Expats In Ann Arbor
Children of Basque nationalists, English medical professionals, Chinese gymnastics coaches and Canadian social media directors - the Ann Arbor area is peppered with a diverse blend of expatriates who've arrived on American shores for work, school or love.
I'm the Canadian social media director, emigrating in the United States for love, moving to Chicago to become a teacher after 23 years in my home and native land. I've lived in six American cities since 2000, never calling Canada home since.
I was born a first-generation Canadian to Scottish and Hungarian parents, adopting the Hungarian culture as much as Canadian. I played soccer, not hockey. Spoke Hungarian, not French. I wasn't truly Hungarian, but the cloak of Canadiana never fit quite right. Being American (I'm not, I'm still a resident alien) doesn't feel any better. Sometimes I feel like a man without a country.
"When I landed in Detroit, I had no idea what state it was in," says Mikel de Irala. An American citizen born in France to Basque nationalists and schooled primarily in the Philippines, my culture clash pales in comparison to Mikael's.
There's Karen and John Willatt who arrived in Ann Arbor in 2005 when John accepted a fellowship at the U-M hospital. The Willatts find themselves missing things about the U.K. - family, friends, sports - but their situation is complicated by a young daughter who has planted deep roots into American culture and a son born during their stay in the U.S.
The Yuans arrived in Ann Arbor around the same time as the Willatts, Xiao Yuan taking a position as an assistant coach with the University of Michigan men's gymnastics team. They'd been all around the world, Xiao coaching gymnastics and his wife Julia performing with Cirque du Soleil. They've experienced some cultural challenges in Ann Arbor, but for them language has been the most challenging barrier.
"Sometimes I want to say a lot of things but I cannot speak," says Xiao.
What do these expats think about their new home here in Southeast Michigan? What challenges do they face, what things have they grown to love and where will they decide to retire and live out the rest of their days once work is done?
Third culture kids
Canada and the United States have a complicated relationship. Americans think we're simple folk who love our Tim Horton's and we think you all own guns. It gets even more complicated when you throw in my parents' heritage. Am I Canadian, Hungarian or American? Do I like poutine, perkerlt or Papa John's?
"I'm a third culture kid," says Mikel de Irala. "Parents of one culture, born of another culture and living in a separate culture. You go through conflicting alliances with home values, personal values and adopted country values."
Born an American citizen in France to Basque nationalists, Mikel spent his childhood and early adulthood in France and the Philippines before choosing to continue his college education at the University of Detroit when his family returned to Europe.
With a single suitcase, Mikel arrived on campus in 1970, the U.S. fighting in Vietnam and the draft just a few months old.
"Not long after I arrived on campus, there was the shooting at Kent State," says Mikel. "The country was in turmoil. All these kids wanted to march and go to sit-ins and I just wanted to study."
"The culture differences are vast," Mikel continues. "In the U.S. the great thing is that everyone is accepting of different cultures, religions and thinking. People complain about the lack of diversity in the United States but it's better here than a lot of places in the world."
Mikel graduated, started working at Ford, met and married his wife in 1978, raised a family and after 30 years with the company retired as the Executive Director for Manufacturing Operations Powertrain, in charge of 17 plants and 20,000 employees in three countries.
Mikel has lived in and around the Metro Detroit area most of his life, residing in Plymouth, Rochester and currently in Saline. He's seen things change in the area, mostly for the better.
"The big shift in the Ann Arbor area has been the departure of some of the large companies, being replaced by new, smaller companies thanks to the university and the tech sector. The incubation of new businesses has been good."
The University of Michigan has brought new business but may also have clouded Ann Arborites' views of national and international issues.
"It's easy to be liberal when you live in Ann Arbor," says Mikel. "You're spoiled by the University and its medical offerings and you're not worried about safety because crime is so low. It's not like this, even in other cities in Michigan."
The English among us
The University of Michigan attracted Karen and John Willatt to Ann Arbor. They arrived in 2005 when John accepted a fellowship.
"At the time, I really didn't want to come at all," says Karen. "If we were going to go to America, why Michigan and why Ann Arbor? I'd never heard of it."
The Willat's were both born in the U.K. and moved to Ann Arbor with their five-year old daughter. One year turned into two, and soon they had a second child, born in the U.S.
"We were surprised how friendly American people are," says Karen. "There isn't a class issue like we have in England."
"The school system in Ann Arbor, particularly Burns Park is better as well," Karen continues. "They teach more sport here than in England and the recreational opportunities here are more available than they would have been in the U.K. We would have had to search hard to find a club like my daughter's travel soccer team, for example."
There are still a few barriers and challenges, even for English-speaking transplants to Ann Arbor.
"Something I found funny, since we considered going to a non-English speaking country instead, is that there's a language barrier here," says Karen. "When you take your car into the shop, for example, you need to be careful about terminology. A bonnet is a hood and a boot is the trunk."
"I remember a conversation I had with someone when we first got here," Karen continues. "We didn't know what the other was saying. The first few months, I would say things to people and they'd look at me differently. With a blank face."
The subject of home weighs on the Willats' minds, especially with young children putting down American roots.
"Eventually we'd like to go back to England," says Karen. "My husband has lots of friends back home and misses English sport, but we're trying to find the right time to move. My daughter would be very upset leaving her friends and everything familiar to her. Maybe when she goes to University she can go to England and then there's a chance she'll live in England."
"We quite like Ann Arbor, but we don't see ourselves retiring and staying here," says Karen, " but our children will unless we introduce them to the U.K. It's a big challenge and we might not manage to make that happen. We certainly only came for a year but we decided to stay and we're still here. The longer you stay the more difficult it is to go back."
Finding a balance between home and America
Many international transplants struggle with the question of whether and when to return to their home country. Beijing-born University of Michigan men's gymnastics coach Xiao Yuan arrived in Ann Arbor in 2005 after spending time in Houston and Oklahoma. (Full disclosure: I worked with the University of Michigan men's gymnastics team and Xiao as a media relations director) He arrived in Ann Arbor with his wife Julia and a young daughter and a few years into his stint with the Wolverines welcomed another girl to the family.
Few things have fazed the Yuans since they arrived in the United States, but the language barrier is Xiao's biggest challenge. He has a heavy Chinese accent, which is more difficult to discern over the phone than in person. The fact that there is a barrier at all is frustrating to both of us because he's very articulate and well-spoken.
"Sometimes people want to make a lot of friends but the language barrier can be a problem," says Xiao. "Sometimes I want to say a lot of things but I cannot speak. It restricts us from making a lot of friends."
"I have met all kinds of Asian people in Ann Arbor, a lot who work in auto," says Xiao. "But with my schedule it's hard to spend time with Chinese people, but we've been able to meet some in the area which is nice."
Xiao's language challenges haven't held him back as a coach. He's been a part of national championship gymnastics teams at Oklahoma and Michigan, coaching Olympians and national champions in his career.
As for Ann Arbor, Xiao and his family have settled in just fine.
"Ann Arbor is a beautiful town with a lot of history," says Xiao. "In the last few years there have been lots of new buildings coming up and a lot of growth. The old parts of the city are still here but there are new things."
Like the Willats, the Yuans will one day have to decide whether to reside permanently in the United States or China and how this decision might affect their children.
"My mom and dad and sister and brother live in China, but my two daughters will probably want to live in the U.S.," says Xiao. "I love the two countries. The friends, food, tradition and culture of China is great and I love the U.S. We'll probably stay in the U.S. and go back to China every year and get to enjoy different things all the time."
Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at RichRetyi.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe