Skip to main content

Interview with Marie S – an expat in the sunshine of rural California

Updated 17 Mar 2011

Marie Sardalla-Davis was a corporate writer for 19 years before finally getting to write to please herself and a readership that appreciates humour, substance, quirky reflection and the occasional rant. She says, "Job loss, occasioned reinvention and the onset of mid-life grumpiness have converged. I see through the lens of a westernised Filipina living in rural California. Recently dubbed an abstract romantic by a friend, I have embraced the label." Join her whimsical journey at

About you

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Manila, Philippines

Q: Where are you living now?

A:  Riverbank, in northern California's inland Central Valley

Q: How long you have you lived in California?

A:  Since 1985. I spent my first two years in the Bay Area's Union City and Hayward.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A:  I was single and 21.

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

A:   I moved to join my mother, who had immigrated a couple of years before me. I spent six years writing for newspapers and 10 years ghostwriting speeches and articles for campus presidents. Now I blog, teach ballroom and Latin dance, and design clothing for unconventional women for my Etsy shop, Swoosh by Scrollwork.

About Riverbank, California

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

A:  Riverbank's small-town life suits us well. There is no traffic to speak of; the library, post office, bank, Starbucks and grocery store are within a mile of home. It sits on the northern edge of Modesto, which has (relatively) big-city traffic and crime, but also more selections in restaurants and shopping. What Riverbank sorely lacks is the cultural, artistic flavour often found in bigger cities, like Washington DC and Oregon. Residents here are either agricultural migrant workers, lifelong residents who haven't seen much beyond their backyards, or Bay Area commuters mostly absent during the work week.

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

A:  I think of this as home, now, so I don't miss the congestion, political corruption and pollution of Manila. I miss Filipino food, but there are a couple of Filipino restaurants 45 minutes away in Tracy. The ethnicity is heavily tipped toward Hispanics from Mexico, and if you read the comments in the regional paper, The Modesto Bee, many carry a strong sentiment against them due to gang activity. Prejudice is alive and well in little Riverbank, alas.

Q: Is Riverbank safe?

A: Compared to Los Angeles and other highly urban cities, Riverbank is safe. It's surrounded by sprawling orchards, dairies and vineyards. It can be unsafe to drive during the winter when the notorious tulle fog settles on the Central Valley floor and lingers for weeks on end. I spent almost two years white-knuckling it during my 100-mile round trip commute to work.

About living in California

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

A: You would feel pretty isolated from Filipino expats here; the city of Stockton, an hour north, is more populated with Filipino-Americans and has a Barrio Fiesta every summer, I hear. Here's how rare it is to run into other Filipino-Americans here: when I do, they stare, because it's such a rare sight!

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?

A: Single-family homes run about a third of Bay Area housing costs. Most homes that do sell are in the $130,000 range and lower for three bedrooms, two baths. Single-bedroom apartments (the nicer ones) are in the $700 a month range.

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

A: Gas is approaching $4/gallon as of writing (March 2011). Services are much more expensive than in Manila, e.g. massages, hair cuts, auto repair, clothing alteration. The purchasing power of the dollar beats the Philippines peso hands down. I could never have afforded my MacBook Pro, big screen hi-def TV and remote-start car on a Philippine salary.

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

A: It's very diverse in this region of California. Lots of east Indians, Hispanics, Hmongs and other Asians. To hasten my acculturation I made it a point to mix mostly with locals, but the locals themselves trace their roots to other parts of the globe.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A: I came before e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, so as a stay-at-home mom it was excruciatingly lonely. After staying home full-time for four years I worked as a newspaper reporter and only then did I begin expanding my world. My oldest daughter, who is now a stay-at-home mom, has so many more avenues of connection open to her beyond the ladies' group at church.

About working in the US

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: When I had a day job (at a state university), the culture was quite formal and restrictive in terms of personal expression. In the Philippines, it is almost organic to mention God in conversation. In the US, particularly within state-funded organizations, you cannot even have a Christmas tree in the lobby or the two Jews on campus will object and get it ejected. When I quoted Jesus in a speech I ghostwrote for one of the campus heads for whom I worked, she objected and asked me to substitute it with a quote from the Dalai Lama. Not because of her personal beliefs, but because of the unfavourable reaction she anticipated from having Christianity mentioned.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A: My spouse is a Caucasian, born and raised in the US. He and I had to iron out our cultural differences in the early years of our marriage. In a traditional Filipino family, the wife holds the purse strings. That's how it is now with us, but it took us two decades to get there! I had to prove that I am the wiser money manager who is never late with the bills.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: My children are half-and-half. They were all born in California, and have experienced a stricter upbringing than their peers. Consequently, when they were young, their friends' parents often complemented them on how polite they are.

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

A: Given that my daughters are now in their 20s, the memories I have of their schools are quite outdated. They all went to Beyer High School in Modesto, which tends to draw from affluent families. We were not affluent, so my youngest, in particular, often felt a divide between herself and peers who were driving BMWs to school.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in California?

A: We are covered by Kaiser Permanente under my husband's plan via his federal employer. It has been steadfast and reliable through the years. I can now make appointments online and ask our doctors any questions via email. Responses are prompt, usually within one business day.

And finally…

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

A:  Acculturation should be among your top goals when you immigrate. Do not stick to comfort zones. Seek out friends who are not from the same background as you. Immerse in popular culture, particularly movies and TV, to learn to appreciate the humour. Value your heritage but be open to new inroads into your identity. Join Toastmasters International to hone your verbal communication skills.

– Interviewed March 2011

Expat Health Insurance

Cigna Health Insurance

Cigna Global Health Insurance.

Medical insurance specifically designed for expats. With Cigna, you won't have to rely on foreign public health care systems, which may not meet your needs. Cigna allows you to speak to a doctor on demand, for consultations or instant advice, wherever you are in the world. They also offer full cancer care across all levels of cover, and settle the cost of treatments directly with the provider.

Get a quote from Cigna Global – 10% off

Moving Internationally?

Sirelo logo

International Movers. Get Quotes. Compare Prices.

Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.

Get your free no-obligation quotes from select removal companies now!