Last June I moved to San Diego. Well, I say “moved to”… with me you never know if I’m moving to a place or just visiting. I usually fly somewhere, experience the place for a bit and then decide if I want to stay longer or take the first flight out of there.
But yes, San Diego was a keeper and I think I first heard myself say “I live in San Diego” after less than 2 months there… So kudos to San Diego because it’s not easy to make me want to stay somewhere!
San Diego is a city on the Pacific coast of California known for its beaches, parks and warm climate. With more than 1.37 million people, San Diego is the eighth largest city in the United States. Having just left behind life on the island of St. Maarten with a total population of less than 80.000, San Diego came as quite a shock!
But although scary, in many ways starting over can be an amazing adventure. Starting over feels like a chance to reevaluate and reinvent your life: what do you want to do? What do you want your life priorities to be? You get to think about your life and what you really want out of it… And that is priceless!
So in San Diego I became a woman who focuses on entrepreneurship (it’s such a perfect environment for that!), who goes to the gym five days a week (I hadn’t been to a gym since I was 16!!) and enjoys a much healthier lifestyle than my days of ‘drinking on the beach’ in the Caribbean (Did you know that drinking on the beach is illegal in San Diego? Who would do that! 😉 Plus, alcohol is crazy expensive here so water it is!!)
It took me a while to get used to the American way of life though. Everything is so big, everything is done by car and it’s all about conspicuous consumption. The intense patriotism, religion playing such a large role in society and the endless need to tip… Yes, the cliches are largely true but still it came as a bit of a shock to me how different the American culture is from the European (I know, saying there is one American culture is generalizing and so is saying there is such a thing as a European culture but I’m sure you kinda get where I’m going).
The worst thing though is not knowing the rules that everybody around you just takes for granted.
For example, something as simple as getting gas (or petrol, as I still insist on calling it because of my more British experiences). In Holland you pump gas first and then you pay. You can probably imagine how embarrassed I felt when I was struggling to get gas into my car to only minutes later do the walk of shame into the office and pay before I made a second, more successful attempt to fill up my car…
Or my first American date: we agreed to meet at a restaurant and when I got there the only option to park my car turned out to be Valet parking. So with some hesitation I drove up to the entrance of the restaurant and got out of my car. Trying not to look too clueless I got out of my car and said hello to the guy behind the Valet stand. He gave me a ticket and told me it would be $5, paid afterwards. Ok, so far so good. After quite an enjoyable date we left the restaurant together and both handed over our parking tickets to the valet-guy. Our cars pulled up and I handed the guy $5 to then see that my date did the same but added a couple of $1 bills… damn! tipping! really?! There goes my great first impression…
When we are trying our best to fit in, and are confused by what is happening, it is often the hardest time to explain that we don’t understand.
I’ve noticed I talk a lot about “how we do things in Europe” and I sometimes worry if people start to think I don’t like the way things are done in the US or worse, think Europeans are somehow superior. But it’s not that. I’m just trying to explain my behavior. Why I’ll do things “wrong” or not understand things that seem so obvious to Americans…
It’s difficult sometimes and I think what makes it surprisingly difficult this time (since this is not quite the first time I’ve moved country) is a combination of 2 things:
1. I just didn’t see it coming!
When moving to India I expected a massive culture shock. So I prepared for it. And yes, it still happened, but I knew it would. In the US I expected things to be simple and easy for me to understand. And even though in a way they are, and I’ve gotten used to American life in a matter of months, I do still feel like an outsider and every so often something will happen that catches me off guard and I’ll do something stupidly wrong again.
2. Almost everyone I spend my time with in San Diego is American
And yes, even if they tell you “I’m Irish American” or “my grandfather was born in Mexico” believe me, I don’t know how they do it but within 2 generations they have made sure their kids are completely Americanized! And that makes me the outsider. In other countries I spent much of my time surrounded by expats and even though they came from very diverse countries, including the US, we had this thing of ‘being a foreigner, an outsider’ in common. Being the only outsider here makes me well, more of an outsider.
But, all in all it’s been an amazing ride. I love how friendly Americans are. Even though Europeans can sometimes see that as fake, just the fact that people talk to you and continue talking to you once they hear your foreign accent makes settling into a new life much easier! So please Europeans, it doesn’t kill you to say hello to the person standing next to you in an elevator or make a joke out of it when you awkwardly reach for the same packet of cereals in a supermarket. We share this planet and can make life a lot more light-hearted by just being friendly!
And then there is San Diego. Because one thing I have learnt in these past few months is that there is no such thing as “American life”. Life in San Diego is very different from life in New York or life in Houston, Texas. And life in San Diego I happen to really enjoy. The combination of a city vibe and a large beach culture allowing you to wear flip flops almost anywhere suits me well! San Diegans love the outdoors, are much more casual and laid back than people in LA and they all seem to love their city.
So, yes San Diego, you have stolen a piece of my heart!
How did I do it? How did I move abroad?
This time it was relatively easy. My lovely friend Katie lives in San Diego and was crazy enough to invite me to come and visit her. She should have known better because if you invite me over and make me like the place I might end up staying! 😉
So all I needed was a return ticket and a quick online application for the Visa Waiver Program (no further visa is needed for citizens from most Western countries, visit travel.state.gov for more information).
Where normally I either look for volunteer work or a temporary job this time I decided to just enjoy the country and focus on keeping my own online marketing business going. This in itself was quite a new challenge for me. A job or volunteer work provides you with an instant network of friends or at least a few people to hang out with. This time I largely had to build that network myself…
Meetup.com, a platform I used a few times before in European cities, turned out to be an amazing platform in San Diego. Meetup is a network of local groups and in San Diego you can pretty much find a group for whatever you are interested in! Whether you’d like to go hiking, need some people to grab a drink with, want to practice a language… you name it and Meetup will have a group for it! Often several times a week I’d sign up for an event on Meetup.com and over time I made some great friends through this network, got to explore San Diego and built quite an enjoyable life in “Sunny California”.
But, all good things come to an end and where going to the US was so easy for me, staying long term and obtaining a more permanent visa isn’t. So I guess it’s time to explore some more of this beautiful planet!
One thing I do know though: San Diego, I will be back!
If you want to learn more about why Europeans experience culture shock when moving to the US then check out these (funny) articles:
- 16 Things Europeans find weird about America >>
- 5 Culture Shocks Every European Encounters When Moving To America >>