By Andreia Ledio
Moving from one country to another may be exciting. But it’s not always easy.
Living abroad can be a colorful and enjoyable experience, yet it can involve major stress and fear. Moving thousands of miles away means saying goodbye to all that is familiar. And if you don’t speak the language, a simple activity, like grocery shopping, can seem daunting.
“Starting over it isn´t easy,” said Dorothee Constanze Unger-Lee, a German who arrived in Berkeley in March with her husband. “When you are living abroad you realize how the simple things in life can be hard.”
As soon as Unger-Lee knew that she was moving to the United States so her husband could get his PhD in history at UC Berkeley, she decided to adopt an optimistic attitude about the new opportunities presented to her.
“I think the best way to adjust to a new step in your life is [to immerse yourself] in the atmosphere of the place that you are living,” she said.
When Unger-Lee arrived in Berkeley in the spring, she started looking for a program or club for foreign wives. During her search she got in touch with Stanford Wives, a group that runs a blog about moving to the Bay Area, but she soon realized there was no similar group in Berkeley. So she decided to start Berkeley Wives.
Every first Wednesday of the month at 7 pm, more than 20 women from nine different countries meet at Raleigh’s on Telegraph to chat, share experiences and exchange tips about living in a foreign country. They also go on hikes and outings to museums, concerts,and restaurants. The next restaurant excursion is to Burma Superstar on August 24.
“We meet to support each other and to [assist one another in having] our best time in our experience overseas,” said Unger-Lee.
Berkeley Wives has also created a website where people can get information on how to get a California driver license, how to find an apartment, room, or house, where to find furniture, choose a school, go food shopping, and how to get around the Bay Area without a car.
“I decided to create it to share my experience with people who are living a similar situation as mine,” said Unger-Lee. “The Berkeley Wives don’t like to sit at home and play the housewife – we like to get out there and discover our new home, work on our careers, make new friends, go out and have a good time.”
One of the hardest issues for many of these women centers around work. Many left successful careers behind. While their husbands dive into their new work straight away, the spouses often struggle with licensing and certification issues, obtaining work permits, and cultural issues.
Sandra Spickermann moved from Germany to United States with a master’s degree in Educational Science, but could not find a job.
“This was really hard for me, but actually I really see this as one of my biggest learning experiences,” said Spickermann. “I learned how to network in the U.S. and that outreach is way more important than it is in my home country. I think that this experience defined my personality a lot.” Spickermann overcame the situation and is currently working.
In the beginning, Unger-Lee also faced difficulty finding a job. She decided on a Plan B: volunteering. “It is a great idea [because it can be] meaningful to the career path,” said Unger-Lee. “You can learn a lot. It is also very useful for those who are not allowed to work here or who have kids and don’t want to compromise in a fulltime job.”
Another option for some of the Berkeley Wives is getting an MBA or starting a businesses. “The most important thing to do is to take control, trying to create new opportunities doing the things you like, ” said Unger-Lee.
For many of the members of Berkeley Wives, moving abroad has been an opportunity to try new things and stretch themselves.
Spickermann, for instance, never thought that she would love camping, but after a year in the Bay Area she felt in love with the wilderness.
“The national parks in California are so beautiful,” said Spickermann. “We actually go camping as often as we can.”
She is also a big fan of the food in California. “Here you can find tons of vegetarian and organic restaurants, as well as great supermarkets where you can get fabulous food, even international food.”
For Gabriela Garci-Escobar, living in another country has allowed her to gain a new, more nuanced, perspective on the world.
“I like the variety of people, ideas, behaviors and culture,” said Garci-Escobar. The 31-year-old Chilean is expecting her first baby and believes that this diversity will be useful in her new role as a mother. “Living in the Bay Area has opened more my eyes and has granted a new style of life,” she said.
Andréia Lédio Cardoso is a Brazilian journalist who moved to the Bay Area in 2010.