their Apple computers and work at a coffee shop — and yes, don’t worry; they do have Starbucks down here!

If you start going west towards the downtown area, you don’t really have to worry about violent crime unless you’re out at like 3am. But there are some pickpockets that work the area, and you want to be careful when you’re talking on your phone that somebody doesn’t grab it from you and take off running.

It’s really not that bad, though — I’ve spent a decent amount of time downtown and never had a problem.

If safety is a concern, you will be very comfortable in Santiago — I mean, once you get past the “holy @#$% everything is different and scary!” phase.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Santiago? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car? 
A: Well, you don’t need a car here. It helps, though; public transport is a pain. I’m saving up for a motorcycle, and I can’t wait!

Well, OK, I can’t wait mainly because I love motorcycling (laughs). But it will be nice to be able to get places in half the time.

Santiago has a pretty extensive network of bus routes, and the subway is really convenient. You’ll have no problems getting around here without a car.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Chile?
A: Good question. I have no idea. I haven’t visited any medical-type people since I left the US. Actually, I probably need to do something about that.

I am going to be seeing a doctor soon, though. I want to get my skydiving certification, and to do that, I have to have a doctor certify that I am healthy enough to jump out of an airplane. Clearly, this only refers to my physical health, not my mental health.

It’s taken me a while to find a general doctor who speaks English and isn’t super expensive, but I think I’ve finally found a place I can go, so I’ll be posting more info on that on my blog soon!

About living in Santiago

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Santiago as an expat?
A: At least among the parts of town I’ve been to, Las Condes, El Golf and Lo Barnechea are really nice places to stay. They’re also kind of expensive, though there are some good deals to be had if you know the right people.

Providencia and Ñuñoa are also really nice places to live, and they’re much less expensive. What I’m currently paying for a two-bedroom apartment in Las Condes could get me a nice three-bedroom place in Ñuñoa.

Centro and Bellavista are a lot less expensive, but they’re also a bit less safe, from what I’ve heard.

That pretty much covers the northeast part of the city — and the extent of my knowledge. There might be some really awesome places to live in the southwest part that I’ve yet to discover; who knows?

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city?
A: Well, this estadounidense [US citizen] feels pretty comfortable here.

There are a few things that I’m not wild about. The buildings aren’t well-insulated, electric heaters are rare — including dryers. Gah, what I wouldn’t give to have lint-free clothing for once!

But for the most part, based on the apartments I’ve lived in, I’ve been pretty satisfied with the quality of construction and amenities here.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Compared to… let’s say, Dallas, Santiago’s pretty comparable. Some things are cheaper, like cell phone service, internet and other utilities. Other things are more expensive: food and electronics come to mind.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: You know, this has been one of the more fascinating aspects of personal development that has gone on for me during my Five Years Abroad.

For the most part, I only hang out with either expats or locals with a sort of “expat-compatible” mindset — either they have lived abroad themselves, or they are seriously interested in doing it at some point.

I have found that I have a really hard time finding significant things in common with somebody who has only ever lived in one place — or I think more accurately: one culture.

It really makes me wonder… if I ever do return to the US, will I have a hard time making friends with locals there?

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: Yes… ish.

I’m really not a “meetup” kind of person, so I’ve had a little difficulty making friends, but I’ve still managed to assemble a respectable social and professional network here.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys the “large group” format, there are plenty of events that you can go to in order to meet people. And I do mean “large” — some of the expat meetups here will routinely have a couple hundred people attending!

There’s also Spanish language meetups, entrepreneur meetups, and probably at least a few dozen other groups that I don’t know about.

I do the vast majority of my networking online, primarily through InterNations, but I’m always looking for additional channels.

About working in Santiago

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Chile?
A: What’s that? The Chilean government actually has no problem with foreigners working for companies located outside of Chile, so as long as I don’t take on any Chilean clients, nobody’s going to come after me.

Having said that, I’m actually working on obtaining legal residency here anyway. I think it would be nice to have a “Plan B” just in case I ever run into a situation where it is a liability to be a US citizen.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Santiago, is there plenty of work?
A: Not only is there plenty of work, but it’s relatively easy for a foreigner to get a job here. There is no requirement to prove that a Chilean can’t do the same job or anything like that, at least that I’m aware of.

As long as you’ve got the skill set and you can reach an agreement with an employer, you can get a work contract that qualifies you for a work visa — and residency if that’s what you want.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: Um, I’ll get back to you on that one. I work out of a coworking space here in Providencia called Conectas. It feels… pretty much like the coworking spaces I’ve been to in the US.

I haven’t had a “job” job in a couple of years now, so I’m not really sure what that looks like anymore.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: New expat arrivals? Hm. If you’ve already made the leap and moved to a foreign country, first, I want to congratulate you. I know it couldn’t have been an easy decision. Living in a foreign country will be, I think, the most challenging but also the most rewarding experience – or rather, series of experiences – of your life.

I guess as far as advice goes, I would just say, the next few weeks are probably going to be really difficult, especially if you’ve moved somewhere where you don’t know the language.

Whatever happens, don’t give up! This is a very critical time; you will find that a lot of things you learned and habits you got accustomed to in your country of origin simply won’t work in the new place you are living, and you will have to discard them and learn new ways to approach unfamiliar situations.

This is really difficult, and you will probably feel frustrated and overwhelmed a lot of the time. This is by design. Keep at it, no matter what! Every day, you will gain new perspectives and new knowledge and new skills that will help you adapt and overcome all the challenges you are facing.

And then one day, you will wake up and from the moment you get out of bed until the moment you go to sleep, you will have the most fun you’ve ever had in your life. And from there, everything just gets better!

Or maybe having a blog just makes me enjoy adversity; who knows?

~ Interviewed July 2013

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