When you finally take the plunge and start a new part of your life in the US, there are so many things for Australians in America to consider that it’s sometimes hard to take it all in. Apart from settling into a new living situation you’re navigating subtle differences and battling culture shock at the same time.
This is a guest contribution from Katherine Fenech. Katherine is an Aussie living in San Francisco via stints in Sydney, Malta, London and Perth. She waxes lyrical about life in the United States and hands out unsolicited tips to expats at Bright Lights of America.
Insider Tips for Australians in America
When you finally take the plunge and start a new part of your life in the US, there are so many things to consider that it’s sometimes hard to take it all in. Apart from settling into a new living situation you’re navigating subtle differences and battling culture shock at the same time.
Having been through the whole disorienting process a few times now, here are my insider tips for success for any Aussies living in the USA or thinking of moving here.
Sense of Humour
Australians have a unique sense of humour. I didn’t subscribe to this theory prior to moving to California, but it’s been proven to me time and again over the past 18 months. It’s especially noticeable in professional situations, and something Australians in America should take note of.
Aussies will try to lighten a serious mood by cracking a joke, and that kind of thing goes down like a lead balloon here. While we see it as trying to cheer up the team and bolster morale, your boss will probably think you’re not taking the job seriously.
While Americans are usually pretty laid back, depending on where you are, they don’t particularly ascribe to the “hanging shit on your mates” style of interaction. So if you’re used to handing out some good-natured ribbing to friends and colleagues there’s a fair chance you’ll just end up offending people.
Apart from keeping any sarcastic remarks under wraps, at least for the first few days, you need to know that Americans take their jobs seriously. Sometimes a little too seriously in my opinion.
Depending on the culture within the company, things can be a bit rough for Aussies when they start. We’re used to working hard but it’s taken to a whole new level here. People will make sure they’re in the office before their bosses and won’t leave until after that manager does. They think nothing of being on call during their holidays and at all hours of the night. I’m not talking about fitting in an hour of work either – more like half a day to an eight-hour stretch.
The biggest shock to my system (and most Australians in America) was the holiday time (or lack thereof). Paid holidays aren’t exactly legislated for so employers decide how much leave is accrued each year. It generally starts off as one week in your first year and two in your second. However, this doesn’t mean you can take two weeks off back-to-back. Some businesses see that as being away from your duties for too long.
There is also a defined sense of hierarchy where it is important to show respect and deference to your superiors from your supervisor to managers, vice president, Chief Technical Officer and CEO.
One of the toughest parts of being an expat is building up a network of friends again. It seems to get more difficult as you get older, but it’s never impossible.
If you’re an introvert or just not great with social interaction until you get comfortable with people, start online. You can join the local Internations social group. There are a myriad of Facebook and Meet Up groups that cater to Australians in America in general or are specifically for Aussie expats in certain states or towns. Interaction is key though – don’t just sit in the background reading and not actually commenting or contributing.
I work in San Francisco’s bay area, which is full of expats from all over the world so it’s been easy to find other people who are in that “starting over” phase. Having said that, Americans are a friendly bunch and you’re likely to be invited to after-work drinks or maybe a weekend hike pretty quickly.
Dealing with Bureaucracy
Lovers of bureaucracy have come to the right place. America is probably a world-leader in making you jump through pointless hoops while patting your head and rubbing your tummy. I can guarantee that any interaction you have with government agencies will be fraught with incredulous frustration.
My best tip here is fight the urge to get really angry. When you arrive at the Department of Motor Vehicles ready to take your driving test, don’t be surprised when you’re told that you need approximately three extra forms that aren’t mentioned on their website.
When you get to a local Social Security office just after midday on a Wednesday, only to find that public servants get Wednesday arvos off (and don’t work weekends), swallow your pride and come back another day. Your new Social Security Number form will be dealt with then.
Government employees have a short fuse (probably because their employers are the government) and will not take with your sass. I’ve learnt that from experience.
Before you go in to any office:
- Triple check the local business hours;
- Go online to check for any technology outages that will affect service (all of the DMV computer systems were down for a week in California a few months ago);
- Make a phone call and get them to stipulate EXACTLY what you need to bring with you;
- Find out the process you’ll need to follow;
- Schedule plenty of time for your visit, you’ll need it and then some.
In short, you cannot be too prepared, too calm or too measured.
A Place to Call Home
Finding a place to live in the more popular cities can sometimes be pricey and difficult. You may end up squeezing into a tiny space or going back to your student days and bunking with a bunch of people.
You also have the added “bonus” of having no credit history in the States, making you even less attractive to landlords and estate agents. Here’s where you can use your Aussie charm and a few other tricks to your advantage:
- Having a few references from previous landlords won’t hurt;
- Show them proof that you’ve got savings to cover your rent if you suddenly lose your job;
- Suggest paying a few months’ rent in advance;
- Use public transport to your advantage and look for a place further away from the CBD.
Lots of landlords will cover the rubbish collection fee and pay the water bill (at least in California) and it doesn’t hurt to ask about this if it isn’t covered in the ad. It’s also a good idea to find out if your personal parking space is included in the monthly rent or if you’ll have to fork over extra cash.
Those are my top tips for hitting the ground running when you move to the US. Don’t forget that you’re here on an adventure, for a change of scenery or just to experience something new. So don’t spend all your time working or sitting at home. Get out and explore your new city, town and adopted country!
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