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Why American Expats Whitney And Andrew Left Sydney For Byron Bay

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Welcome to our latest Expat Story Of The Month! Meet American expats Whitney & Andrew Klonsky who moved to Sydney from Portland, Oregon in the USA in 2018 with their two dogs. When they made the decision to embark on the adventure, their three kids decided to stay in USA to continue their studies at university. Although they thought of the adventure as only being a flight away from their children, Covid changed things dramatically for them.

Little did they know 2020 was about to change everything, and they decided to move from Sydney to Byron Bay. In this honest article, Whitney opens up about the difficulties of being away from her children and how she’s trying to find her feet in Australia and make friends.


Why I Moved To Sydney

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In November of 2017, my husband had ended a job and had a head hunter actively pursue him for a job in Sydney. It wasn’t a job that offered much growth in terms of career, but it opened up an opportunity to move abroad and experience life in another country which was intriguing.

Our three kids were all in university and living away from home, so the timing was ideal when we moved to Sydney in August of 2018. Knowing we were really only a day-long flight apart was reassuring at the time. Sydney was attractive to us because we love to be outdoors, we had one friend here who was very encouraging, and my husband Andrew had always dreamed of becoming a surfer. Things just seemed to line up and pointed us towards Sydney.


We Moved Within 5 Months

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Hiking with friends, Olympic National Park USA

Andrew accepted a job with the company in March of 2018 literally one day after immigration changed many of the visa programs. This was a challenge for his employer navigating which visa and what they needed to do to sponsor and get us approved.

We were confident the visa would come through, so we started cleaning out extra stuff from our home of 10 years, researching international moves, starting the process of preparing our dogs for the trip.

We also started determining whether to rent out our house when we left – we should have, but we didn’t! We tried to lock down costs and so many other things, and in many ways, it was an overwhelming process.

We felt very confident we had everything figured out and under control. The visa application was finally lodged in mid-June, and it was approved about two weeks later. We landed in Sydney on August 2nd, 2018.


Organising Australian Visas

We came to Australia on a temporary 482 visa, sponsored by Andrew’s employer. It also gave me the same working rights. We are now permanent residents on an 858 distinguished talent visa. We used a migration agent and had sponsorship from Andrew’s work colleague to get the new visa.

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We Didn’t Ship Anything Over

We did not ship anything in a container, we were very uncertain as to what we would need and whether it was worth it considering our visas were good for four years. On our first flight here we had 10 very large bags. At the time Andrew had excellent frequent flyer status, so even with the several hundred dollars involved it was a less expensive option than thousands we anticipated for a container.

I also had a trip planned for about six weeks after our arrival to do the final vet checks with our dogs and put them on the plane to Melbourne, at which time I was planning to bring additional items.

Initially, we thought we might be able to find a furnished house of some sort but we soon realised that was not likely in Sydney. There was not much help for us with this so we kind of figured things out as we went. It ended up being much more expensive than we anticipated. Because we didn’t have any guidance or help, we were not well prepared for what to expect in terms of living conditions and the cost. If we wanted something remotely comparable to the standards we were used to having in Portland, it wasn’t going to match up.

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Moving Away From Our Kids

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As a family, we’ve travelled all over the world and our kids have travelled worldwide on their own since they were teenagers. We felt that being a long-distance flight away was not a big deal. Some of our extended family was less excited, but they all saw it as an opportunity to visit Australia, as did many of our friends.

We undertook the move as a life experience, but never really saw it as a permanent move. At times there were disappointments as college weekend visits didn’t happen and summer break from school proved more challenging for our kids as they didn’t have the home base as many of their peers. This also forced some independence on them that I think is ultimately beneficial.

As a mother though, it was often hard to be so far and not be as available when the inevitable struggles came up. This past year has been the most difficult of course with the shutdown of Australia’s borders because of Covid-19. It was the first Thanksgiving and Christmas season that we were not together, ever.

We have not seen our extended families for a year or more. One of our daughters stayed with us in March before lockdown, but we’ve not seen our other two daughters in over a year.

So, that long day of travel that kept us apart which we thought we could easily handle has turned out to be something we couldn’t count on. That was something that we never imagined.


Losing Our Jobs In Australia

My husband works as a consultant and I was a personal trainer in the US before we moved. I wasn’t ready to try and build that type of business initially, so I found a job as a practice manager in a physio clinic for a year.

We then lost our jobs last March at the onset of all the shutdowns, partially a side effect of being on temporary visas. Because there was no assistance for us or our employers as temporary residents, we lost our jobs quite quickly. Andrew is now working on building a new consultancy and together we are working to start a new small business. We hope to launch our new endeavours by February 1st.


Working In USA vs Australia

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Generally speaking, working in USA vs Australia is quite different. In Australia, it seems to be more relaxed than in the US. There are more mandated vacation days, better working rights and a virtually guaranteed holiday in December. The cultural differences between Australians and Americans are also evident in how they work. That relaxed nature is good in many ways, but at times it seems to hinder change or innovation.

But, because Andrew worked for a company that had offices internationally and his business was deadline-based, we haven’t personally seen a lot of a difference.


Difficulty Making Friends In Sydney

Making friends in Sydney was the most difficult thing for me. We came from a very social environment that was very welcoming and inclusive. We had work friends, close family friends that we met and spent enormous amounts of time with as our kids grew up together. We also had friends we went skiing and hiking with too. This all came to a pretty dramatic halt in Sydney.

While Andrew’s coworkers were friendly and some socialised outside of work, they were mostly younger and had different interests. Coming from a place where new employees were often welcomed with dinner or drink invites (especially if they had relocated), it was surprising to us that this just didn’t happen in Sydney.

In America, we frequently had dinner parties or were invited to other’s homes, but that doesn’t seem to be a common form of socialising here.

You may be invited out but almost never to someones home. Sydney has a reputation of being cliquey and I think that’s very true. With Andrew working, I was on my own often and I didn’t find a job for about 8 months. I would go on runs, dog walks, take a workout class, etc. but it was usually pretty lonely.

I joined a book club which was wonderful and still one of my favourite things to do in Sydney. I signed up for a women’s learn to surf group and that slowly became the beginnings of friends. Still, everyone already had their own lives and being a little bit shy, I was really struggling to connect.

I did try an expat group, it was helpful but I still had trouble making real connections. Most of the time I found expats or others with similar interests to also have young enough children that those were their friend groups. I feel I’m very much in an in-between age so that was hard and I was depressed at times. I did get a therapist which helped a lot and slowly started to make friends.

We had friendly neighbours in our second house and I got to know people once I found a job, so it wasn’t nearly as lonely. It was two years before I started to feel connected, and then we moved away from Sydney.

We are now living outside Byron Bay and it definitely feels more welcoming but I wouldn’t say we have friends yet. We are getting to know people quicker, but it may just be that we know what to expect this time, although I’m not sure. It has a small-town atmosphere and a relaxed feeling that Sydney, as lovely as it is, just does not have.


The Hardest Things About Moving To Australia

With family back home.

The hardest part about moving to Sydney is that I felt prepared but I really wasn’t. Financially, it was much more expensive than I anticipated. We thought we could get by without a car, but with dogs that wasn’t realistic.

We had looked at rentals online and thought we knew what to expect. We were prepared to have a much smaller house with little or no yard, we were not prepared for how rundown houses were even in a price range that was pretty high. We did not think we would need to rent our family home in order to cover rent here, but it just wasn’t financially viable for us.

The other thing I was unprepared for was the difficulty of getting to know people. I didn’t expect it to just happen, but I did by joining different groups etc. I just didn’t find the social groups I am used to at home and I honestly think this is a cultural difference to some degree. We also were very lucky to have such a close group in America.

Lastly, I thought our friends from home would be more in touch than they are. I’ve learned if I want a check-in or to see how things are going I have to ask for it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come my way as often as I believed it would.

While it’s true I’m not around and I’m sure my friends think about me, their lives are ultimately continuing on. I’ve been hurt because of it at times, but I don’t believe there was really any lack of concern on the part of our friends, life just continues. I now reach out more and it’s always nice to pick up where we left off.


Feeling Settled In Australia

We are in the fourth home in two and a half years of living in Australia! We lived in Sydney for almost two years and spent five months in our first house and 14 months in our second house. I was starting to feel settled in the second house as we moved from Newtown to Bondi. This was much more conducive to our lifestyle.

In April (mainly because of Covid), we left Sydney and moved to Byron Bay. We knew we had to go into lockdown, and with no jobs, our rent was expensive and our visas potentially being cancelled, was looming. It was a quick decision based on a lucky connection in Byron, but also very emotional as well.

After three months in Byron Bay, we moved just south of town into a house that is usually an Airbnb. While we feel somewhat settled in the area, and we like the home and location, it’s hard to feel settled because most of our furnishings and other things that feel like home are still in storage.

I think if the virus hadn’t changed things, we would really be starting to feel at home in Australia.

When we were granted our permanent residency it made us feel Australian in a way that we had not felt before. While we’re not citizens and still expats, we do feel we belong now. It’s funny how a title or piece of paper can change your perception. The downside is that makes it more difficult if we wanted to visit home. We still feel a little trapped, so right now it’s hard.


Dealing With Homesickness

I’ve battled homesickness a lot but I’m not always homesick. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I remember that it’s not a permanent state that helps. Finding a therapist helped by forcing me to focus on things that I could work on with myself. Self-care, self-improvement, and understanding many of my feelings gave me a sense of confidence and control.

Having the first holidays away from friends and family ever has been extra hard. I always thought it wouldn’t be difficult to jump on a plane, but I don’t have that option right now. We have found scheduling events and family calls is really helpful.

We have a weekly family call and even when we don’t all have much to talk about, it’s nice to be together and have it to look forward to.

Exercise and being outside is important as is setting goals for ourselves. By having a routine, we have other things to focus on besides friends and family we miss.


Living costs in Australia

It’s funny, the move was very expensive and the rent was much more than I expected but I feel like living in Australia in many ways is less expensive. In America, you have easy access to stuff. You can place an online order and it’s at your door the next day, sometimes even the same day. Everything is available and there is so much choice!

In Australia, if you order online or from Amazon, for example, it comes in a couple of days. More often, things take a week or even many weeks to arrive, even if it’s coming from the same State or from the next town. Because of this, we’ve realised we don’t actually need a lot of stuff we may have bought with the accessibility we got back home. We definitely buy less stuff now, so we’ve ended up spending less. Australia is an expensive place to live, but we’ve learned to prioritise and make it work.


Moving To Australia Tips

There are so many things that I wish that I knew before I moved, most of it I’ve covered. I wish I had had someone to help me when I arrived navigate the differences. I knew a lot but I’m not sure I really believed everything I “knew”.

I also didn’t expect it to feel so different culturally than America – I mean they speak English (not that I always understood, haha) and they are a “Western” culture – but it was just enough different to throw me.

Andrew’s company had an HR person who was also American and he was very helpful. I should have picked his brain more! However, his job was not to help us navigate setting up house, etc. – if you’re moving here with a company, ask if this is something they can provide.

Living standards are totally different between America and Australia. I was used to owning my own home and we lived in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in a nice city. In Sydney, even the nicest neighbourhoods have rentals that are subpar in many ways, they just cost more. You will most likely make sacrifices in location, size, or quality and you’ll have to decide which is most important.

We wanted to live by a beach and close to the city, so we paid for the location and sacrificed by living in a home that was not as nice as what we were used to and cost much more. This was our choice.

This was one of the biggest surprises for me, the condition of the homes, in reality, is nothing like what the pictures indicate. It really pushes what I would consider being false advertising to its extreme.


Final Thoughts

Australia has a lot to offer and I would not change moving here, maybe just adjust my expectations. We love Australia and plan to stay longer than we ever thought. I can’t say it will be forever because, without our family here, it’s just a big unknown.

While we have not yet made close friends, we have met many wonderful people and we feel more connected to the culture than ever. Like anywhere, it has good and bad but the good far outweighs the bad by far. We are constantly blown away by the beauty of Australia and there is a sense of connection to nature that is strong and ancient. The sunrises and sunsets here cannot be matched – this is the case whether you’re near the coast or far inland.

The people care deeply for their communities and make sacrifices to care for others. There is a strong sense of identity and most are proud to be Australian. This little corner of the world is pretty remarkable!

A big thanks to Whitney for sharing her honest expat story. If you would like to help thousands of expats and future expats by sharing your emigration story, please fill out our Expat Emigration Story form.

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