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Interview with Andrea – from Joburg to the USA

Updated 18 Feb 2010

Andrea van Niekerk arrived in the United States from South Africa in 1987 holding Master's degrees in both History and Library and Information Science. For ten years she served as Associate Director of Admission at Brown University. She left Brown to join her family in northern California where her husband is a professor of history at Stanford. She works as a personal consultant for College Goals where she works with students and families involved in their higher education search and college application process. She is a mother to a first-year and a third-year college student and a high school junior.

More information on expat life in the USA? Read the Expat Arrivals guide here

About Andrea

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Johannesburg, South Africa

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Palo Alto, California, USA

Q: How long you have you lived here?

A: I am not a typical expat perhaps, in that while I have lived here for 8 months, before this I lived for 10 years in Rhode Island and about 6 years in Chicago.  Interspersed with this, I have also spent years back in SA.

About living in California

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: Most of our moves have been related to my husband’s career (he is a university professor), including this last one to California.  I am movable since I work independently as a college admission counsellor.
About your city

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life?

A:  Palo Alto is wonderful  It is very affluent so the amenities are great, the weather is excellent, and just to the west the foothills are quite beautiful. 

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: Palo Alto reminds me a lot of Johannesburg actually. The weather is similar, in the summer the brown grass looks like the Highveld in winter, and there are a lot of eucalyptus trees around.

Q: Is the city safe?

A:  Very. I walk and bicycle at night  As in any city, however, common sense is always a good idea.

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?

A:  Anywhere in the Bay area is great, though a lot of people like Palo Alto because of the reputation of its public school system. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?

A: It is an affluent suburb, though the housing is quite mixed.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: It is hugely expensive – this is the biggest downside of living here.  Because Palo Alto is in the heart of Silicon Valley with all of its money, there is no such thing as a house of equivalent price compared to South Africa or most other places in the US.  So unless one really needs to have kids in the local high schools, one may want to consider less expensive housing in the very pretty surrounding towns like San Carlos or Mountain View.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A: I don’t know any expats here. All my friends are locals.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A: Yes, like anywhere else if you make an effort, Americans are pretty welcoming.

About working in California

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?

A:  This is in the middle of Silicon Valley so if you have related skills, it is a boomtown. The economic downturn has had an impact here as everywhere else, but less visibly so.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: Americans work way harder than anyone should.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?

A:  We have moved back to SA and then returned to the US with the help of a moving company.

Family and children

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A:  The two high schools in Palo Alto (Paly and Gunn) are two of the best high schools in the US. They are, as result, very intense and high-powered. Many of the kids do a lot of honours level courses and are intensely focused on getting into the “right” schools (hence my job as a private college counsellor!).

Q: How would you rate the healthcare?

A: American healthcare is a bit of a disaster, based as it is entirely on your class situation. In other words, if you are middle class and can afford the monthly premiums through your employer, you will have very good care. If you do not have insurance for any reason and you get sick, you will be in trouble. Years ago when my one kid was born in Johannesburg, I reclaimed the cost from my American insurance company, and they were astounded at how little it cost them. In fact, I think if they paid me to fly home to see my doctor in Johannesburg, it will likely still have cost them less than having a baby here!

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A:  Moving to the US as a South African can be a really wonderful experience. Americans tend to be mostly friendly and interested in foreigners.  The country is huge and beautiful, the local culture very interesting, and one can easily feel a sense of possibility here. Many South Africans come here, however, feeling either that they somehow have to be less South African in order to fit in, or they buy into typical stereotypes about Americans.  The fact is the place is huge and it is very hard to generalize between the experiences and attitudes of a rich WASP in Maine, a small town Texan, a Latino living in Chicago, a Mmong immigrant living in Minnesota.  What they share is that their very diversity is what makes this country interesting and strange and sometimes frustrating, but always exciting.  And nor do you have to feel that you have to let go of South Africa in order to fit in.  Most Americans are after all in a sense from somewhere else, and one of the reasons why we live here rather than in SA, is because here we can actually retain access to SA and raise our kids bi-national.  I even buy my biltong locally from a woman from Fiji!

– Interviewed February 2010

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