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Interview with Katherine – an Australian expat in San Francisco

Updated 27 Sep 2016

Although Australian-born Katherine Fenech has only been in San Francisco, California for a little over a year, she has plenty of stories to tell about life in the USA. Her experiences inspired her to start a blog called Bright Lights of America. For more from Katherine, follow her on Twitter.

Read more about San Francisco in the Expat Arrivals San Francisco city guide or read more expat experiences in the USA.

About Katherine

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Western Sydney, Australia.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: On the San Francisco peninsula, USA.

Q: When did you move here?

A: July 2015.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?

A: I moved all on my own, because what's life without a little adventure?

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

A: I applied for a job from Australia on a bit of a whim, thinking there was no way they'd want to go through the rigmarole of accepting an overseas candidate. So I was a little shocked when I found out I got the job. I write internal communications and technical documents for a business in San Francisco.

Living in San Francisco

Q: What do you enjoy most about San Francisco? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Australia?

A: I love the variety of things to do and see in San Francisco. On any day of the week there are so many things that I could get out to (if I had the money) – music, food trucks, comedy, great restaurants, lectures, festivals, fairs, free shows in parks – there really is never 'nothing to do'. But to be honest, if you're moving from Sydney and want to go somewhere that feels like home, California should be first on your list. The climate is practically the same (apart from Karl The Fog) and the people are lovely.

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

A: It's pretty expensive here. I spend a fair chunk of my income on rent, which doesn't leave very much left over for frivolities. But if you budget right it's doable. Personally, I don't find the public transport system that great (so there's no difference from Sydney there). The things I miss most about home are food, family and friends. In that order. I'm yet to find a great Thai restaurant and of course there aren't any meat pies or sausage rolls or Cherry Ripes. But I can live without them.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in the US? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

A: Half of my blog is about culture shock. The single biggest thing for me is that my dry, Australian sense of humour just isn't understood here. Not that people take offence, it just tends to confuse them more than anything else. I'll make an offhand comment to a cashier while buying groceries and then spend an extra two minutes having to explain it so he doesn't think I'm totally out of my mind. That also comes into play at work. Let's just say I've learned that it's best not to joke with your superiors. Or anyone. Just be straight-laced, OK?

The number of homeless people. There are lots and lots. Brace yourself for seeing them. Many are visibly unwell - broken bones, weeping or bleeding sores, mental health problems etc. It's pretty heart breaking.

Getting used to driving on the right side of the road was pretty tough as well. And no one uses their blinkers in California which is endlessly frustrating. They don't use the metric system so I never know how far away anything is or what the temperature is. Sure, there's apps for that, but I prefer not to know sometimes.

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

A: As I said before, it is pretty expensive, however, I think the housing prices and rents are only slightly higher than the inner suburbs of Sydney. I can't compare petrol because I have zero maths skills and they use gallons instead of litres, so who knows? You get more bang for your buck on mobile phone plans here (unlimited data or higher caps, free texting and calling), and clothes are cheaper.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in San Francisco? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?

A: I thought I could get away with not owning a car and just using buses and trains. I was wrong. I live outside of the city proper though so if you're in SF itself you could probably get away with it. The bus services on the weekends are really reduced so you spend a lot of time waiting and a lot of money on transport. For me it was much easier and more economical to get a second-hand car. I find the transport options strange here. They are owned by private companies and don't link up very well. If you're catching a Caltrain to then grab a BART to SF, you'll be stuck waiting for up to an hour between services. Very annoying. Using Muni can also be confusing I find, but I'm sure you'd get used to the system if you used it often enough.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare San Francisco? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?

A: There are good and bad sides to the healthcare system. If the business you work for offers good packages that allow you to choose your own physicians then I'd definitely go with that. I (stupidly) chose a package where you can only see that insurer's doctors, physiotherapists etc. So when I was not impressed with the physiotherapist I saw I didn't really have the option to visit someone better without paying straight out of my own pocket. The other thing you need to know is that medical insurance doesn't cover dental or optical, you have to buy that separately.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in San Francisco? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A: I don't think there are any safety issues specific to expats here, but I will say that there are parts of SF that I don't feel comfortable walking alone in at night. I won't go to see bands playing in some parts of the Mission District because it feels like a dangerous place to me. The same goes for Tenderloin and anything west of Octavia Blvd on Market Street. But as long as you keep your wits about you, you're pretty safe during the day and for the most part at night.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in San Francisco? What different options are available for expats?

A: Since the market is so tight, any available space is put out for lease or rent. That means there are some pretty dodgy places out there. A lot of them don't have kitchens or owners specify "light cooking" which means using a microwave or an electric burner. Expect apartments to be tiny. The housing stock is older than Sydney's so they're a little more run down as well. Here they call granny flats "in-laws" and they can either be attached to the main house or sometimes (very rarely) they are detached. Otherwise it's apartments or house shares.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?

A: It all depends on where you're working/frequenting. If your job is on the peninsula or in the city I wouldn't recommend living anywhere in East Bay because you will hit a mountain of traffic every day both ways just on the bridge over and back. If you need something cheaper than the inner city, go for South San Francisco, Milbrae, and parts of Daly City are not too bad.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?

A: I guess I get off pretty scot-free with this one. I'm a Caucasian woman so I can't say that I've ever really experienced discrimination. San Francisco is a fairly multicultural city though, there are lots of people from all over the world – Asia, India, Pakistan, Australia, Europe and South America. I haven't noticed discrimination against particular groups of people but I also can't speak for everyone. I did notice that men can be aggressive in trying to chat up women, though.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?

A: I found people at work to be really friendly and happy to get together for a hike or to go out for drinks after work. There are some great expat groups here that organise drinks or meet ups as well so I'd definitely look those up. I also joined a gym when I first got here so that helped me to meet people as well.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?

A: I've mainly made friends with locals through work. My only advice would be to keep that sense of humour thing in mind (and don't play practical jokes on April Fool's Day). Californians live up to their stereotype – they're mostly laid back and easy to get along with. Just don't overstay your welcome or get too rowdy and you'll be fine. I joined the "Australians in San Francisco" Facebook group and they're really great for answering questions specific to expats.     

About working in San Francisco

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?

A: The company that I work for did most of the visa work for me. I'm here on an E3 Visa, which is for people with a Bachelor's degree in the area that you'll be working in. They engaged the immigration lawyers who got in touch with me, sent me paperwork to fill in and it all went from there. It all went very smoothly. After lodging the paperwork, I had to book and pay for an interview at the US Consulate in Sydney and my visa was approved in a few days.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in San Francisco? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?

A: A lot of tech companies are laying off large numbers of staff at the moment, so it's not the best time to be looking for work here. Having said that, the most popular job ads here at the moment are in hospitality and retail so if you're looking for that kind of work it might be a good place to get to. Americans use LinkedIn more than I'd noticed we do in Australia, so it's good to have a profile up so that recruiters can find you.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in San Francisco?

A: So much is different and yet very similar. I am constantly putting my foot in my mouth here. I can't even tell you how often it gets me into trouble. It's mostly because I'll make a joke or say the first thing that comes to my head (which in a newsroom in Australia gets laughs, in a corporate office in San Francisco it gets you blank stares or sometimes audible gasps). There is a definite hierarchy here and a proper chain of yelling. If you do something wrong, your manager cops it and so do you.

And finally…

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

A: Don't let anything that I've said here put you off. As long as you're prepared and know what to expect, you're going to love San Francisco. It's a beautiful place surrounded by awesome national parks for hiking and camping, beautiful beaches, a great nightlife and basically the pros well outweigh the cons.

– Interviewed in September 2016

 Are you an expat living in the US? We'd love to hear your story. Contact us here if you'd like to be interviewed.

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