Following my first article describing my academic and professional career since obtaining my high school diploma in 2006 until my arrival in California in July 2016, I would like to share with you my feedback on these 2.5 years spent in the United States.
I arrived in the United States in July 2016 because I chose to follow my partner, now husband, who has obtained a working visa renewal to return at his company’s headquarters in Huntington Beach, Southern California. A dream come true on his side, a cold shower on mine because it was impossible to do Annecy (France) – Los Angeles every weekend. Back in France since 2 years, after a one year break abroad, I had an exciting job, I was surrounded by my family and closest friends and I had just bought and renovated an apartment in which I finally thought I would let my suitcases for a few years. All this to say that a trip to the US was not on my agenda, but my partner’s visa confirmation decided differently. It was inconceivable not to try this adventure.
BEFORE DEPARTURE: ADMINISTRATIVE MATTERS
The first major difficulty for the person who follows his/her partner or husband/wife to the United States and who also wants to work is “administrative”, of course I’m talking about visas. If you are not married, you are not attached to your partner’s visa, which means that you will have no choice to go for either a tourist visa (maximum 90 days authorized in the territory), an F-1 student visa (obligation to follow a full-time training), a J-1 or OPT (internship) or an E-2 visa (investor). The last two visas mentioned will be your only options if you wish to work legally on the territory. If you think to find a company “sponsor” directly on the spot, be aware that very few of them engage this type of procedure. If you are married, you will be able to work legally in the territory if the type of visa issued to your spouse allows you to do it. If it’s the case, you will have to follow the work permit application procedure when you arrive in the United States and wait between 3 and 6 months to receive your card and your SSN (social security number). Once this card has been received, you will be able to work officially and legally in the country, for all type of companies, until the expiration date of your authorization (attached to your spouse’s visa).
For my part, not being married and after a lot of research, the wisest solution was to opt for a student visa. Full of ignorance, I searched for potential training courses in line with my background. I quickly became scared when I discovered the cost of university studies for an MBA (between $45,000 and $85,000 OOO for one year). As a result, my research took a new direction and I turned to an ESL (English as a second language) training in a private language school. My strategy was clear, improve my English in a few months to quickly find a sponsor company or an internship on the spot to switch to a J-1 visa. I was the one who “followed” her partner’s dream and I had to appropriate it to myself by setting goals beyond a couple’s project, a personal meaning to this decision. It was imperative for me to be able to carry out a school or professional project over there. I think that this point is the key to a successful “expatriation” for a couple.
BEFORE DEPARTURE: THE PROJECTION
Before I arrived in the US, I had already roamed with my backpack in Europe, Asia and Oceania, spent a year with a working holiday visa in Wellington, New Zealand, but I had never come on the American territory. Except New York, the US was not part of my top list of destinations to visit imperatively in the coming years. You can imagine that I had even less thought nor dreaming of living there one day. The “basic and cliché” idea I had was that it was a gigantic country, rich, powerful, influential, free, full of international superstars of all categories, king of “entertainment”, excess and of course where it is easily possible to undertake and live the AMERICAN DREAM! Although California is in the US, I had a specific feeling (once again very cliché) that resonated more in my head like a relaxing place (sun, beach, palm trees, sillicon valley, hollywood, 2 pac, baywatch), clearly a positive and attractive vibe. I warned you, my thinking was very basic, because I’ve never been there!
In any big change of life, emotions waver like a roller coaster, the unknown both attracts and frightens. Apart from the fruit of my imagination fed by Wikipedia research, Google Images and descriptions from my partner (who was between the US and France since he was 18 years old), I didn’t really know what to expect but I remained very enthusiastic about the idea of living this adventure. One thing was certain, I had never worried about my integration and experiencing a culture shock. However, adapting to this new country was not so simple.
THE ARRIVAL AT LOS ANGELES AIRPORT AND FIRST FEELINGS ABOUT ORANGE COUNTY:
Freshly arrived at LAX, less than an hour by car separated me from Huntington Beach, my future adopted city. Under a bright sun, I discovered with surprise the highway (the equivalent of the French highway but free) with these six car lanes for the same direction, 12 lanes of traffic in both directions, massive cars and huge advertising signs. No doubt, I was in the US! Before I started school, I took the opportunity to discover the Orange County area and honestly, my first feelings were quite mixed. The first unavoidable point is this feeling of “XXL dimension”, cafes, shops, cars, roads, sports facilities… Everything is huge here. Ideal weather, the Pacific Ocean, the immense beaches bordered by cycle paths and very “friendly” people are very attractive. My concern was more oriented towards lifestyle and the organization of the urbanism (I must also say that I loved Annecy, my hometown, which offers a quite exceptional living environment between lake and mountains). Unlike European cities, public transportation is almost non-existent, everything is done by car, you can eat, drink and withdraw money almost every 50 meters, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without getting out of your car. The aspect I found most disturbing was that I did not find the notion of “city center”, a space where you can do everything by walking, stroll in front of the windows of small shops, terraces of cafés, restaurants or a market. In Laguna Beach (25,000 inhabitants) and Huntington Beach (190,000 inhabitants), you can find this lifestyle a little bit, but it is true that the “main street” is small compared to the size of the city. In Orange County, cities are mainly organized around roads. Consequently, shops and “living spaces” are grouped together in commercial zones or malls along the roadside in large, modern and new buildings. It is quite amazing to discover the number of chain stores for everything. I made the point to myself when we were looking for some kind of storage (like boxes, lockers) for our apartment; well after a little Google research we went to a huge store dedicated to the storage paradise. If you have any or rare need, here you will always find a shop nearby to sell it. That’s pretty impressive! Due to a very modern and standardized architecture (and I admit it of a bad sense of direction), it took me a lot of time to find my way around because I found that everything was similar, I couldn’t even notice that I was moving from one city to another when I was driving. I was also amazed to discover bars with 15 TV screens broadcasting many sports games and attention in the US between baseball, basketball, hockey, fighting sports… The sport on TV is all year round and every day. A big surprise was also to discover that night life stops at 2am, not 2:01am, here there is no endless French-style negotiation, people respect the rules “more easily”. Depending on the people, their country of origin, the “context and conditions of arrival”, the time of adaptation in Orange County or somewhere else belongs to everyone. I just wanted to share with you honestly the first significant differences that caught my attention when I arrived. Although the area has some very positive aspects, I found it lacked of charm and authenticity. In short, it was not an immediate love at first sight.
MY FIRST YEAR IN THE US IN ORANGE COUNTY: BACK TO SCHOOL
Three weeks after arriving in Orange County, I joined a linguistic school based in Costa Mesa. As I explained earlier, to obtain the F-1 visa you must be considered a full-time student (at least 18 hours of classes per week) in an “accredited” school. My school offered courses from Monday to Friday from 8:15 am to 2:30 pm per level (from beginner to advanced), but also specific training to prepare for the TOEFL exam. The training time depended on each student and his or her personal project. There were no limits imposed by the school. Some students could be there for a short period of time (for example, during school holidays) and others for a long period of time in order to obtain a certain TOEFL score required to integrate an American university. On the first day of school, we took a general English test that guided you to your class level (from 1 to 6). The majority of the students came from the Middle East, Asia and South America (I think I met four Europeans in five months). All ages and nationalities were mixed, which sometimes gave very lively lessons when the subjects slipped on our cultural differences. This melting pot was the most attractive part of the school. Beyond English, I learned a lot about each other’s cultures and found our convictions and personalities exciting and inspiring. We all came from very different countries in their functioning but at one point we found ourselves in this place on an equal footing, learning English and facing similar difficulties. This type of experience was incredible and brought me a lot on a personal level and in terms of open mind. The other huge advantage was that the school allowed me to meet new people very quickly and have a dynamic social life. These friendly relationships were the same nature as when you travelling, short and intense because no one was there for the same time.
In addition to school, I subscribed to a gym center with many classes. I went there every day after school to train and in the hope of creating a group of local friends. I had given enormous importance to the search of American social interactions and “friends”. This point was for me one of the key factors of a successful integration. I tried to avoid all types of French connections because I already spoke my native language with my partner at home (we tried many times to speak only in English but it never lasted very long). With my school friends, in an international context, I felt comfortable, we spoke “the same English” but in a local context it was not the same story. I understood the overall meaning of one interlocutor’s comments, but to talk was a different matter. At first, I couldn’t find the words, my accent was difficult to understand and I also had uncontrollable anxiety when I wanted to express myself. You know that little constant nervous laugh that comes after each sentence and makes you look very “stupid”. I dreamed of exchanging but I was blocked because I knew that my ability to answer would be limited and futile; and then when you have to repeat your basic words 3 times if not more before being understood, sometimes you get discouraged and close yourself up. A little anecdote, no one ever instantly understood my first name (Kathleen) when I introduced myself. People was like, oh Jacqueline? Katherine? and I kept repeating myself no: “Kat like a cat like the animal, you know Miaou Miaou and then Leen, KATHLEEN”. In short, I still had some way to go before I could master English in a “local and not international” environment.
After a few months spent on the territory, feeling a little more comfortable with English, I started looking for internships in parallel of my studies. As a result, I had my first professional interviews. Maximum stress level! The intermediate step of the phone interview was never validated. The only chance I had, was to go directly to a face-to-face interview and find a company interested in a bilingual French/English profile. Unfortunately, this type of requirement is rare in the area. Companies are more attracted by bilingual profiles in Chinese, Korean and Spanish than French. Another point is that my French diplomas and professional references were not “recognized”. Companies are interested in what you have done in the US and not in your home country. In addition, they are frigid to engage in visa procedures (even for an internship) when they are not familiar with the administrative procedure. They will accept and engaged in the visa procedures more easily if you have “exceptional” technical skills. In other words, generalist profiles such as mine in Marketing and Communication do not fall into the category of rare skills. At that time, the only opportunity I could have “pushed” was a potential position based in North Los Angeles (about 3 to 3.5 hours driving per day with traffic), the project was clearly not viable for an “intern” status. I wasn’t desperate, but I was well aware that finding a company was going to be a tedious task.
After 8 months in the US, my “status” as a partner has changed to a spouse one. This change allowed me to be attached to my husband’s L-1 visa and by chance to apply for a “work permit on the territory”. My card and SSN (social security number) were issued to me after three months. During this waiting period, I took the opportunity to explore the West Coast and its many national parks. And I might tell you that it was the moment that I fell in love with the country (that’s another story). My work permit and my SSN in my pocket marked the beginning of a new turn. I was no longer looking for an internship but a job.
=> Do you want to read the next step of this US journey? It’s here: MY FIRST AMERICAN JOB, A GREAT SLAP IN THE FACE!