Working in the US: Perceptions and reality

I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that half of the girls in my high school in Sweden dreamed of going to the US and working as au-pairs after finishing their high school studies. The draw was multifold: it was a way to get out and see the world, to get a taste of “the American dream”, to improve their language skills, and to get experience that set them apart from others back home. Most of all it was an easy way to get a job abroad, not requiring much in terms of skills, experience or paperwork.

Of all the girls who wanted to go, only a handful actually ended up doing it. What looked exciting and simple on paper was in reality a decision similar to the one many traditional expats have to make – one full of pros and cons and unknowns. Many of us feel we have an idea about what it is like to live and work in the US based on TV, Internet and social media but reality is often quite different from the picture you have in your mind. Making the decision to go can be difficult and it doesn’t necessarily get easier once you are in place.

While I don’t recall ever sharing that high school dream, I did end up in the US. I spent my first year at a junior college, acquiring skills I thought would be useful in order to get a job in Silicon Valley. In addition to learning the finer details of technical writing, I was advised on the practical aspects of finding a job, keeping a job, keeping up-to-date in my field and how to interact in the workplace. It was incredibly useful since I only had a couple of years worth of “real” work experience at the time. Two points still stand out for me: 1) Do not underestimate the importance of networking, both when looking for a job and in your workplace once you have a job, and 2) Stay up-to-date and flexible in regards to developments in your field.

My first job was at a start-up company and I got it thanks to a contact from school. It took me a while to feel comfortable in my new work environment. One of the hardest things for me to figure out was the hierarchy – to differentiate between different “bosses”. I was used to a straightforward and simple hierarchy and that was not what I found here. I have since realized that the fluid and changing responsibilities were probably just the nature of a start-up business.

At my previous job in Sweden my group had afternoon coffee (the famous Swedish “fika”) together pretty much every day. It was an informal way of meeting and sharing what we were working on, making announcements and just exchanging ideas. It was not a long break, just 20 minutes or so. I missed those breaks/meetings and I wondered if our group communication wouldn’t be better if we had something similar in place at my new job. Sure, we had lunch together every now and then but it was always a big production and it took a lot of time out of the day.

As a Swede the most obvious difference was the amount of time spent at work. Work days were longer (though I’m not convinced that they were more efficient) and working weekends was not unusual. Vacation time was definitely shorter. When I started out I only had two weeks vacation plus some federal holidays off. Going home to see family or spend time with them when they came to visit was hard to say the least.

There were many times during my first year of working in the US where I wondered if this was for me. But I stayed on and slowly I started appreciating the positive aspects of my new work environment: the diverse workforce – we had people from all over the world, and everyone brought a unique perspective (and food), the dynamic nature of the company, and the energy and belief of the employees. In the end some of the biggest hurdles proved to provide the biggest opportunities for me. When I eventually did leave the company, it had nothing to do with feeling out of place, but rather the arrival of my second child.

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