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Starting Life Over Again in a Foreign Country

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By Jolanda Heijnen

Jolanda is an international spouse from the Netherlands. She followed her husband who is doing a post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Before moving to Berkeley, Jolanda worked at one of Europe’s largest steel manufacturers as a Product- and Process Technologist, combining aspects of data science and data analytics.

Here she talks about her transition of moving to Berkeley and the support she received from attending the Friday Morning Coffee, a group for international spouses/partners facilitated by Yvonne Lefort that meets weekly at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.

As I’m writing this story on the 7th of November, I just realized I missed the year mark of my arrival here. On the 6th of November last year (2017), I arrived in the USA. In the first few months after arrival, I would have given you totally different expectations of this international adventure than I’ll give you now, in hindsight based on experience. It’s not over yet, but the difficult initial struggle is over. Though this was harder than anticipated, I don’t regret it at all, and I think I’ve personally learned more than I would have, had it gone according to expectation. Yvonne’s weekly Friday Morning Coffee at Caffe Strada has been a huge positive contribution to this.

My husband started his Postdoc in August last year, after backpacking around South America. At that time, we had been living apart for about two years due to necessity after having been together for nine years, and before that, we lived together for six years. It was about time we started living together again. In November, I joined my husband, after quitting a good job with nice colleagues just a week before departure, and lots of stress related to finishing my job, packing and moving out. In the first month, my youngest sister, who happens to be called Yvonne as well, accompanied me and we spent a lot of time together. We got to do the touristic stuff, mostly using public transport. For example, we visited Pier 39 and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, and we rented a car to see the Monarch butterflies in Santa Cruz.

Within a few weeks after she left in the beginning of December, reality hit me: I was extremely bored. I no longer had a job, and my main hobbies in the Netherlands were either too expensive being on a budget (a common issue for many in the Bay Area) or hard to get in contact with people to start (i.e. playing bridge). Later I found out that UC Berkeley students were about to go away for the holidays, and the other bridge club required more patience. While still processing quitting my job, and officially becoming a dependent spouse (the requirement for my visa type), I struggled to find things to do.

Cleaning isn’t really my thing. I see it more as an annoying necessity, and also cooking more elaborately starts to get boring when there’s plenty of time to do that every day. In order to find something to do, I decided to try and improve my English writing, focusing on improving writing structure, something I generally struggle with. I’m hoping you’re able to notice a difference. If not, just imagine what it was like before!

Luckily, I had lots of support from friends and family back home through frequent Skype calls, and from my husband here. He arranged for a few meetings with other international couples for the evenings. In one of these meetings, a spouse, working at that time, mentioned the support she got from the Friday Morning Coffee group before getting a work permit. Friday Morning Coffee is not advertised clearly, unfortunately, as UC Berkeley does not promote it. Referrals to the group are often by word of mouth. I’m attempting to send in anyone who I think might benefit. I’m also hoping this piece might help contribute to getting the word out.

Friday Morning Coffee, promoted through the Facebook group Creating a Fulfilling Life in America, consists of a group of international visitors, many with links to UC Berkeley or the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Most are spouses or partners of postdocs and scholars, or graduate students. Some are long-term residents by now. Many in the group are, or were, in a similar situation: either waiting on a work permit, being ineligible for a work permit at all, starting or raising a family, or a combination of those. For most attendants, it is a good excuse to get out of the house and talk to people, reduce loneliness and learn from each other. Here I met others in similar situations and was able to put my own situation into perspective.

Yvonne founded these weekly meetings and is like the glue keeping it together. She suggests local activities, highlights interesting topics as they come up, and the different cultural approaches to a certain situation. She also held a potluck-style gathering in her garden in the summer and arranged for pumpkin carving for Halloween. She sometimes brings interesting books, or even children’s tales to help people learn about American culture. A few months ago, she brought a book called the “Little Engine That Could,” representing American values taught to children. Since then, I’ve seen and heard it been referenced on several occasions, one of which was an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

Friday morning conversations, infused with some pointed advice, helped me fight through this initial difficult period and appreciate, and eventually start enjoying, my time in the Bay Area. Right now, I think both my husband and I have developed a stronger bond, and I have become mentally more resilient by learning to occasionally let go.

After a few months, my work permit got approved, and though I worked part-time, I worked on Fridays, and therefore did not get to attend these meetings for a while. To me this was the biggest disadvantage of working: I wasn’t able to attend these meetings regularly anymore. Being off on Fridays was not an option due to scheduling problems, though. After a few months, my work permit had to be renewed, and the process started over again. This means I was attending Friday Morning Coffee for a few months again, until I got the new work permit.

A word of caution depending on your cultural background: Friday Morning Coffee is said to start at 11:00 a.m. but generally starts somewhat after 11:00, more like 11:15 or so. (As I’m Dutch, I showed up exactly at, or even slightly before, 11 a.m. the first time, and didn’t see anyone.)

P.S.  If you’re considering joining: Yvonne usually brings a small sign that says “Friday Morning Coffee” and puts it on the table to help newcomers recognize the group. If you don’t see the sign (sometime Yvonne forgets it), look for a group of women (occasionally there are men in the group) and ask if they’re part of the Friday Morning Coffee. Also, be sure you join the Facebook group Creating A Fulfilling Life in America as Yvonne posts a reminder about the Friday Morning Coffee as well as lots of other good information!

My Support Group

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By Ruth Weinhold-Heße

Ruth is a journalist and an international spouse from Germany who is currently living in Berkeley while her husband does a post-doc at UC Berkeley. Here she talks about the Friday Morning Coffee, a group for international spouses/partners facilitated by Yvonne Lefort that meets weekly at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.

Friday mornings, my mood generally is in the pits: getting up early, the long week, trying to convince my 2-year old for the fifth time in a row to leave the house quickly… and, as I mentioned recently, I feel lonely. For friendships with the locals are still quite sparse. My husband and my child are gone during the day. So what to do when one (unfortunately usually the woman) is in a foreign country, the partner is totally occupied with his job, you yourself have no work permit, and the children finally are well taken care of?

Drink coffee? All day long? That’s what I do on Fridays. I meet with other women who, almost all, have accompanied their scientist-husbands. I call it my support group. Because every time I’m there, I feel so much better afterwards. I get to know other women, all of whom are in a similar situation and have to cope with similar problems, and they all have very interesting stories. Even the mix of cultures is exciting:

Miki comes from Japan, Diana from Italy, Anna comes from Poland, Berit is Norwegian, Sarina is German, Xia originates from China and Yvonne is American.

When Yvonne was a young woman, she lived in Germany and out of this cultural experience grew her life’s work: to support women from abroad in adjusting to the United States. Every Friday at 11, she is at Caffe Strada across from campus and listens, asks questions and gives a few little tips. It may not sound earth shattering, but here I’ve learned that there are compostable plastic cups in America that are made from corn, or where you can park and for how long. This gives me the feeling of understanding American life just a little bit better. (Americans don’t just give up their plastic cups but manufacture more environmentally friendly ones instead… although this is not true for all disposable cups. But that’s another topic.)

My Support Group
My Support Group

And even though it’s a pity that I haven’t hung out yet with more Americans, it is perhaps only natural to feel attracted to those who have a similar or live in a similar situation. Almost all of the women have children or have used the time abroad to have children (which is the only thing mostly left for accompanying spouses to do!). We’re allowed to get irritated about American customs and learn, on top of it, how the same things are handled from China through Poland.

Recently, we even took ​​a small day trip. We went to Sonoma, a town north of the Bay Area that is known for its vineyards . Of course, we also did some wine tasting at a small winery whose founders were two Germans, which you can still see by the name (Gundlach Bunschu).

Here’s a picture of my support group, in no longer completely a sober state (except for the drivers who were nursing, of course!).

Note:   This blog post was translated from German into English by Yvonne Lefort.

The original blog post in German can be found on Ruth’s blog:

http://ruthroyal.blogspot.de/2014/05/meine-selbsthilfegruppe.html

 

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Moving Through Transition

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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y work as a career consultant and intercultural trainer brings me into contact with many people in career and life transition. At UC Berkeley, where I have been working as a consultant and teaching a course called “Creating A Fulfilling Life in America,” I have met many international spouses and partners going through intercultural, career and life transition.

Some have never lived or even traveled outside their home country, and living far away from friends and family is a daily challenge. Finding a place to live, setting up the apartment, opening a bank account and knowing where to shop or get a good haircut are some of the practical challenges of living in a new place, but there are also psychological challenges. Most people from other countries experience some degree of “culture shock” and loneliness, while others can get paralyzed with fear, depression and anxiety, and not know how to “get out” of what may feel like a big, black hole.

I often refer people to William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Every transition, according to Bridges, begins with an “Ending.” When you move to another country, you experience many endings: an end to your job and to the sense of identity you got from your work, an end to time spent with close friends and family, and an end to being in a culture where you know the norms and can feel safe and comfortable, to name a few. You may go through a period that Bridges calls the “Neutral Zone,” where you feel lost and confused, unproductive, and not sure who you are anymore. It’s not a comfortable place. But in this period of confusion, there is growth happening as you begin to sort through who you are, what’s important in your life, and what you need to have to feel fulfilled. Your new identity is trying to take shape. Eventually, you will experience a renewed sense of energy as you begin to get new ideas and take action. You have moved through the neutral zone to a new beginning!

I have witnessed this process with the spouses and partners at UC Berkeley with whom I have had the privilege to work. To them and to you, I say, “Step Outside Your Comfort Zone.” It may feel scary because you don’t know the culture, your English isn’t perfect and you have an accent, or maybe you’re not used to starting up conversations with strangers. I understand, but don’t let this stop you from fulfilling your dreams. Take your inspiration from some of these spouses:

Satu, a spouse from Finland, applied for work authorization but her application was denied. So, she decided to form the “Language Café,” an informal language exchange where people meet weekly at a coffee shop to practice different languages.

Mila from Mexico is a marine biologist. After volunteering at a nature center, she applied for a grant from UC Berkeley and received a sum of money to start a program on sustainable living called “Nature Village.” (http://www.naturevillage.org). She received an award for her work from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability.

Ernani from Brazil is a high school physics teacher and musician. Since he couldn’t work on a F-2 visa, he decided to join a band and volunteer at a children’s science museum.

Doro from Germany didn’t know anyone when she first arrived in the U.S. and wanted to meet new people. She started a social group called the “Berkeley Wives” and created a website (http://berkeleywives.jimdo.com), and now she has a membership of almost 300 spouses.

Kathy from Chile is a veterinarian who volunteered at an animal shelter for several months before getting a part-time job as a veterinary assistant.

Kirsty from Australia loves to sew and make her own clothes. She started writing her own blog, “Tea and Rainbows” (http://www.teaandrainbows.com), to show off clothes she has made and talk about sewing techniques, patterns, fabric and anything else crafty.

These are just a few examples of spouses who have created or seized opportunities, taken risks, and stepped outside their comfort zone. You can too.

If you’re a new mother, find a mothers’ club to join where you can meet other moms to share the joys and frustrations of motherhood. Or, start your own new moms group.  

If you’re looking for work, learn the American way of networking and asking for informational interviews, and begin to make contact with people who can help advance you in your career. Take job search classes to learn how to write an American style resume, interview for a job, and “toot your own horn.”

If you are unable to get work authorization, find other ways to make your time in America meaningful and fulfilling. Is there something you’d like to try that you’ve never had the time to do? Is there a class that you could take or certificate that you could get to upgrade your professional skills? Can you think of some ways that you could be of service to others and volunteer your time? Or perhaps you’ve been too busy with your career to just take the time to have fun and relax. Allow yourself to do what makes you feel good and what makes you come alive.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy your life in America!

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Volunteering Experience at the Food Bank

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Food bank
Yvonne, Dx, Zeena, Xiaochen and Claudia had fun bagging huge heads of cabbage!

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I decided to move to America to be next to my husband, one of my priorities was to get involved in many activities ASAP.  That is when I thought of volunteering for community services, and found out that, fortunately, the Bay Area provides a lot of possibilities and organizations specialized in this matter. So when Yvonne Lefort posted on Facebook about a community service opportunity at the Alameda County Food Bank, I did not think about it twice and decided to participate.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank distributes food to thousands of people through nonprofits agencies. Our task was to prepare the vegetables for their distribution. 

Together with other spouses of the “Creating a Fulfilling life in America” program and Yvonne, we met at downtown Berkeley to head towards the food bank in Oakland. I think we all were very excited about this experience.

When we arrived at the location, the first thing we observed was a huge warehouse with aisles of fresh fruit, veggies and non-perishable food. Given the large amount of food in this place, we realized the hard work that the volunteers were doing in this place and that some help was needed.  The work environment was really nice, the people were very friendly, and they also played good music, so everybody was in good mood while working.

The community service is a very rewarding experience because we didn’t just help the needy people, but also we had a good time meeting the volunteers of this organization that provides nutritious food and nutrition education to the people in need. The work of these people is just admirable. I hope to come back sometime soon. 

Claudia

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Being a mom in U.S.

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I still vividly remember the moment that the doctor said “it’s a girl!” Then I was holding my tiny little baby with very confused feeling of amazement, worry and tiredness (of course I stayed up night and spent 12 exhausted hours of laboring). By the time my mom was on the way flying from Korea, I couldn’t finish my master thesis yet and my husband was scheduling to make a business trip to South Pole for his research in a few months later. The afternoon that I delivered my first baby at hospital in a small town in Pennsylvania, I felt like I am somewhat connected to this country and everything seems so strange to me at the same time.

Susan Ha with her husband and daughter!
Susan Ha with her husband and daughter!

Four years ago, my lovely girl was born in the middle of such a mixed up and I have become a mom. Having a baby was on a totally different page of my life throughout marriage, living in foreign country as well as my own values and identities. I need to start building up my new identity ‘as a mom’ from the beginning like when I had arrived in U. S. first time. It was more challenging than defining just myself, because my baby always needed my help even though I cannot get some help for myself sometimes. My baby was always in the center of my daily living, in my mind and even in my unconscious. The more I spent time to take care of her, the more depressed I became and it seemed forever for me to keep loosing myself. In the mean time, our family moved to berkeley and we started over in a new place.

Whole new environment gave me a refreshing idea and challenges altogether. Finally I have started a book club, tutor students in mathematic with Yvonne’s advice and I make new friends through my daughter’s friends. These days, my 4-year-old girl sings a song “Rudolf the red nosed reindeer” learned from her preschool and she dressed up as a fairy princess on last Halloween’s day. Raising a kid provides me a chance to recall my childhood and to picture of future of child.Then I get to think about objective issues such as human being, life or world.

I still complain about the poor public transportation, expensive education and medical bills, but I know I can have quality family time here and nice memory of traveling, instead. Soon I realize that my life becomes richer and more meaningful as parenting. I am growing together with my kids and I am picturing my family with my second baby who is on the way now.

Susan

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A new home away from home!

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Sole Consoli with her husband Raffaele Saggio
Sole Consoli with her
husband Raffaele Saggio

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]iving a life experience in the States has always been a dream for both my husband and me. However, when the time comes, it’s hard to say goodbye to people you love. It’s hard to put your life in a bag and leave your previous time behind you. But you do it because you keep hanging on to hope and to that rational part inside of you that says you are going to live a fabulous experience soon. And so it was! At least for me.

I moved to Berkeley almost 6 months ago with a luggage only. I hadn’t a place to live, I hadn’t a place to work, no friends, no points of reference. Nothing. But today I look at myself and I can see that many things have changed. I’ve found an apartment, a job and new friends. I wake up every morning and I’m happy.

Things started to change for me when I realized that I had to stop thinking about my previous life in my country as the only one suitable for me and started to look at the present life in an active and energetic way. I’ve been lucky to find a job very soon. I came into America with a J2 visa and I applied for a work authorization. However, time for bureaucracy at the immigration office is very slow and I’m still waiting for it. But at that time I wanted to look for something anyway. I couldn’t see myself as an accompanying spouse anymore but I wanted to recreate my own routine. So after many weeks of researching, I finally found “the perfect job”. I found this nice and very familiar Italian language school that was looking for teachers. I prepared a resume (in the American style!) and I decided to go to the school to introduce myself. It didn’t take much time to let the headmaster think about it and welcome me in. I was the happiest person in the world. I remember that day printed in my memory as a new beginning of my American life. And so it was. Few weeks later another Italian school contacted me. This time it was an Italian kindergarten located in North Beach, San Francisco. So, I started to work there too, as a part time job.

However, the biggest improvement in my new life wasn’t about my job. It was about my friends. Meeting Yvonne and attending her course for partners and spouses here in Berkeley was amazing. I was able to find new friends to share my experience with, new friends to have fun with and new friends to live fantastic adventures together. Everyday I wake up and I feel blessed for all of that. For this reason I really hope that sharing my experience with the new Berkeley wives could help them to find the hope and the bravery at the beginning of their journey. Because sooner or later we are all able to find ourselves here, creating the so-called “fulfilling life in America”.

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Creating a Fulfilling Life in America

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Yvonne Lefort during her workshop with the spouses
of international students and visiting scholars
at International House in Berkeley

Three months in Berkeley/Albany and I have this feeling of happiness. That is great to feel. My family and I have got a nice start here – this year we have been planning for almost one year back home in Norway.

Shortly after we arrived there was an information meeting at CAL for visiting scholars and their families. There, Sam Castaneda talked about the work they do for families of international students/researchers. He said: “The research will be bad if the wife is unhappy”. At the same meeting Yvonne Lefort was telling about the course “Creating A Fulfilling Life in America.” The course is once a week for 10 weeks and every week we have a nice lunch. Only the first 25 persons asking for enrollment get the possibility to join. The university supports this course financially.

Workshop participants carve a pumpkin
during the Halloween week

Now I have been in this course for 7 weeks and I want to tell about my experiences. The course makes a difference in my life here, it makes a difference for other people and I guess later, in my life in Norway. It accumulates action and energy. And I hope – a difference in the quality of the research of my husband. The wife is happy.  🙂

Yvonne Lefort is a qualified coach with skills, a good heart, interest in cultural topics, knowledge of networking, and she makes a great effort for us also in her spare time. She challenges us and makes us take risks in communication with each other. You learn that if you want something, you have to take the initiative.

The group eats out at a Chinese resturant

 First we got to know each other and made friends. I met women (just one man) from different countries: 8 European countries, 4 South American countries, 5 Asian countries and of course Yvonne from California. It made me understand how small my country is and how little knowledge I have about other parts of the world. We meet each other open-minded, asking and learning about cultures/experiences. We get tools to manage the life in America in a very simple way. You don’t narrow your perspective inside this group. We learn why Americans act like they do, which seems very mysterious for us sometimes. I like this sentence: “Always think that people have a good reason for their behavior; look for it.” I think this is very important when you live in a foreign country where values, religion, roles are different from yours. This is a heterogeneous group, people have different needs, they are in different situations and the group is helpful in different ways.

Bonding over history: Girls having fun
during Oakland museum trip

 Things happened inside the group. After a few meetings we had friends, a cooking class, Facebook group, a Friday meeting at a café with cultural discussion topics and this blog. As a member of the group I get a lot of information about what happens in the Bay Area.

Yvonne’s students volunteer at
soup kitchen on Halloween

But what makes me most impressed is what we learned about volunteer work. We have learned about the American volunteering practice, how to find work where you have skills, where you can get skills or where you can have fun. Yvonne went with us to Glide Memorial Church; nine people from the group helped serving lunch to people needing food. This was both interesting and fun, and we want to do more. We are a group of women with skills and spare time who wants to fulfill our life in America.

This society has welcomed us and the group gives skills and shows possibilities to give something back. It really makes ripples in water. Thank you CAL.

Doris Brauten

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