The Lonesome Postdoc - Part II: Living like a local... or trying to
People complain about moving all the time. It’s stressful, it’s inconvenient, it can be expensive. Usually, these people are moving a few suburbs away, or perhaps the next state/province over. I know I will sound arrogant here, but once you have done an international move (some good tips here), then you can legitimately complain loudly about all of the above. There are so many things that you don’t know about when moving internationally. Even the most basic of tasks can become a major ordeal. Hopefully, some of my experience helps others embarking on the same. My initial contract was 14 months, so I moved into a one bedroom, fully furnished apartment within walking distance of campus to make life easier.
Visas – the most important thing!! Start the visa application early because they can take a very long time to come through. Be prepared to have copies of birth certificates, passports, bank
statements, federal police clearances, and most importantly, your letter of offer. This step is also expensive. You need to pay processing fees, then you need to pay for the actual visa once you are awarded one. I had the unexpected additional burden of needing to rush through a visa for the USA – apparently, they deemed Canada to be part of the USA for travel purposes. This meant that my transit through the USA and then the 14 months spent in Canada were all considered “time spent in the USA”. This is ridiculous of course! Alas, you cannot argue with Homeland Security about getting into their country in the future so I had to comply. This meant that I paid another $1,000 for a 5-year USA visa (B1-B2) and another $500 or so to go and attend an in-person interview at the nearest US embassy.
Money – postdoc positions don’t offer relocation funds, not normally anyway. All expenses are on you. I estimate that I spent close to $10,000 moving for that first position. The cost of visas and flights is a small fraction of that in the end. You also need to consider all the hidden fees. I had no idea that phone, power, internet and water companies would all charge me substantial deposits to start accounts (usually $500 each) because I was an untrustworthy foreigner with no Canadian credit history. I quickly became pretty poor, and resentful! Even paying the security deposit for a rental apartment was an ordeal. I didn’t have a Canadian cheque book (Who still uses cheques anyway?! So archaic!!), I was still trying to organise my new bank accounts and I hadn’t been paid in local dollars yet. I eventually convinced the nice landlord to trust me enough to let me do an international transfer. The other problem was getting paid. It turned out that I would be getting paid monthly – gasp (insert string of expletives), I was used to being paid weekly!! Then the real kicker. I started mid-July… this meant that I had to wait 1.5 months to get any pay!! Crazy! I was already petrified about trying to live on $42,500 a year (most Aussie postdocs get double this amount), now I was having to live like a pauper for nearly two months.
Where is… everything? – one of the really fun things about moving internationally is, not only do you have absolutely no idea where basic things like supermarkets are, but you don’t even know
what they are called to know what to look for!! It helps to think of it as a game, maybe like geocaching with really crappy clues. I was fortunate that a friendly postdoc, and now good friend, had at least given me some tips ahead of time about which dodgey neighbourhoods to avoid. I spent weekends walking all over the place just working out the lay of the land and where things were. When you have no car, you really need to consider your grocery shopping strategy – what do I need and how much can I carry? These are legit questions! Figuring out where to get a health card from, a social insurance number, working out how to change over my driver license… all of these little things that we usually don't even think of can become huge challenges, and when you already feel alone and out of place, it’s scary and frustrating, and even more isolating.
A new institution – I already said that I was pretty much oblivious to how things worked in North American universities. I think the biggest ‘culture shock’ that I got was trying to operate in this system. People were very competitive! Very friendly, but very competitive. The biggest realisation was that grad students get a lot more time to do their studies. This means that they really get to fully
immerse themselves in their topic and learn, and meander in their learning. I didn’t feel as though I lacked knowledge, but I did feel that my new peers knew so much more. This led me to put a lot of pressure on myself. We all suffer ‘imposter syndrome’, but I felt even worse. I was trying to understand all the admin systems at this new institution, keep up with acronyms like NSERC/HQP/various course codes, develop a relationship with my new advisor, read up on the system I was studying, plus finish off papers from my PhD and get my new life in order. It was a lot to take on board. As Aussie’s would say, I felt under the pump! There were definitely days I felt overwhelmed, depressed and lonely. There were also days when I felt lucky and excited. The good days usually outweighed the bad, but on those bad days, it was really hard to talk to anyone about how I was feeling. The time difference made it hard to call ‘home’, I didn’t know anyone that well in my ‘new home’ and very few of them had made a move like mine. Australian’s also don’t like to whinge – it’s not very becoming. So, I just tried to rationalise the situation and tell myself it was perfectly normal to feel like this and that it would pass in time. Eventually, it did.
Friends – making friends as soon as possible is a priority! I made the conscious decision to step out of my reasonably introverted shell and force myself to accept any and every invite to gatherings/events. I was very fortunate to have my first move put me in an institution and department with a lot of really great people. They were amazing and I have made some very long-lasting friends through this adventure.
Language and culture – moving to Canada was reasonably easy in this sense. English is spoken, and people have similar values. I can say that the rumours that Canadians are exceptionally polite are true. I had never encountered so many “you’re welcome” statements!! I don’t think Australian’s are purposely rude, we just don’t engage in as many pleasantries and we are a fair bit more direct at times. I had to get used to people opening doors for me – simply because they were being polite! It was a little strange at first, but I learned to mimic this behaviour and assimilate. Although I still get told that I can be 'blunt' by Canadian standards. Compared to the average Canadian, yep, I definitely can be, but I also think it is a good thing sometimes - sometimes it helps to have that blunt person that says 'so, are we going to get started?'
A fun anecdote… I learnt that even when both countries speak English, the slang is definitely not the same! For example, I grew up using the word ‘dink’ to refer to the act of giving a friend a ride on the handle bars of your bicycle. Canadian’s use it to refer to a small… ahem… penis. So, when telling a group of peers about the time your friend gave you a dink and you tried to steer with your butt until you fell off… that makes them laugh alright, but not in the way you thought!!
Jump to the other Lonesome Postdoc posts:
Part I - moving abroad for a postdoc
Part III - putting down roots
Part IV - uprooting (again)
Part V - the importance of friends
Part VI - is working remotely really that great?