Jessica Birardi is a US national who spent 10 years in New York before having a three and half year expat experience in Hong Kong. She has now returned to the New York and here she shares some of her experiences on repatriation to the USA.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I’m originally from Kentucky; however I have lived in New York City since 1998, so consider myself a New Yorker.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: New York City on the Upper West Side.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved back to the NYC and the Upper West Side in December 2011. We had just finished up a 3 and a half year stint as expats living in Hong Kong. Before that, I lived in New York for 10 years.
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: I moved with a spouse and a dog, an eight-year-old pug named Victor.
Q: Why have you returned to the States?
A: We returned to the States for two reasons. Firstly, my husband’s job; he received a promotion at his company which required him moving back to New York City where the company’s head quarters are located. Secondly, the USA is our home country so we always envisioned coming back here, although we are still very open to another expat experience as we loved living abroad!
About New York
Q: What do you enjoy most about New York, how’s the quality of life?
A: Most – meaning I can just pick one thing?! I enjoy the diversity of the city – from the people (it truly is a melting pot) to the cuisine (you can get Indian at 2am delivered to your door or Texas BBQ at a place down the street) to the museums, boutiques and restaurants. When you walk down the street in New York City, you are met with so much creativity.
My ideal day involves grabbing a coffee at my corner bodega, taking my dog for a long walk through Central Park, getting a cheap as chips mani/pedi from my local nail salon, meeting up with a friend for lunch at a neighbourhood Greek restaurant such as Kefi, shopping at a mix of one-off boutiques like Global Table or Wink and chain retailers like West Elm and Forever 21, taking a fun Zumba or Soul Cycle class, happy hour drinks outdoors overlooking the Hudson River) and taking a cab home to my deliciously centrally located apartment.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about Hong Kong?
A: The biggest thing I miss about Hong Kong (other than all the friends we left behind) is travel. It’s so much cheaper and easier to travel in Asia; and Hong Kong happens to be centrally located such that you can grab a 2-hour flight to Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia; a 4-hour flight to Beijing, Singapore or Shanghai and a 5-hour flight to Tokyo and Seoul.
I also miss the cuisine, although you can find excellent Asian food here in New York. Taxis are also cheaper in Hong Kong and public transport is really clean. Oh, and I really miss the movie theatres in Hong Kong which were smaller, cleaner and you reserved a seat online ahead of time so no need to arrive super early to get a decent seat.
Q: Is New York safe?
A: New York City is incredibly safe. You can walk anywhere in the city, anytime of night, and there’s always people around. The only times I feel unsafe are when I’m in the suburbs and there’s no one around. I’ve lived in New York since 1998 and never been mugged, robbed or anything worse. I’ve never even been harassed on the subway! I feel safer in here than in any other US city.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in New York? Do you need to own a car, or is the public transport sufficient for getting around? What are the different options?
A: I do not own a car and therefore rely solely on public transportation to get around New York. To get around the city itself, I usually take the subway. The only instances I don’t are if I need to get cross-town and am not near a cross-town train or bus (e.g. one that runs east-west) or it’s late and I’m feeling lazy. That being said, the subway stations, trains and platforms are disgusting compared to almost any other city around the world, so you just have to live with the trash and the smells and the rats. Chalk it up to part of the city’s charm! You also have to contend with weekend train schedules that vary greatly from the weekday ones – this can be annoying. For example, the B train doesn’t run on weekends between 125th Street – 59th Street for no apparent reason.
Taxis are more expensive than in Hong Kong, where they were ridiculously cheap, so I save them as a special occasion. I’ve noticed that in the last 5 years, New York has become much more bike-friendly. Depending on where you live, you may also take the bus. For example, people living on the Upper East Side only have one subway train line, so they tend to use the buses more. If I had an easily accessible bus line, I’d take it.
To get outside of the city, I often take one of the train services such as the LIRR for Long Island, MetroNorth for Connecticut and Westchester and the NJ Transit for New Jersey. These are inexpensive, reliable ways to get out of the city, as long as you have a ride once you get off the train.
We also are ZipCar members. ZipCars are cars you can rent by the hour that are conveniently located all over the city. Once you’re a member, you just reserve one online and then walk to the car, use your ZipCar card to unlock it and voila you have a car to use at your discretion. I find that we use the trains if we know someone is picking us up; we use ZipCar if we want to drive around to do errands outside of the city, for example Costco or Ikea trips or do something fun like apple picking in New Jersey.
About living in New York
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in New York for expats?
A: I would recommend expats try the city before the suburbs because you get a more authentic experience in the city. If you have kids, you’ll probably want to choose location based on schools. Many public school districts are sought-after and therefore popular with families. If you don’t have kids or are sending your kids to private school, I think you should figure out what’s important to you.
If you’re young and want to be in the centre of everything with bars and boutiques on your doorstep, then you’ll want to be in Brooklyn (DUMBO, Ft Green, Cobble Hill) or downtown (Lower East Side, East Village, West Village, Union Square/Flatiron, Tribeca). You’ll pay more to live downtown, though. If you have kids and/or want more space for your money, look uptown – Upper West Side or Upper East Side. I prefer West over East. You’ll also be closer to Central Park. However it’s definitely quieter uptown.
If you do choose to live in the suburbs, the ones that are deemed “hip” and desirable are: Summit and Montclair in New Jersey, most of Westchester (Croton, Tarrytown, Bedford, Chappaqua, etc.) and Greenwich and Rowayton in CT.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in New York City?
A: Wow - that is a tough one. When looking for an apartment in Hong Kong, I learned some valuable lessons. You have to educate yourself on the market, understand what’s available and not compare it to any other cities you’ve lived in. Then, you need to understand what your must-haves are versus your nice-to-haves.
For instance, in New York City I live in a gorgeous, pre-war 800-sq ft one-bedroom, one-bath apartment. In Hong Kong, I lived in a 1,100-sq ft three-bedroom, three-bath apartment that was built in the 80s with not so nice fixtures, so it lacked a lot of charm. I was never going to find stunning crown moulding and arched doorways in Hong Kong; just like I won’t be able to afford a three-bedroom in New York City! Instead, I realised that proximity to the ferry, the square footage and the views from our flat (we had floor-to-ceiling windows) outweighed the older, smaller kitchen.
When you come to New York, it is important to know that you are looking in one of the most expensive real estate cities in the world. If you come from somewhere like Tokyo or Geneva, apartments in New York City will seem like a steal. If you come from Bangkok or Florence, not so much!
When looking for an apartment for the first time, take the time to see a lot of apartments. Not only will you get a feel for what is available on the market, but you’ll also understand what you can (and can’t) live with. The big things are location (especially if you’re looking for a good public school district), space, light and storage. Then you find out if you’re a pre-war person – someone who loves charming details and big spaces, but can live with older bathrooms and small kitchen. Or if you’re a new apartment person who doesn’t care so much about space or details, but needs a new kitchen and doesn’t want a bathroom that generations before them have used.
Q: What’s the cost of living in New York compared to Hong Kong? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: The things that are cheaper in Hong Kong include taxis, bottled drinks and water, travel (hotels, airlines, etc.), taxes and hired help. Things that are cheaper in New York City: dry cleaning, mani/pedis, groceries, magazines and books.
Q: Was it easy fitting back into life in the States? What has been the hardest part about coming back?
A: I was warned by other former expats that coming back to the States would be much harder than expected. Surprisingly, I haven’t found that to be the case. I don’t know why exactly – is it because I truly love New York City? Is it because we were only overseas for 4 years? But there just hasn’t been much trouble in returning home.
I think reacclimatising to little things like the fact that ATMs here don’t keep your card while you type in your info, taxis accepting credit cards, looking the right way to cross the street and taking the right side of the elevator – I think those were the hardest things for me to get used to. I also had to let go of some Hong Kong verbiage I had picked up – like saying “air con” instead of AC. It sounds meaningless, but those are the things that stick with you. Otherwise, it feels like I never left.
About working in New York
Q: What’s the economic climate like in New York, is there plenty of work?
A: I don’t know anyone out of work, so I think the economic climate in NYC is thriving. There was a dip – but we fortunately were gone for most of it.
Q: How does the work culture in New York differ from Hong Kong?
A: They are remarkably similar. Work hard, play hard – work a 12-hour day and then meet up with folks for drinks and dinner after. The only difference is that many expats in Hong Kong are covering large geographical areas, so travel is much more frequent than with my New York friends. It’s not uncommon for expats in Hong Kong to be gone for two weeks out of the month.
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move back to the States?
A: Yes and I’m 100% confident in saying that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without their help.
Family and children
Q: What are the schools like in New York, any particular suggestions?
A: I can tell you from my friends' experiences that schools in New York City fall into two categories – you go to a good public school (rents in those neighbourhoods are understandably more competitive than in other parts of the city) or you pay for a pricey private school.
My understanding is that neither is stress-free. Most good public school districts have waiting lists (meaning even if you are living in the district, there is a chance your child won’t get into the public school of your choice). Private schools are equally competitive and much more expensive.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in the USA compared to Hong Kong?
A: OK. As someone who was undergoing fertility issues in both countries, I like to think I’m qualified to answer this. Cost-wise, the two places are pretty equal. However, you have to pay for everything out-of-pocket and then invoice your healthcare coverage provider to be reimbursed. This can be hugely inconvenient as you’re laying out a lot of money upfront – and then have to wait at least a month before getting some of it back. In the case of an annual check-up, this isn’t a big deal. However, when you have to front $20,000 USD to secure a room at the private hospital to give birth, it becomes a bigger issue. In the US, if you have healthcare coverage, the doctors and healthcare companies do all the paperwork so that you only pay a co-pay at your visit and the rest is handled by them. It’s much more convenient and a lot less paperwork for you!
For standard health issues such as asthma or diabetes, you’ll receive the same level of care in both places. Remember that many of the doctors in Hong Kong completed their medical studies in the West. You’ll notice the difference if you require special care, so if you can’t be treated with standard treatments. In Hong Kong, there were only a handful of doctors who specialised in fertility. Of those, most were using very traditional, outdated methods (which still work on the majority of people!) If those traditional methods don’t work, you’re not left with many choices for the next level of care. Newer techniques and treatments aren’t offered – or in some cases, even allowed- in Hong Kong. Needless to say, it was frustrating to know I would’ve been receiving better, more advanced care in the USA.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals or those returning back to the country?
A: My advice is two-fold – come with an open mind and enjoy the opportunities that New York offers. So much will be different than where you’re coming from, but embrace the differences. Even more important, join as many expat organizations as you can. My first six months in Hong Kong was the loneliest part of my life – I wish I had been more proactive about joining groups and attending events with other expats. I imagine New York can also be a daunting place if you don’t know a lot of people – so make every opportunity to meet people and try new things/places whenever you can.
– Interviewed in December 2012