There are lots of little signs that will tell you you’ve really started to settle into a life on the West Coast – regular social outings, the first time you can navigate from Santa Clara to Redwood City without a map, and my favourite – the first “you’re pre-approved for a credit card!” junkmail, which tells you that you’ve finally racked up some form of Credit Rating.
But even after the initial hard work is done and you really feel like you’ve arrived, there are still areas where you’ll find that you need to ever-refine your behaviours and expectations in order to increase your “comfort zone”. Are there five areas worth exploring with this in mind? Youbetcha!
1.) The “Native”
I wrote about this last year in the piece “Expat vs. Native“, and there isn’t much to say here which isn’t already expressed in that article, so go read it. I’ll wait for you…
…okay, there you go.
Last time, I talked about needing “social seeds” when you arrive – co-workers, or existing friends in your new location – in order to kick-start a social network for yourself. If you don’t have any other options, then there are various groups and websites dedicated to Brits (or Aussies, or Canadians) living locally, and they’re definitely one tool to have in your “social seed” toolbox. Fellow foreigners have usually been through a similar integration experience to yours, and can be especially understanding and supportive in your first months here.
However, you should probably be wary of just how much you integrate with such groups. I’m not saying that you should actively shun your fellow countrymen (some of my best friends here are English), but groups who have “being British” as their core reason for existing tend to encourage a bit of a “gin on the verandah” isolated “ex-pat” mentality, and that’s something which can seriously limit your ability to truly enjoy being part of a different culture.
2.) The Dating Game
Maybe you’re already married, or moving out here with a partner. In that case, this section is of limited use to you. But regardless, understand one thing – your accent will get you attention. American men seem less engaged by it than American women, although some of them absolutely fetishise it. And thinking back, almost every American woman I’ve met has, at some point in the conversation, dropped in some variant of the classic line “I love your accent”…
Americans seem to have a very specific, complex vocabulary surrounding romance. The whole thing seems more formal than it is back in England – people generally progress from “going on a few dates” to “dating” (which means you’re a bona-fide couple), to using “boyfriend/girlfriend” to refer to their partner. There’s no set timetable on how this progresses, and I’m buggered if I understand the rules, but it all seems pretty quaint to me.
Americans also seem to marry younger, and sooner after becoming a couple, than most of the Brits I know.
If you’re single, then I strongly advise living in a city. The bar/club scene is so much more vibrant there, and people are generally more open.
3.) The Corporate Game
Americans are workaholics, and the prevailing corporate culture is set up to perpetuate that. You will have less holidays (“vacation”) than you did, wherever you move from, and in some cases you may need to press hard to be allowed to take it.
You may well find that your American colleagues spend more hours at their desks than you do, and it can be easy to get sucked into this, and let work take over your life.
My advice? Don’t.
American corporate culture is based entirely (and too much) on appearances. Meetings are a national obsession, seemingly regardless of their utility. “Process” is king, even where it really does little to help out.
A little secret – many people seem to spend 10 hours a day in their offices because they feel it “is expected”, and their actual productivity eventually drops, relative to the number of hours “on the job”.
Performance is, at least, measured on results – work done. You really are better off resisting the “long, wasted hours” habit, and instead work to get what needs to be done done – in a sensible amount of time.
4.) The Driving
Americans love cars. As noted before, when talking about suburbia, they built half their country around the notion of the car. For all that, though, the standard of driving isn’t fantastic.
A few rules I’ve learned whilst driving in California…
- Don’t trust other drivers’ signals (or lack thereof). People fail to cancel signals, fail to give them, or give them late.
- Leave yourself room, lots of it. Many drivers are both slow to react and quick to tailgate.
- Stay off the freeways at the start of rainy season. Firstly, they get slick with oil which is washed up by the first rain of several months, and more importantly – Californians forget, every summer, how to drive in the rain. They maintain the same speeds and distances. The first rain in October or November generally seems to cause a rash of accidents up and down 101.
Speed cameras aren’t really used over here, but highway patrols using radar are far more frequent, and unpredictable. Don’t be complacently excessive with speed – you will end up getting caught eventually. If you’re a real leadfoot, it’s worth noting that radar detectors are actually still legal in most states, including California. The cost of a reasonable one is less than a single speeding fine, so it can pay for itself quite quickly. I’ve never invested in one myself, but I do have a couple of friends who swear by them.
Parking is at a premium in cities; abundant in suburbia. Try to avoid driving in cities unless you absolutely have to.
Driving is somewhat different because the roads are somewhat different. You’ll get a lot more used to 4-way stops, rather than Britain’s roundabouts – and you should get into the habit of really stopping at them. I know many people who’ve been fined for a “rolling stop” – not quite coming to a complete halt before proceeding. You’ll find yourself getting very used to doing u-turns on roads with medians, and you’ll also come to very much enjoy turning right at a red traffic light when there’s no traffic coming.
Despite the apparent disregard for foot traffic in many places, road rules in California (and many other states) do enshrine the idea that “pedestrians are king”. Yield at crossings and generally take care. Unless some fool has decided to walk across all 8 lanes of the freeway (and yes, it happens) you’re likely to be liable for injuring someone, regardless of whether it was strictly their right-of-way or not.
5.) The Recreation
A side-effect of America’s incredible geography is the wealth of leisure opportunities it provides. The Bay Area, in particular, is less than 40 minutes from good surf, and about a 3 hour drive from the decent mountain resorts around Tahoe. Add in the hiking/biking/offroading in various coastal preserves, Wine Country to the north, Vegas a short hop away, the breathtaking Yosemite, and the deserts to the north-east of LA, and you have a varied and interesting land to explore. Make the absolute most of it.
When I lived in London, the place seemed very much like a “gravity well” – somehow difficult to escape beyond the confines of the M25 to enjoy different leisure pursuits outside. Here, things seem easier; perhaps partly (and sadly) because of the prevailing car culture.
Music and Theatre are alive and kicking, particularly in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I found it took a while to get my head around the music scene, and get to know the many, many US bands who are all but unheard-of in the UK. If you’re a music-lover, check out Pitchfork, the Indie bible, for samples and reviews of countless artists. Get to know the smaller music venues nearby – they offer a steady stream of entertaining shows, often for as little as $10-$15.
If Stadium Rock is more your thing, there are venues for that too, although most of them are so cavernous as to render the experience more like watching a band on TV. The HP Pavillion in San Jose is the crappest music venue in the history of mankind, and with tickets at a ridiculous price, plus a huge whack of “convenience fees” courtesy of Ticket
bastardmaster, you’re really better steering well clear.
Sports are obviously different – Baseball and American Football are the order of the day. Having been to a few games now, I’m quite into Baseball – besides being a good opportunity to sit in the sun with a beer, it’s a real American experience, and a cute little game. I still have no bloody idea of the rules for American Football – it’s utterly incomprehensible. But it’s fun when you suddenly feel like you understood a play…
I love living in Northern California, and am hugely grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it. There are a lot of pitfalls along the way, and some hard work to be done if you’re to get the most out of the move. But if you’ve been offered a chance to come here – congratulations. Whether you eventually decide to stay a year or never leave, you really should take the opportunity and run with it. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.