This blog marks an end-point reflection on a series of interviews, A Shared American Dream, that I’ve published over the past month.
In each blog, I’ve explored a central question (is life in the US all it’s shaped up to be?) and in doing so we’ve met four incredible women who’ve helped shape my expat experience so far.
Today, I reflect upon their contributions.
Mia, Zoe, Kathryn and Charlotte. Four women, four friends, four different but beautifully connected stories.
I can’t even begin to describe in words accurate enough what these women mean to me. Nor do I feel like I could ever get right to the heart of what it is that thrills me so damn much about their respective company. Collectively, we’ve been on amazing trips, had incredible hangouts, laughed and cried and cringed at the most riveting of social experiences…
But you know what? By asking all these questions, by mulling over all of the beautiful answers, and by publishing this series of blogs, I do feel like I’ve got a big part of the way towards understanding more about what it is that connects us.
My wish for this blog, number 39, is that it might highlight something similar for you. Do you set aside much time to think about it? What connects you and your friends? I have to be honest with you. I hadn’t, really – that is, before this post. And the great thing is that right now, in reflecting on 16 months of Silicon Valley, it feels even more important and powerful than ever to do just that.
Challenging, eye-opening, growth-inspiring… as tough as it’s been at times (omg… like this and this and this, for example) I am, overall, completely grateful for my time here so far.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Living overseas gives you perspective
Alright, so I’d already kind of gathered this. I’d experienced it myself – certainly from living in a growing number of places around the world – but had never really spent time researching and mulling over the lived experience of my own friends when it comes to the same thing.
What really stood out to me about Mia, Zoe, Kathryn and Charlotte’s journeys is that we’ve all – in different ways – been challenged by different thoughts and perspectives while building a life in the United States of America. Meeting new people, starting new jobs, building new friendships, finding new schools for our children… every context has presented us with opportunities to encounter different ways of seeing the world that either make us more accepting of circumstances around us, or help to keep us honest and feeling grateful for our lives as they currently stand.
Take my journey here from Melbourne, for example. I am fully aware that I was living in a beautifully comfortable echo chamber in that beautiful city of mine. I’ll write more about this soon (see point 2 below), but what really sticks out to me is that coming from somewhere that has (for the recent past – we lost it in 2018!) been labelled the World’s Most Liveable City on an annual basis has really coloured my experience of beginning a new chapter in SV. I was comfortable, had family and friends at my doorstep, and there was great food and drink available down every graffiti-lined alleyway.
That’s not what SV life is about. Nope. SV has its own unique challenges, of course (see: house prices (Charlotte), the US banking system more generally (Mia), the disparity between the rich and the poor (Kathryn) and the physical location of the place (Zoe)) but so does everywhere.
All of us have lived in wholly different settings (Johannesburg, New York, Sydney, Melbourne, London…) but I’ve come to see that the challenges just become part of our personal narratives. A story’s no good without some drama, troughs and peaks in the plot, right? We’re simply creating that for ourselves!
A final word about this:
The great thing is that wherever there are challenges, I’ve learned that there are usually a whole set of unique, little beauties as well. Travel just helps you to embrace all of these – beautiful, character-building or otherwise – as opportunities for growth and the building of resilience, rather than as setbacks.
2. ‘Easy’ is great, but it isn’t always better
Like me, you might have noticed that Zoe and Kathryn talked a lot about the ‘ease’ of living in SV.
Interesting… because reflecting upon my own experience of the last 12+ months, ‘easy’ is not necessarily a word I’d jump to using in describing my time here!
Like the gals, I’ve struggled with a lot of the hallmarks of life in SV and the US more broadly:
- The banking systems (ummm… yep… as you all know, cheques are still in use… what the hell?)
- The sad, bland architecture
- The ‘pressure cooker environment’ (Kathryn) of the US schooling and education systems
- The politics
- Healthcare, quality of life, and the gap between heavy earners and the poor
And yet, I’ve also learned that there’s a huge number of things that make daily life simpler for us here too, and especially those of us with children!
For Zoe and Kathryn, ease of living in SV is about having everything at their doorsteps, whether that’s on foot or via car. ‘Ease’ comes from driving being a total thing here. You’ll remember that I struggled with it for a bit in the beginning (e.g. the fact that ‘going for a walk’ was a kind of long-forgotten past-time) but I now see the joy, ease, and convenience of it too, just like they do.
That is, because I’ve now realised that one can only really have a limited number of key services and amenities within walking distance of home. At some point you’re going to have to get in the car, right? The great thing about SV is that everything we could ever want, and especially as young families – supermarkets, medical services, national parks, various forms of family entertainment – are all within a (relatively) short drive from where we all live.
“I love that you can experience incredible natural beauty only hours away from home. You have San Francisco [closeby] for your arts and culture fix, too”
What’s interesting, though, is that this ‘ease’ of getting around still precludes many of us from spending enough time outside. While we might get to SoulCycle every now and then (I’m looking at you, Kathryn!), the emphasis placed on cars here means that we’re often missing out on embracing nature on a daily basis.
I also learned that there’s a certain ‘ease’ and comfort that arrives in us from embracing the improvements in work/life balance that have come about from moving to SV. Both Zoe and Kathryn, for example, are stay-at-home mums. Back in NYC, Kathryn’s husband worked longer hours every day (pretty standard for NYC) as did Zoe’s in Sydney. With shorter commutes, more time to spend with their families, and a greater level of general groundedness and happiness as a result, it seems that the ways in which SV firms generally care for and regularly reward the inevitable hard work of their employees is having a huge and wonderful impact on the girls’ experiences of life here, and especially on the lives of those of us raising young kids:
“To be honest, raising kids in Silicon Valley is simply just a heap easier. Hopping in the car, opening the door, and letting the kids free play outside, having space at home, going to the playground almost everyday of the year. Life is a bit more simple.”
One more thing that I noticed really came to the fore for Mia, who arrived in the US from living in a particularly tricky part of South Africa, is the aspect of safety:
“[I love that] I can drive around with my handbag on my front seat, not turn my rings over when I walk through a shopping centre, and that I don’t have to hesitate when I come up to a set of traffic lights to assess the surrounds for likelihood of thieves/car-jackers.”
Of course, the thing that all of us realise (Mia absolutely included) is that there’s still the threat of gun violence (this came up multiple times in the girls’ posts), but for Mia, the threat doesn’t seem as regular, from moment-to-moment, on a personal basis.
While coming from one of the safest places in the world (Melbourne) means this isn’t something I have lived experience of, I can only imagine that the kind of energy expenditure I’d rack up worrying about being mugged, robbed or stolen from on a daily basis. It really puts into perspective worrying about Metro, Yarra Trams and the general craziness of Melbourne’s PT, that’s for sure!
There’s also one last thing that raises the ease-o-meter just that little bit higher… and it’s perfectly summed up by Charlotte right here:
“The weather! When you come from the UK, it’s probably the greatest difference. Your mood is elevated, the days feel longer, and weekends are usually spent outside enjoying your surroundings.”
Yep. It’s pretty good. Although as Charlotte so gracefully put it, she’s continuing to question that given the recent, long spell of rain…
And you know what you need when the weather is consistently sh*tty?
Friends. You need the gals. Speaking of which…
3. Never underestimate the power of friendships
You know this. I’ve written about it before. But what’s really great is to once again be reminded of the many, many ways in which amazing friendships can get you through anything in life… including a move to the land of Trump, guns, and self-driving cars.
It’s amazing to look at the circumstances in which the five of us each arrived in the USA. Charlotte had a bunch of business-related friends and colleagues already living here, Mia said her existing US friends were ‘a big factor’ in deciding to move, and Zoe, Kathryn and I knew absolutely no-one at all.
And yet, look at us now. We’re close, supportive, fun-loving, a bit nuts, and all share a really important sense of adventure, that’s for sure. I mean, just look at the places we’ve been! From arrival drinks in that first month, to Palm Springs for Charlotte’s 40th, to who-knows-where next…
Regardless of how this experience might have started off for the each of us, It’s clear that friendships have grown to be an incredibly big part of our learning to love life in SV just a little more every day.
“Last but not least, the friends I have made here are now totally, utterly lifelong friends. This means the world to me.”
What an amazing experience collecting all these beautiful answers has been.
But perhaps the biggest learning of all?
That when you’re in a situation where you’re already doing an okay job on your own – learning to see the positives, crafting a new life, and building a stack of resilience by encountering the very best and worst of your new circumstances – it’s usually even more exciting with a bunch of amazing friends behind you who’ve got your back.
Lucky me. Lucky us.