Expat Tales is a Stuff Travel series featuring Kiwis who’ve made new lives for themselves overseas. If you’d like to take part, email us at [email protected]

Originally from Auckland’s Stanmore Bay, Mike Howe felt like he was living on the fringes when he moved to the Deep South in the US. But he’s found a world of opportunity in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What inspired your move, and how long have you been there?

I had started my OE in England and Europe in 1997 and then heard from a friend about the possibility of a construction job in California. This prompted a three-year stint in early 1999 travelling and working around California. I met my future wife in San Francisco. We were travel buddies before getting serious. I then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where we started our life together.

Did it take long to settle in?

The first few years of travelling were easy as I never planned on staying here, but once I moved to Georgia it was extremely difficult to settle in. It took many years to fully become a full permanent resident, which made finding a good job a real challenge.

I was also told on numerous occasions that I was a ghost in the American system with no established credit, no American schooling qualifications etcetera. It was very difficult to prove equivalent New Zealand qualifications. There seemed to be little discretion or just a lack of understanding that there was a world outside of America.

There were a lot of setbacks in those first few years, and it often felt like I was living on the fringes. The other issues were cultural. America’s South is very different to California and New Zealand. The culture shock was huge. It seemed like I had travelled back in time. The South is part of America’s Bible Belt, and I found the lack of progressiveness difficult. The pace of life was very slow and very different to any place I had lived before.

I struggled a lot in those first few years but persevered and things slowly became easier.I lived in the South for eight years and enjoyed a lot of my time there, but it never felt like home. I moved my family back to California in 2010, and it felt like home very quickly. California reminds me of New Zealand in many ways. Natural beauty and a laidback lifestyle and people.

What do you do there?

I am a water plant supervisor. This is a city job with full benefits, health insurance, and a pension etcetera.

What are the biggest advantages of living there?

There are so many amazing places to see as well as constant events, sports, and concerts.

With hard work, you have so much opportunity and there are so many more doorways open to better yourself. Anything is available at any time and day, and practically everything can be purchased online and delivered to your doorstep. The weather is incredible, and you can definitely own more in the US as your discretionary dollars are more than in New Zealand.

Any disadvantages?

There are vast distances between towns and states, which makes it difficult to get to places by car sometimes.

How expensive is it compared to New Zealand?

I find the US to be so cheap compared to New Zealand. Initially, I couldn’t believe how much cheaper it was, and it made it a lot easier to get ahead quicker. It has got more expensive over the past few years, but I believe that is the same around the world. The Bay Area of California is one of the most expensive places to live in America and I still find it cheaper than New Zealand.

How do you spend your spare time?

My family enjoys the outdoors. We enjoy natural beauty. All of our vacations are based around outdoor activities. We ski, paddleboard, hike, bike, camp, and visit national parks in our spare time. We regularly take road trips and experience new places.

We really like the Sierra Nevadas (a mountain range that runs up California). Favourite spots for us include Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, the wine regions of northern California, and the San Diego beaches. Outside of California, I really like Southern Utah with its many red rock national parks. We also enjoy sports and visiting different baseball parks, and watching sports live.

What is the local delicacy and would you recommend it?

California is known for good organic foods and microbrewery beers and there is an abundance of these items. Avocado is huge here and should be put on everything.

Easiest way to get around?

Car. Public transport in America is terrible, and you need a vehicle to get around on a day-to-day basis. To travel from one place to another for travel purposes, a big SUV-style car is recommended for comfort and room.

Best after-dark activity?

The music scene has always been happening here and there is a constant steady stream of new and old bands coming through. Also sporting events – America does an amazing job at packaging its sporting events as a full entertainment events.

Best time of year to visit?

For California, the weather is fairly consistent from April to October. The winter is not harsh and there can be beautiful days in the winter also. I would recommend June to September for the best of the weather and best to experience the outdoors. Late January to mid-March for the best skiing.

What are the top three things you recommend visitors check out?

  • The Pacific Coast Highway between LA and San Francisco, taking in Hearst Castle along the way.
  • Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, or somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • One of the many wine regions in northern California.

Family and friends aside, what do you most miss about home?

I miss New Zealand music as many of my favourite bands from childhood did not make it in the US. I miss the beaches and swimming in summer – the water is freezing here. I miss some of the countryside that is unique to New Zealand, such as the Central Plateau in the North Island and the Southern Alps.

I miss watching New Zealand sports, especially cricket and rugby. I miss the New Zealand sense of humour (dry and deadpan). I miss being around the New Zealand culture in general, but in saying that I do enjoy the Californian culture.

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