Moving to a different country is hard. No matter how much you researched the place you’re moving to, there will be things that take some getting used to. There are the obvious challenges for expats, finding a place to live, being away from friends and family, starting new jobs. But I was surprised by some of the little everyday challenges I encountered with regards to the more mundane daily routines. Here are the five surprising everyday challenges I faced as an expat when we first moved to California from Toronto that I did not anticipate:
Everyday Expat Challenge #1: Grocery Shopping:
There is nothing more mundane for a stay at home mom than grocery shopping. Finding a new grocery store that I liked was more challenging than I expected. You never realize how habitual your grocery shopping is until you need to shop in a new place. Suddenly you are wasting time finding the right aisles and products, backtracking and asking staff for help because items are not grouped together the way you’re used to. When we first moved here to California I didn’t even know the names of grocery store chains and which ones are closest to the Loblaws I was used to.
I made the mistake of going to Trader Joes on our second day here in the states. It’s one of the few chains Canadians are familiar with simply because we don’t really have anything like Trader Joe’s in the GTA (you should have seen my Facebook feed when TJ came out with cookie butter. People discussing how to get cookie butter into Canada, recipes to reproduce it, asking others to bring some back after a visit south of the border). Anyway, going to TJ thinking it’s a regular grocery store was a disappointment. I have since learned to really like Trader Joes, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a complete grocery store when you literally have to start your fridge and pantry from NOTHING. Luckily, there is Costco here and you can even use the same membership across the border.
Once you do find a grocery store, you still face the challenge of figuring out all the different food brands that we were not familiar with. Many of our everyday grocery items were not available here in California. Our favourite yogurt brand, chicken strips, cookies, coffee, BBQ sauce, beer and many more were not available here. Some things were not only different brands but different descriptions as well – for example, “homo milk” became whole milk. Balkan-style yogurt is called European style here. Hellman’s mayo is Best Foods mayo on the West Coast. It took some trial and error (and a lot of Googling) to figure out which foods and brands are the equivalents to what we like and find new favourites.
Everyday expat challenge #2: Netflix
When you live in Canada you constantly hear about how much better Netflix is in the US. People always talk about how there is so much more choice in the US. What they usually don’t mention however, is that quantity doesn’t equal quality. Many more shows doesn’t mean better shows or shows I want to watch. I didn’t realize that many of the shows I was already watching on Canadian Netflix were not available on the American one.
There are more streaming services here in the US so it’s easy enough to find a streaming service that will have the show you want. But that comes at a price. When we got Netflix, we cut our cable and were happy to pay a fraction of the cost. If one were to sign up for every streaming service here you’d be paying the same ridiculous prices that you used to pay for your cable package. Luckily Netflix has been coming out with pretty great original content and it’s enough entertainment for the very little amount of time we have to watch TV.
Everyday expat challenge #3: Amazon Prime
Here in California you pretty much have to have amazon prime if you like to shop online. This is likely a Toronto-centric “challenge” but when we lived in TO we never felt the need to get amazon prime. I shopped on amazon a lot and items always arrived pretty quickly – within a day or two. I had no problem getting to the $25 free-shipping minimum. Prime video wasn’t a thing in Canada yet so the 2-day shipping benefit didn’t seem worth it since we enjoyed it for free.
When we first arrived in California I ordered an electric kettle on amazon because the temp apartment we lived in didn’t have one. It was stuck somewhere in a warehouse in Kentucky for almost a week before slowly making its way to me. After that we realized that when Amazon here in California says the free shipping will take a week, they aren’t exaggerating.
Prime video has a lot of kids shows we like so having that in addition to reasonable shipping times has been worth it.
Everyday expat challenge #4: Paying for stuff
Cheques are still a thing here. E-transfers are not. Using cheques in Canada is almost unheard of. Getting cheques from the bank is expensive (depending on your bank) but almost unnecessary. E-transfers through the bank on the other hand are super popular. It was the easiest way to pay for things when dealing with small local businesses without POS terminal. “I’ll just email you the money” sounds funny but it’s real and it’s so convenient. It’s almost non-existent here in the USA. But writing cheques, that’s everywhere. People still write cheques at the grocery store! On the plus side, you can get a pack of like 500 cheques for $13 at Costco.
Living in Silicon Valley is a little odd in that you can be on the edge of technology one second, paying with your phone and getting an email of the receipt, and then be taken back in time at the store next door by writing a cheque or not having chip-and-pin technology on the credit card machine.
Another unanticipated challenge, which still annoys me to this day 2.5 years later is the cash in America. Specifically the bills. The US has the $1 bill as paper money and it is green in colour just like the rest of the US dollar bills. This means that it isn’t as easy to tell from a small glance how much cash is in your wallet. Americans make fun of Canada for their “monopoly money” but at least when I looked in my wallet in Canada and saw a few green bills (green are the $20 CAD bills), I knew I have enough cash to pay for things. Here, I look in my wallet and see a bunch of bills only to go pay for something and discover that I only have $4.
By the way, fun fact: did you know that there is in fact a $1 US legal tender coin? A few years ago in Boston I got a couple of dollars in coins from a token machine. When I tried paying with these $1 coins at a store, the cashier didn’t want to accept them! I think many Americans don’t realize they have these $1 coins. I kind of wish I’d kept one as a souvenir since it’s so rare.
Everyday expat challenge #5: Driving
Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the actual driving laws here in California are pretty much the same as those in Ontario. I didn’t have to study to take the driving test and all the signs and rules on the roads make sense. However, the driving experience here is unexpectedly different for a few reasons.
First of all, traffic lights take FOREVER. If you’re unlucky enough to get to a stop light just as the yellow turns to red, you can add at least 5 more minutes to your trip total because that’s how long it takes for the green light to cycle back to you. I don’t know if this is a Bay Area thing or a USA thing, but at least where we live, U-turns are a big part of the driving experience (because most major streets are divided with a median) and multiple left turning lanes are the norm. It’s very common for left-turning lanes to have their own turning signal on most of the intersections I drive through. In a way this is safer, but sometimes it can be frustrating. If you’re driving in town, hitting two red lights can easily double your trip time.
Merging on the highway is much scarier here. One lane doesn’t really merge into another, with clear markings showing who has the right of way. Instead, the line in between the two lanes just stops and it’s a free-for-all where cars keep trying to drive beside each other double file in a narrowing single lane where no one wants to let the other one in. Like a weird game of chicken to see who will finally hit the brakes to fall back.
Merging lanes are also much shorter here. There is hardly enough room to get up to speed when the on-ramp ends. Often the on-ramp and off ramp is the same (short) lane, so while you’re flooring the gas pedal trying to get up to 60mph as fast as possible, there are cars jumping in front of you and slamming on their brakes to exit the highway. It can get pretty harrowing. All I can say is Californians are lucky they don’t have to get on/off the hwy when it snows.
That’s it for my list of five surprising mundane everyday challenges for this Canadian (Torontonian) expat in California. I’m sure there were many more little struggles that I’m forgetting about now.
As always, I’d love to hear from you! Did you make a major move to another state/province or country? What were some challenges you faced that you did not anticipate? Leave a comment below and share your experience!