Meet Nathalie – a Belgium expat living in California with her husband. I had the pleasure to ask her a few questions about her journey through immigration, culture shocks and first impressions of her new home.
Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Sint-Niklaas, a small city in Flanders, Belgium.
Why did you decide to move to America and what do you do?
After I met my American husband while studying abroad in London, we both finished our degrees in Europe and were facing a decision on where to live. Europe proved a pretty difficult place to find a job and I had always wanted to live abroad, so I decided to follow him to California. Even though I was really worried about job opportunities and our future here, it turned out to be a great decision. As soon as I was able to work here, I landed a job as an online journalist and I work from home now.
How did you get your visa/greencard? Tell us a little bit about this process.
We applied for a K-1 Fiancee visa and the whole process took about a year. Looking back on it now I think we were a bit naive about how long it was going to take and what exactly we needed to do. I would definitely do my research better now. We did prepare all of the documents ourselves and never had any real problems. I mostly tried to figure out the whole process through information I found online and forums or websites like this one. The downside is that you also read every possible thing that could go wrong on those forums, which that makes it hard to stay positive sometimes. After we filed our initial proof we didn’t hear anything for a long time. Our second Notice of Action came exactly seven months after the first. Once the American embassy in Brussels was in charge everything picked up speed. I scheduled my doctor’s appointment, took my interview at the embassy and booked my one way ticket. It felt very surreal. You spent all of this time waiting, putting your life on hold, and then when things are finally moving forward again you’re still feeling unprepared. We got married one month after I arrived in the US and then applied for the Adjustment of Status. By this time I had a more realistic view and expected this part of the process to take a while, so I was surprised to find our interview scheduled within 2 months and that I had my greencard within three.
What was the most difficult part of your immigration?
Definitely the waiting and the insecurity along the way. I had just finished studying and couldn’t start a steady job in Belgium before my big move. So I did a lot of part time jobs that year in order to stay busy.
Is there anything that you miss from home other than family?
I miss the proximity of things in Belgium, not only is walking or biking somewhere here nearly impossible, but also having people you know close by. The US is such a big country with a lot of people moving everywhere after graduating that not only expats but Americans too often find themselves alone in a new city. If I have to name a few things that I miss, it’s the public transport (never thought I would say that), the bakeries and sometimes even the rain!
Have you had a culture shock yet? Please share some examples.
I wouldn’t say there are any major cultural differences between Belgium and the US, but there are a few things of course that I had to get used to. Americans are for example much more outspoken than people in Belgium. They’ll speak up if they feel like something isn’t right, which is mostly just a good thing but it can be intimidating when you’re not used to it. I also had to get used to everything being a possibility. The sky is literally the limit here… Going to a restaurant felt like taking a pop quiz at first. You can’t just order a dish since everything is customizable. Which brings me to the fact that Americans eat out so much more! So it was fun, but stressful at first, to explore all of those new places. Overall, I guess Belgium is such a small country and even though we are proud to be Belgian we don’t have the same sense of patriotism as Americans. That has definitely been intriguing so far and I have yet to experience the 4th of July.
What techniques worked best for you to learn English?
Well, I studied English at university and had it as a third language in secondary school so I had a good grasp of it already. From my experience however, the best way to learn a language is exposure to it. I’m really glad foreign movies and shows are subtitled in Belgium instead of being dubbed, that has definitely helped me with pronunciation and vocabulary.
Have you found a good source (in-store or online) to buy Belgian food in America?
I know The House of Belgium is a website selling Belgian food and there are a few other (mostly Dutch) online stores that offer Belgian delicacies, but I haven’t tried them out yet. We did discover a European Deli owned by a German couple where I found Kinder Bueno and garlic butter. They have lots of other European goodies, so I’ll have to go back there sometime. Luckily I have no problem finding good Belgian beer here, even though it is a bit more expensive.
Tell me 3-5 things you would take back to Belgium from the USA.
Without a doubt the customer service. People are so friendly here! I sometimes can’t believe the almost limitless return policy (how do you do it?) and am just amazed by how well this shopping experience is developed. So I wish we could have a bit more of that in Belgium. Other than that I’m really jealous of how much rugged nature there still is in the US. I know Europe has beautiful spots too, but I grew up in a very urbanized part of Belgium and sometimes wish I could spent my childhood exploring all this natural beauty at my doorstep. Oh and definitely the Mexican food. I wouldn’t be able to live without it anymore.
And 3-5 things you think the USA should have/implement from Belgium.
At the risk of sounding patronizing I do think the US could learn a thing or two about public transportation. I just don’t really see everyone having a car working in the future. I was initially thinking of doing another degree here, but the cost of studying is insanely high compared to Belgium. It would be great if this gets more accessible. Another thing I never thought I would say is… that it’s nice to have shops close sometimes. Back home everything is closed on a Sunday and during the week shops close around 6 or 8 depending on the store. Now, of course I like the possibility of going to the store whenever I feel like it, but in a way having everything closed every once in a while forces you to take a break from everyday life.
What are the most important steps you would advice every new expat to take right after immigration?
Give yourself some time to adjust to your new surroundings. I know everyone always says you have to get out there and meet people, but I really wasn’t ready for that upon arrival. I needed to regain some confidence and get used to my environment before I could pick up my hobbies again and put myself out there. Also, try to find a balance in comparing everything from home to your new country and the other way around. It can have poisonous effect.
Please tell us about the day you got your first US driver’s license.
Honestly, I had really hoped I would never have to go through getting a driver’s license again. When I got my license in Belgium I tried to avoid driving as much as possible, since it was mostly such an inconvenience. Not driving is almost not an option in California, and in a way it is very different here too. You have more space on the road, there are less bikes and everyone seems more relaxed behind the wheel. So I went in with a bit more confidence this time. I hadn’t expected all the strange (to me) rules here, but I passed the theory immediately and scheduled my behind the wheel test for a week later. Overall the test was extremely short, maybe 15 minutes and I didn’t have to parallel park or make a three point turn. So I would say the driving test was a lot easier here.
The Belgian soccer team is in great shape this year. How will they do in the World Cup and will you root for Belgium or the USA?
I think the last time our team stood any chance in the World Cup was in 2002 (I do remember that) so I’m really excited this year. Of course I’m rooting for Belgium, because we’re always a bit of an underdog. I hope the US will do well too, but let’s just say that if the Red Devils were playing the US I would choose Belgium. Soccer definitely brings out the little amount of patriotism there is in every Belgian.
You’re blogging at SnowFlakesInCalifornia.blogspot.com. Why did you start a blog and what are your plans with it?
When I moved to California last year, I really wanted to keep everyone up to date and document my life here. There are only so many hours in one day and I couldn’t Skype with everyone every week (even though I would like to). That’s why I started Snowflakes in California. After a while I discovered so many likeminded blogs that I hoped that my story someday might also be of some use to someone else making a big move.
If you’d like to learn more about Nathalie’s journey in California, please visit her blog.
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