Quinne Brown Huffman is a South African who spent many years in California before returning to Johannesburg with her family. She is a certified birth coach and doula to parents preparing for their transition into parenthood, and is also a known public speaker and actress in television, film and theatre. You can find her on Instagram at @quinnebrown and on Facebook at @doulaquinne.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Johannesburg, South Africa
Q: Where was your expat experience?
A: I lived in Carlsbad, San Diego, California.
Q: When did you move there?
A: February 2011
Q: Was this your first expat experience?
A: I lived in the UK as a student in 1998 and lived in San Francisco for 5 years prior to moving to San Diego.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved while pregnant with my spouse.
Q: Why did you move?
A: We decided on San Diego, since it was close to my husband’s family and work opportunities beckoned us.
Living in San Diego
Q: What did you enjoy most about San Diego? How would you rate the quality of life compared to South Africa?
A: We settled in the suburbs of Carlsbad which is a beach town where the pace is very easy and slow. The air is clean, the landscape is beautiful and the people are friendly. Shopping and schools were all within walking distance. Our home was very much in the middle of suburbia where all the homes look and feel similar with many cul de sacs and immaculate sidewalks and parks. There is hardly any fencing except to keep dogs in backyards. This is very different from the city I grew up in, where all the houses are behind high walls and the sidewalks would not be called immaculate or groomed.
I missed Johannesburg for its vibrancy and diversity. It is in stark contrast to Carlsbad: far from the ocean or any body of water, but blessed with plenty of greenery and trees. Images of friendly street hawkers and bumper-to-bumper traffic come to mind when thinking of Joburg’s streets.
Q: Any negative experiences in San Diego? What did you miss most about home?
A: We had a few break-ins into our vehicles which were parked outside. The police responded swiftly and found that it was drug related. It was quiet and life in the suburbs was a huge adjustment for me. I missed my family and the diversity of South Africa and the challenge of the way of life, and actively participating in a society that I love. I missed the seasons and summer thunderstorms and biltong (delicious cured dried meat unique to SA).
Carlsbad has hardly any changes in weather. Being in a semi desert, the seasons barely change and as a retirement village for many military families it is an interesting political culture.
Q: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: As a new mother, the culture was an adjustment and being away from an established community left me feeling isolated. Parks is a regular gathering spot, so one does manage to see and connect with other parents. But it takes a lot of effort if you’re an outsider. As the kids grew older it became easier and more opportunities presented themselves to participate in the community.
One of the biggest adjustments was doing everything, including cooking, cleaning, etc. Having been a stay-at-home mom and not being able to afford any help was an adjustment, where in South Africa there is always a helping hand and one can employ someone to help without breaking the bank.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Was there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in your host country?
A: Cleaning services were exceptionally expensive comparatively and pre-primary school was also very highly priced. Drinking alcohol with a meal at a restaurant is also very expensive, where buying a bottle of beer or wine at the grocery store is more affordable.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in San Diego?
A: In Carlsbad, there is hardly any public transport in my experience. There is a bus system, but mostly you see mom-vans and minibuses transporting the large families. It is a driving culture.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in San Diego? Did you have any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: We were part of Kaiser Permanente, and the hospital and preventative care were good. There are a variety of hospitals in San Diego county; I mostly had positive experiences at the ones I visited both as a patient and doula.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in San Diego? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Not that I am aware of.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: There is a huge variety for both buyers and renters, from homes and condos to apartments and lofts, and you can choose between many different neighbourhoods including several different downtown areas, the city centre or the city’s outskirts where properties are bigger. It is expensive and you will want to do due diligence before settling into one area. San Diego is a big county with lots of variety.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: If I could choose again I would go closer to the border and south of San Diego city. Hillcrest etc where more artists live and where there is more diversity. I think it depends on the individual and why they moved to the area. There are benefits to each area.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Did you ever experienced discrimination in your host city?
A: People seem very friendly and welcoming in my experience and I notice no threat being a foreigner.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It was hard at first with a new-born, but when we were able to get out and go to the park, it was easier to connect. It is an effort well worth it.
Q: Did you make friends with locals or did you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I mostly connected with locals and do not enjoy mixing with other expats, my love for South Africa is too big. I have found many expats want to justify their choice for leaving their home country by bad-mouthing it or focusing only on the negative. My expat experience wasn’t leaving a country behind because of ill-will, unhappiness or anything else, but rather for the adventure and to experience a different country, culture and way of life for a while.
Working in San Diego
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: It is relatively easy, once all the paperwork is right. It is a process that can take months. Have patience, do your due diligence and research; the governmental systems are very effective.
Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: San Diego is not the greatest job market.
Q: How did the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in San Diego?
A: It is a slower pace than Johannesburg. But I did notice that Americans are all about work.
Family and children
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: They were born in California and they loved San Diego.
Q: What were your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Going to the beach, hiking in the hills around the city and camping. There is always something to do for families. The world-famous San Diego Zoo is incredible for the kids (and adults!). It’s massive, and it’s a fantastic sanctuary of world-wide repute and integrity. Plus, Disney Land isn’t too far away, and LEGO Land is down the road from Carlsbad.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: The public school was walking distance from us and parents seemed mostly happy with it, though there are some who have mixed feelings about the system. Our girls weren’t in primary years yet, but the pre-primary they were in was small (and expensive!) and they loved it.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to San Diego?
A: The advice I was given was to immerse myself. When in Rome do as the Romans do, etc. Learn as much about the locals, what they do and enjoy and why they do what they do and eat what they eat. Once you have a thorough understanding of the way of life in the region you choose to settle in, you will find your way more readily. Have fun and don’t be afraid to ask; locals are often more than happy to coach you in their ways and traditions.
►Interviewed in September 2021