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Barbara: Resident Alien

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to the USA, etc.

My name is Barbara Backer-Gray. I’m Dutch. I emigrated or immigrated (depending on your point of view or my state of mind) to the United States in 1994, to be with my American husband. For the first twelve years we lived in the Rio Grande Valley, in south Texas, along the border with Mexico. Six years ago we moved to Austin, in the beautiful central Texas Hill Country.

When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

About eighteen months ago I found an old college friend via Facebook. She now lives in New Zealand and she blogs for friends and family. Of course I knew about blogging, but I’m ashamed to say that until I saw my friend’s blog, I had never followed one. But I saw hers and thought it was a wonderful idea. I began a secure blog for family and friends, but soon realized that I wanted to share much of what I had to say with a larger audience. So I started a public blog a few months later.

Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

No, they’re all absolutely fabulous and every single one of them deserves the Pulitzer prize. Just kidding. I think that for getting an idea of just how different American education is from that in Europe, my eleven-part series of posts about the high school where I worked for a while is worthwhile, even though they are from 1995-96. (I wrote letters to friends and family, and I posted the parts about the school on my blog later on.) They start here. And for the same reason my fourteen-part series of posts about my experience as both a student and a teacher (as a teaching assistant I taught remedial English) in an American college is pretty eye-opening, and important if you are wondering if your degree will be recognized. They start here. And yes, I know there are great schools and universities in America, but what I describe are the small-town schools and the small state colleges, the ones most Americans are dependent on.

Tell us about the ways your new life in the USA differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?

Gosh, where to begin? My whole blog is about just that question. My life differs in pretty much every way. Culturally, physically, emotionally and intellectually I was in complete shock and I felt extremely lonely.  My husband is and was wonderful from the get-go, or I would have turned around and gone back after oh, three days. Three months, tops. The first year I probably felt like screaming at least once a day.

Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in the USA? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

No, I was not at all prepared. For instance, I was in complete shock that my library degree wasn’t recognized here, so that right there meant the end of my career. If I had known that, I’m not sure I would have come. But then my husband would have experienced much of the same. He wanted to have his own business, and that would’ve been much harder in the Netherlands, not knowing the culture.

Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

Well, one of my favorites is not about one single experience, but it gets a lot of hits, so it definitely addresses something many foreigners wonder about.

Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in the USA?

  • Tip 1: If you want to work in your field when you get here, make sure your degree is recognized. Chances are, it won’t be. There are “independent evaluation agencies” that will look at your degree, but all they do is count the number of years you went to college and charge you several hundred dollars for the privilege.  I had the extra bad luck that, at the time, library school was a three-year deal, so it wasn’t even considered the equivalent of an American Bachelor’s degree. But keep in mind that if you’ve gone to a HBO or a Dutch university (or anywhere in Europe for that matter), you have the equivalent of somewhere in between an American master’s degree and a PHD, but that will not be recognized.  Even if my degree had been for four years, it would have been seen as the equivalent of an American Bachelor’s degree in Library Science, and that is not taken seriously, and rightly so. To be taken serious in most professions, you need a master’s degree. I explain in my posts on education why a Bachelor’s degree isn’t worth much.
  • Tip 2 is more of a warning: I didn’t fully realize exactly how bad the American health care system is. The cost of care, the access to (quality) care and the absolute, total, complete rip-off called American health insurance and the greed involved on all levels. Someone get me an icepack! I feel a stroke coming on just thinking about it. Seriously, though, it ends up being an enormous expense and insecurity in life, and it’s something to think really hard about if you are considering moving here.
  • Tip 3 makes tips 1 and 2 moot: be independently wealthy. Very wealthy.

How is the expat community in the USA? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

During my time in south Texas, I made friends with people from other countries and other parts of the U.S., but they usually moved after about two years. I was involved in starting an international club in the Rio Grande Valley a few years before I left for Austin, and I met some nice people there. I live in Austin now, a city where everyone wants to live, so pretty much everyone I meet is from somewhere else and the education level and life experience level relatively high. I don’t have the problem so much here that people can’t comprehend what it’s like to be a stranger in a different culture.

How would you summarize your expat life in the USA in a single, catchy sentence?

Catchy? One sentence? I don’t know. My blog is called Resident Alien because my ID shows that I’m a resident alien and that about sums it up. Especially in the beginning I often felt like I was green and slimy and spoke in unintelligible bleeps. But I’ve been here eighteen years now. I’m only green if the light falls a certain way, I’ve found ways to minimize the sliminess (although I still use it as a repellant when I want to) and I’ve learned to speak American. And every now and then--not too often, mind you--I even find myself thinking American.

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