02/03/2016

The story of a Belgian in the USA. Discover the country, the people… discover yourself.

All paperwork is done and all necessary arrangements are made. I can finally start this new chapter in my life as a Belgian in America. At first, my job description did not change moving offices. However, there are some remarkable differences.

Are you hesitating to become an expat as well? Here is my top 5 list of items you should take into consideration before taking the plunge.

1. The distance

In the USA, my colleagues fly in every week on the project. Imagine: you have a project in Dallas, TX and live in Atlanta, GA. It will take you up to 15 hours to drive there. Impossible to do this type of commute by car, so you will fly in on Sunday evening, or Monday morning and fly out on Thursday or Friday evening. You spend more time in hotels than at home if you work on a project like this. This can be a real challenge for your work-life balance. And this is certainly something to consider when planning to move to another country. Yet, if it is your goal to visit many places, there is no better way to experience the travel life.

2. The weather

Moving to the USA, first to Dallas, Texas and later to Atlanta, Georgia, I did have to learn to live with some things I would never have thought about, like the weather. The Dallas, TX region ends up being hit by an occasional tornado. I can assure you that the first time you hear the tornado alarm and you have no idea what it is, or what to do, or why the streets are as empty as they are… it feels weird. When you see a tree flying through your street… when the rain/hail and strong wind suddenly stop, and the sky turns freakish green… you do not need to be an expert to know something really bad can happen at any time! Yes, the weather is something to take into consideration when moving or traveling to a region you are not familiar with.

3. The local culture

Moving to a different country, you cannot prepare for everything. After three years living in the USA, I still feel like I am on vacation every day. I walk the streets, drive the roads to work, but it feels as if someone else is the main character and I am just watching from the outside. As if life is a movie.


There are times that you will feel utterly stupid. Having lived the majority of your life in Belgium, you bring Belgian baggage and cultural background with you. You have missed over two decades of popular culture in your new home country. Even though Flanders, the northern part of Belgium where I grew up, has a much ‘Americanized’ TV culture, there are still a lot of things that you miss. Music is a total disaster once you walk off the pop music path. When I first moved to the USA, I could go to a club and not know any of the songs they play all evening. And this holds for everything culture-wise. It creates a situation where watching the “Wheel of Fortune” becomes an act of self-torture. You know the questions are really not that hard, but you are totally blank on the answer, even when it is spelled out in front of you.

4. The language barrier

I have read articles that claim expats moving to a country with a different native language than their own, appear less intelligent than they are because of the language difference. I can fully relate to that. The most curious example of this happened when I visited one of my friends who has a three-year-old son. The child was describing to me food, animals and other objects from his colorful children’s book, and it was the most humbling experience because I realized that he knew more words to describe the simplest things than I know. My English is solid. More than sufficient to do work related tasks. But a three-year-old could win a debate against me when it comes to describing kitchen tools.

5. Child of 2 worlds

It is not only local culture and toddlers teaming up against the expat. The expat mind will start messing with the expat as well. You will start dreaming in English, rather than your mother tongue. You will be talking with your countrymen and half the words in your sentence will be English. My sister calls it “Astrid Bryan-Dutch”, but being out of Belgium for some years, I did not even know who she is either!

You will integrate into the local culture so well, that you will become a new type of person. A person that is a Belgian in the USA, and an American in Belgium. You will be the child of 2 worlds, but feel like you belong to neither of them. You will only realize this when it is too late and there is no way back. You will start looking at world events differently. Your views and values will be challenged and you will have to adopt to your new perception of the world around you. Things that have been obvious in the past, will become less so. Your world view will change in directions you cannot even imagine.

All these things do not necessarily have to be bad things. But nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed!

 

Author: Nigel Grillet, a Belgian in the USA since 2013. You can connect with Nigel on LinkedIn