Archive for the ‘Expat Living’ Category

The bebe is cute. Insanely cute. And I’m not even saying that because I’m her mother.

When she wore her homemade bonnet in the Hamptons, people actually crossed the street to see her as we sat outside at cafe having a drink.

But even the bebe isn’t immune to Passport Photo Syndrome. You know, the one where even the most respectable people end up looking like a close cousin of Charles Manson.

What is it about passport photos that makes us look so, if not crazed, then certainly criminal? There’s something about those booths that turn us into frozen, dilated-eyed mug shots, as if we’ve been out for three days straight, partying with Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen.

Of course, when the bebe had her first passport photo taken at around eight weeks, she had no concept of Charlie Sheen (long may that last), yet she still manages to look like a Wayne Rooney lookalike.


See? She’s really cute. Not like Wayne Rooney at all.

Wayne Rooney. Not cute. Not like the bebe at all (except for on her passport photo)

It’s not her fault. She’d just woken up from a nap. And the photographer made me hold her up, out on an extended palm, in front of a white sheet that had been hung up on the wall. She was sleepy, slumped and drooling – none of which would be top of the tip list for taking a good photo – and most likely a little alarmed because her mother was holding her out, suspended in air, in front of a big white sheet.

Her head had sunk into her shoulders and she looked like she had no bones. And we didn’t have time to take another one because we had to get to the Brooklyn library passport office before it closed.

Then, a few days later, I found out that it’s OK to take your own photo of your baby, as long as it fits within the official guidelines, so for a I did moment consider cancelling the passport and starting again. But that would have been inconvenient. And vain.

So now I’m applying for the bebe’s British passport, we have a second chance of getting it right.

(To apply for a British passport while you are overseas, go here.)

Examples of passport photos - described in text above

As an American baby (because she was born here) with two British parents, the bebe can have dual nationality.

There is no downside to this when it comes to travelling, as:

U.S. law does not mention dual nationality or require a person to choose one citizenship or another. Also, a person who is automatically granted another citizenship does not risk losing U.S. citizenship. (Read more here: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1753.html)

The bebe will have to use her US passport when leaving or entering the country. But that’s fine by me, as I’ll be able to go with her in the nationals queue at customs – which is generally shorter than that for international travellers.

Now, I’m off to sharpen up my photography skills. Where’s that birdie?

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Viva La Visa

As you may have picked up from a few of my early posts (here and here and here and, oh, here), when I came out to the US I was on the H4 visa. And, as you may have also gleaned if you’d read them, I was less than happy about it.

When the move to the US was first discussed, I was promised a working visa, so I could continue my career as a journalist and web editor, and so I could contribute to society as any educated, mildly ambitious and intelligent person would wish.

However, because of a cock-up by the previous management – or a total lack of foresight or planning at the very least – we ended up with the H1B on, well, an H1B and me on the H4.

The H4 visa is called The Trailing Spouse visa. That is not a joke – it’s actually called that. On it, one cannot work, can’t even volunteer – making cupcakes for a school fete could be considered entrepreneurial by a particularly jobs-worthy immigration agent.

So you are simply expected to sit idle, or breed.

If the bebe hadn’t come along and forced me into maternity leave, I would have gone mad. Or gone home.

The visa is retrograde, repellent, offensive, unrealistic (show me a couple that can afford to live on one salary in NYC), and misogynist (I’ll bet my oven glove a high percentage of those spouses are women).

And my heart goes out to anyone who is on it. (Not that I have anything against sitting idle; although involuntary sitting idle is basically prison.)

Anyway, after a lot of paperwork and cajoling of editors to say nice things about me, I am now the owner of the 01 visa, which gives me full working rights. And it’s nice to be in the real world once again.

(The 01 is aka the Extraordinary Ability Visa, and when the Consulate officer interviewed me and asked me what I’d been doing in the US for the last near two years, he said, so what’s extraordinary about being a mom and wife? I nearly punched him. But I didn’t because there were men with guns nearby.)

If you are on the H4, and don’t want to be, don’t give up your search for a suitable work visa. I think the H1B’s HR department got so sick of us complaining and asking and bitching (me, not the H1B – he’s more professional), they just agreed to help us so we’d leave them the fuck alone.

Advice on finding a new visa: don’t bother with the USCIS websites or lawyers; find someone in the same situation or similar industry as you. Those websites are, I’m sure deliberately, very hard to make head or tail of, and it’s better to get a personal recommendation for a lawyer anyway.

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pic from J Crew

Now I’ve had the baby, set up home and found my feet (just about in that order too), my ever-active mind is turning to full-time work.

I’ve managed to shift the dreadful H4 visa onto a less archaic 01 visa so am all good to head out into the Big City and find some permanent work.

Working in NYC – in a shiny office, not just from home – would complete my experience here. I was a career girl in Sydney and London before the H1B whisked me off to foreign climes, so taking so much time out to set up a home and have a baby has been, at times, very frustrating.

As much as we share the H1Bs earnings, I do have to run major purchases by him and it makes the independent woman in me feel like I’m asking permission.

Plus, I won’t lie, I relish the working wardrobe that comes with earning your own cash. Browsing J Crew and ShopBop isn’t a pleasant experience for me. Materialistic, me? Well if it’s good enough for Madonna….

Anyways, I found this great article by Moda Operandi CEO Áslaug Magnúsdóttir on crossing the cultural divide in the NYC workplace.

(Note: don’t invite colleagues to the pub after work – a concept that is thoroughly alien to any working Brit.)

“While every day I learn a little more about how to conduct business in America as an American would, I still find myself smacking into situations where my foreign-ness is the culprit…” READ THE REST OF IT HERE…..

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Yesterday I spent 30 minutes registering to a new doctor’s surgery. The reason it took half an hour to relay my name, address and date of birth over the phone is because the conversation went something like this:

Receptionist: What is your first name?
Me: Hannah. H, A, Double N, A, H.
Is that with a C or an H?
What is your date of birth?
April 13 1976
February 30….
Oh for the love of Christ

Admittedly, I know that it is me that has the funny accent in this country so I can’t get too huffy but you’d think in a place that is so multiethnic that they put Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Navajo on a health insurance bill, they’d be able to understand a Surrey accent:

(Tagalog? Never even heard of it? Me neither. Fortunately the oracle that is Google told me it’s one of the two official languages of the Philippines.)

Other etymological conundrums I’ve faced:

Tuna. Asking for a tuna and salad sandwich (while with flu and a blocked nose). New Yorkers pronounce it toona (heavy on the t-ew). The British chuu-nah doesn’t work. You might as well have said moon cheese.

Chutney. Doesn’t exist. No comprende. Not in Key Foods anyway. And imagine, from the home of the pickle…

Cool bag. Even though it doesn’t take too much of a lateral leap to get to the more colloquial ‘cooler’, this left one store worker dumbfounded, hand-wringing and me feeling like a Martian, when all I wanted to do was keep picnic cold cuts at a non-perishable temperature for a few hours’ car journey. Thank goodness I didn’t use my preferred ‘eskie’, adopted up from my days in Australia. The store worker may have imploded.

Grilled cheese. By far the biggest language-barrier challenge I’ve faced since living in NYC. A toasted cheese and tomato wholegrain sandwich is my snack stand-by; it instantly sorts out all manner of problems from plain hunger to pregnancy nausea to hangovers. I probably eat three a week. It is no exaggeration to say that it’s taken me four months to learn how to order this properly and it goes without saying that my misordering and resulting offerings have led to great gastronomic distress. I couldn’t take it anymore one day, and asked a nice man in a quiet deli how to say it. The answer is, ahem, grilled (specify type of –  I say Swiss) cheese with tomato on wheat. Phew.

Of course it’s easy to laugh at these New World people and their funny deviations on the Queen’s English. Anyone who has lived in London has at some point condescendingly rolled their eyes (after they’ve walked off, of course) at some well-meaning pa who wants to steer his brood towards Lei-chester Square.

But when you’re in a new country, the joke’s on you (or at least a rumbling tummy), unless you adapt your ways.

Plus, I know how those visitors feel. Not so long ago, I asked someone how to get to the Flat-i-ron Building.

As mispronunciations go, that is pretty dumb-ass.

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Interesting article in the New York Times about the increase in globalised work practises (ie: you are more likely to be transferred from London to Hong Kong, than Manchester – or, as with my Aussie friend I met for lunch yesterday, who has upped sticks from Sydney to Vancouver with just as many emotional repercussions/logistical difficulties if she’d moved to Brisbane). But how Skype, cheap flights (cheapish – Jeez, the cost of air travel is getting pricey), and the ‘international foods’ section in Key Foods (Worcester Sauce, McVities Dark Chocolate Digestives, Ambrosia custard), do little to prevent the ancient malady of homesickness, or nostalgia as they called it in ancient times.

It’s by Susan J. Matt who is a clever prof of history at Weber State University and the author of ‘Homesickness: An American History‘.

I’ve blatantly reproduced it but you can read the real version and the full comments here:

ACCORDING to a recent Gallup World Poll, 1.1 billion people, or one-quarter of the earth’s adults, want to move temporarily to another country in the hope of finding more profitable work. An additional 630 million people would like to move abroad permanently.

The global desire to leave home arises from poverty and necessity, but it also grows out of a conviction that such mobility is possible. People who embrace this cosmopolitan outlook assume that individuals can and should be at home anywhere in the world, that they need not be tied to any particular place. This outlook was once a strange and threatening product of the Enlightenment but is now accepted as central to a globalized economy.

It leads to opportunity and profits, but it also has high psychological costs. In nearly a decade’s research into the emotions and experiences of immigrants and migrants, I’ve discovered that many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed. Few speak openly of the substantial pain of leaving home.

This emotional style became common among mobile Americans in the 20th century, but represented a departure from the past. In the 19th century, Americans of all stripes — pioneers, prospectors, soldiers and the millions of immigrants who streamed into the nation — admitted that mobility was emotionally taxing. Medical journals explored the condition, often referring to it by its clinical name: nostalgia.

Stories of the devastating effects of homesickness were common. In 1887, an article in the Evening Bulletin of San Francisco had the headline, “Victim of Nostalgia: A Priest Dies Craving for a Sight of his Motherland” and reported that the Rev. J. M. McHale, a native of Ireland, had fallen ill with nostalgia after arriving in Brooklyn. Shortly before he died, he declared: “I am homesick. My dear country, I will never set a foot on your green shores again. Oh, my mother, how I long to see you.”

Today, explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity. This silence makes mobility appear deceptively easy.

Technology also seduces us into thinking that migration is painless. Ads from Skype suggest that “free video calling makes it easy to be together, even when you’re not.” The comforting illusion of connection offered by technology makes moving seem less consequential, since one is always just a mouse click or a phone call away.

If they could truly vanquish homesickness and make us citizens of the world, Skype, Facebook, cellphones and e-mail would have cured a pain that has been around since “The Odyssey.”

More than a century ago, the technology of the day was seen as the solution to the problem. In 1898, American commentators claimed that serious cases of homesickness had “grown less common in these days of quick communication, of rapid transmission of news and of a widespread knowledge of geography.”

But such pronouncements were overly optimistic, for homesickness continued to plague many who migrated.

Today’s technologies have also failed to defeat homesickness even though studies by the Carnegie Corporation of New York show that immigrants are in closer touch with their families than before. In 2002, only 28 percent of immigrants called home at least once a week; in 2009, 66 percent did. Yet this level of contact is not enough to conquer the melancholy that frequently accompanies migration. A 2011 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that Mexican immigrants in the United States had rates of depression and anxiety 40 percent higher than nonmigrant relatives remaining in Mexico. A wealth of studies have documented that other newcomers to America also suffer from high rates of depression and “acculturative stress.”

Ricardo Valencia, an immigrant from Guadalajara, puts a face to such statistics. In 2005, he traveled to Nevada to work so he could pay off a mortgage on his house. The day after he arrived in Nevada, he thought, I want to leave! As he explained to me: “I’ve always been really close with my family. … I had to stand it, we had to stand it … but returning was always in mind.” He used e-mail and phone cards to keep in touch with his wife, calling her several times a week. But even this regular communication could not assuage his tremendous homesickness. He finally returned to his family in 2009.

Like Mr. Valencia, 20 to 40 percent of all immigrants to the United States ultimately return to their native lands. They know that Skype is no substitute for actually being there.

It is possible that these new technologies actually heighten feelings of displacement. María Elena Rivera, a psychologist in Tepic, Mexico, believes technology may magnify homesickness. Her sister, Carmen, had been living in San Diego for 25 years. With the rise of inexpensive long-distance calling, Carmen was able to phone home with greater frequency. Every Sunday she called Mexico and talked with her family, who routinely gathered for a large meal. Carmen always asked what the family was eating, who was there. Technology increased her contact with her family but also brought a regular reminder that she was not there with them.

The immediacy that phone calls and the Internet provide means that those away from home can know exactly what they are missing and when it is happening. They give the illusion that one can be in two places at once but also highlight the impossibility of that proposition.

The persistence of homesickness points to the limitations of the cosmopolitan philosophy that undergirds so much of our market and society. The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past. But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.

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Tipping makes you sexy... from topcultured.com

The H1B and I are always trying to work out where all our money goes in the financial drain that is New York. So it came as a great shock find out from some American friends that we have been recklessly over-tipping.

The thing about tipping is, as ingrained as it is in the culture (indeed, it props up the economy), it’s still fairly arbitrary in application. And conveniently full of those potential social trips-ups that us Brits find so terribly, terribly embarrassing – something which I’m sure many establishments exploit.

My first hiccup with tipping came on a Christmas holiday to New York when I went for a pedicured. It cost something like $20 and I tipped the attentive, non-English-speaking lady who spent 40 minutes scrubbing and trimming and polishing my hooves a dollar tip. I’ve spent the subsequent four years wondering if my unwittingly miserly gratuity led to her children not having a new pair of shoes that winter (the snow was very deep on the ground), and even since then have erred on the over-generous tip, especially with something as bourgeois as getting my nails done.

But as the cringe-worthy memory fades, I’m more concerned about the amount of cash in my wallet. I must be turning into a hardened New Yorker.

So when I told my American friends that I’d given a Chinese masseur a $15 tip the other day, they laughed, saying $5 would have been generous enough, and I discovered that we’ve been over-tipping in just about every aspect.

For example, they told me that when in a cab a New Yorker will round up to the nearest dollar and then throw in another buck. That’s a lot less than the 20%-30% tip the in-car credit card machine suggests.

(That’s allowing for the fact that in Manhattan most taxi rides are on average around $10-$15, whereas a taxi ride from Manhattan to Park Slope, Brooklyn, is around $15-$20 – so it’s seems only fair to give them a bit more. But we’ve been tipping between $5 and $10 – depending on how sozzled/merry we are – so that’s around a 30% tip.)

When it comes to restaurants we’ve been handing over a gratuity of 20%. Say an average meal for two is around $80, that’s $16; but what most New Yorkers would do is simply double the tax – which is around 8% – so in this case the tip would be $13.60.

Drinks are easy, because it’s simply a dollar per drink. Or $2 if you think the service is very good or they have gone out of their way to make you an excellent cocktail or you are in a classy establishment (they’ll remember you and you’ll never have to wait for a drink again, sometimes they give you one on the house just because you’ve tipped generously – this is called “pay-back”).

(BTW: leave cash on bar, the barman will not pick it up until you have left or finished your drink at least.)

But then we’ve also discovered that we’ve been radically under-tipping delivery men and other service people. I didn’t tip the grocery delivery guy for weeks when I should have been tipping him around $5. The very helpful man from Time Warner could have got a tip too.

We need to get this right as otherwise we’re going to spend the rest of our time in New York either feeling guilty or broke.

In summary:

How Much Should You Tip in New York?

  • Taxis: In Manhattan or a short ride, round up to the nearest dollar and add a dollar. Longer journeys, 10%.
  • Restaurants/food: Double the tax on your bill
  • Bars: 1 dollar per drink
  • Delivery guys: $5
  • Nail salon: $5 for cheap place, more for a hotel salon, maybe $15-$20
  • Hairdressers: $15

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“Couples usually come home very married or extremely divorced…”

The BBC is doing a special investigation into the effects of living overseas on families; particularly in regard to wives (OK, spouses – but let’s face it, it’s normally women stuck in the H4 scenario).

How serendipitous.

It’s for the business section of the website, which just goes to show how important a consideration this is for industry.

After all, there’s a huge percentage of overseas placements that fail (something like 70%), because the family of the person with the working visa is unhappy. Even if the person with the working visa is successful and making oodles of money for the company he/she works for.

So it makes sense for organisations to dedicate some time to thinking about how the relocation of their employee is going to effect his personal life.

I’m continually maddened by how ignorant the H1Bs company have been over the difficulties of us living here.

When the H1B recently called his line manager to bring his attention to the fact that our health insurance premiums were going up, his response was: “HOW much? That’s outrageous”.

Funny, that’s what I was thinking too.

I also was thinking that we shouldn’t be paying for any health insurance in the first place (the verbal agreement that agreed our health insurance would be covered by the company seems to have been forgotten and, despite our polite reminders, any resolution is continually delayed).

I don’t think this is malicious – just neglectful. It’s not surprising that a manager doesn’t fully grasp the intricacies (or basic issues) but why there isn’t someone in HR who deals with international relocation in a multi-billion dollar company is beyond me.

Or perhaps there is – and no one has told us. That wouldn’t surprise me either.

Here’s an extract from the piece:

Moving an employee abroad is staggeringly expensive. The living expenses, relocation allowance and benefits can cost three to four times the employee’s normal compensation, according to most estimates.

Given such high stakes, companies from Shell to Dupont are looking at the factors that can lead to successful stints abroad for their employees. A happy spouse has long been, and continues to be, the best predictor of a successful move.

The number one reason for assignment failure is the family’s inability to acclimatise and adjust to the new location,” says Andrew Walker, the director of global mobility at WorleyParsons, which oversees more than 3,000 employees who move abroad.

> Read the full report

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