Category Archives: ex-pat

Well, dear Brits, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me for another five years

About 20 minutes before I had to leave my flat this morning, a knock sounded loud on my door. I knew immediately what it was: the answer from my application for a Tier 2 General visa. And it was a yes!

my biometric residence permit (privacy details redacted)I had been dreaming that this prize would arrive before I left, but I didn’t dare hope it would actually come this soon. But it did, and I’m delighted! I now have a permit to live and work in the UK through 3 January 2022. (The “Restricted Work” note means tthat I have to work for the company that sponsored me and that any additional work I might do has to be in the same category.) I wasn’t seriously worried that the Home Office would reject my application, but until they had actually said yes my inner catastrophizer was hard at work.

Once I had received my Certificate of Sponsorship from Sigma, I used the UK Visas and Immigration’s (UKVI’s) Priority Service, which guaranteed me a decision within two weeks of my submitting my application. (I submitted the application online and all document exchanges were done by post/mail.) They made their decision in eight days and I received my permit two days later. Well done, UKVI!

And Merry Christmas to me!

It’s been quite a week

It’s been quite a week.

First, the best news: I got word that Sigma UK‘s application for a visa sponsor licence has been approved. That’s a big step in the process of my getting a work visa, and I’m delighted! Now they have to issue me a Certificate of Sponsorship, and then I can apply for my visa. Not sure exactly how long all that will take, but I’m confident I’ll have a work visa before my student visa expires in mid-February.

Next, the mixed news. I had my mock viva this week and got really helpful feedback. Both supervisors said it was extremely well written (it’s always nice to receive praise, but I confess I place greater value on feedback that’s actually news to me); the panel said the contributions to knowledge are sufficient for a PhD but I need to convey them more fully. My primary supervisor and I met afterward, and he had a brilliant idea for how I can fill in that gap. The reason this news is mixed is that I won’t be able to make all the changes in time for a mid-December submission of my thesis. I’m going to make as much progress as I can in the next three weeks, and at the end of the month we’re going to regroup and see where we stand. But this feedback and my supervisor’s idea filled in a space that had been worrying me for a while. Clarity is good.

Finally, the horrible news. I’m sure you know what that is. I won’t say much about the US presidential election here because I’ve said a lot on Facebook and this blog is about other things — so I’ll just write this one paragraph. I’m horrified and disgusted. I know that a lot of people voted for Trump because they felt themselves to be in more and more dire straits economically and wanted a change, and some trusted his promise to go “pro-life”; but his election has unleashed a backlash (or a “whitelash”, as some call it) of bullying and violence against people of color and LBGTQ people, and I refuse to let Trump voters pretend they didn’t know that that would happen. I hope we can stem it.

I also want to say that I’m glad I was already making moves to stay in the UK. I’ve heard a lot of Americans say they want to leave the US, and I like to think that if I hadn’t already been planning to stay here I wouldn’t have done so purely because of the election.

Voting in US elections

My UK friends often ask me if I can vote in US elections, since I’ve lived overseas for a while. Yes, I can vote in federal elections forever, unless I’m disqualified for some reason (such as being convicted of a felony or being mentally incapable). My ability to vote in state and local elections depends on my intention to return to the US, and for the first time since I’ve been here I put “my return is uncertain” on my absentee ballot request. (I’ve sorted a job, eh? :-) This means that in the November election I’ll get to vote for president, senator, and congresscritter but not anything at the lower level.

Instead of putting the US voting info in a blog post where it will eventually get buried in the sands of time, I’ve created a page about being an American expat in the UK. Right now all it has on it is voting info, but as I think of other topics I’ll add them.

A few thoughts about the Brexit vote

As a person from outside the Commonwealth, I didn’t get to vote in the referendum that the UK held this week regarding its membership in the European Union. The referendum, called, variously, “EURef” and “Brexit” (for “British exit”), asked UK voters whether they wanted the country to remain in the EU or to leave it. “Leave” won by just under four percentage points, 51.9% to 48.1%.

It is not my intention to provide here a history of the referendum or a discussion of the political issues surrounding it. If you want to know more about that, I’m afraid you’ll need to google it yourself — or you could look at the BBC’s FAQ.) I just want to share a few thoughts, partly about how it affects me personally and partly about some things I’ve noticed in the aftermath.

Let me begin by saying that I am deeply disturbed by this vote. I would have voted Remain if I had had a vote — I think it benefits all of us to cooperate and collaborate.

How Brexit affects me personally

Residence: Brexit doesn’t have much effect on my immigration status in the near term, since I am not an EU national and have to have a visa to live here anyhow. Right now I’ve got a student visa, and I’ve been planning all along to take steps to get a longer-term visa for when I finish my PhD. So I have no need to worry about Brexit’s effect on that part of my life, at least not any time soon. (Note to the EU nationals among my friends: I will be happy to share with you what I know about work visas, if you decide you want to stay in the UK and if it turns out you will need one. Contact me privately if you would find that helpful.)

Costs: (1) The British pound is down with respect to the US dollar, about 10% down as I write this. Who knows where it will go in the next few years? This decline works to my advantage for now, though: now that my university-funded studentship has ended, all of my income is in USD and will continue to be so until I start working in the UK. So what I spend in the UK costs me less of my income than it did just a few days ago. (2) Probably the “Eurozone” plan I get from my mobile phone provider — which costs £4 for each day I use roaming in European countries, including a fair amount of data — will end. I don’t know what my provider will offer as a replacement, but it will probably cost me more for roaming in EU countries.

Health: The NHS is like an excruciatingly slow HMO (health maintenance organization, a type of healthcare coverage in the US), and it is only going to get slower. (I do use the NHS; see below.) There’s talk of splitting it up and privatizing it, but if all they do is reduce the funding… Shudder!

Opportunities: I suspect that I will have a harder time finding a job with a visa sponsor in the UK. Already there is news about banks moving several hundred jobs from London to Dublin. Not that I was planning to work for a bank, particularly, but it’s a bellwether. (I love the word “bellwether”. Also “harbinger”. :-)

Reactions that worry me

Racism. I’m hearing and reading stories of white Britons harassing and threatening immigrants who have a foreign accent or a different skin color, telling them “Go home; we voted Leave!” It seems as though some of these people took “Leave” to mean, not Britain leaving the EU, but ethnically different immigrants leaving Britain. Racism has come more out in the open, it seems. In fact, The Washington Post reported just this week that the Brexit debate itself has brought racism to the surface in Britain: “Because of the Brexit campaign, racism is no longer racism – it’s legitimate opinion.” Some (although by no means all) of the Leave campaign was about reducing immigration, and many white Britons talked about “getting their country back” as a euphemism for reducing the dilution of their culture by black and brown people coming to live among them.

I am NOT saying that a Leave vote was necessarily a racist vote or even an anti-immigration vote; people had diverse reasons for marking their ballots that way. For one thing, the Leave campaign virtually promised that the £350 million a week that the UK has been paying to the EU would be redirected to the NHS. (They have since rescinded that promise, blackguards that they are.) And I am inclined to agree with the person who tweeted that it’s not so much that half the country is racist as that the racists think they are. But the vote does seem to have been taken as permission to take racist behavior out of homes and back lanes and bring it into the light of day on public buses and High Street pavements. This must stop.

Now, I use NHS services regularly (paying a paltry £150/yr for the privilege), and being over 60 I get prescription medications at no cost. Also, I have a senior bus pass that gives me free travel on any local bus in England after 9:30am on weekdays and all day on weekends, and because Newcastle has good bus service and I don’t own a car I use my pass a fair amount. And as a full-time student I pay no council tax (analogous to property tax in the US).

I’m sure that I cost the UK just a wee bit more than do most of the immigrants that racist and anti-immigrant groups are targeting. But I look like a native. No one has ever accosted me to threaten me or demand that I “go home”.

In fact, until people hear me speak or see me eat with a knife and fork, they tend to assume I’m a native. And as far as I know, all of my ancestry traces back to Great Britain. But it’s been more than 200 years since the last migrant among them sailed west across the Atlantic. I myself am no more a native of Britain than is the Muslim girl that some Birmingham youth harassed on the street, shouting “We voted Leave!” And she doesn’t deserve abuse any more than I do.

Ageism. Much is being made of the differences between how older and younger people voted. According to a YouGov survey taken after the vote, people over 65 voted Leave by a ratio of two to one and people under 24 voted Remain by three to one. It is being said that the older generation is denying the younger generation their future, and all because of a fantasy of returning to the Good Old Days. From anecdotes I’ve heard, I tend to give credence to the idea that there was a lot of nostalgia behind the votes of older people who went for Leave and didn’t bother to find out (and/or didn’t care) how it would affect younger people. What bothers me about what’s being said about the old is twofold: (1) other demographic variables (education and income, in particular) explained more of the difference in the vote than age did, but people are targeting the old as the ones to be disparaged and condemned; and (2) people are using age to target old people in general (see this much-liked and much-retweeted tweet attacking old people), not just the 69% of voters who voted Leave. As far as I know, this has not (yet) turned into physical threats against older people, but I have heard it expressed as a wish that they had not been allowed to vote on this question. I wonder if folks would have expressed such a wish if older people had gone for Remain; it sounds like basing voting rights on outcome rather than principle. The question of the fairness of allowing older people to vote on younger people’s future isn’t a simple one, but one thing I can say for certain: Disparaging older people in general because you don’t like how two-thirds of them voted is ageism, and it’s ugly.

So what am I going to do?

Personal goals. First things first: I will finish my PhD. And I will continue with my pursuit of post-PhD opportunities in the UK. There’s still a lot to like about living here, and as far as I can tell, the overt British racism isn’t any worse than the overt American racism being fuelled by today’s <unprintable> politicians, of whom Donald Trump is the most <unprintable>. Scotland is talking about possibly having another independence referendum and then joing the EU on its own, and I will keep an eye on that. (I wish I thought my Gaelic surname would give me an in. :-)

Post-Brexit racism. I am well aware of my white privilege. My life in the UK is easier than that of immigrants of different culture or ethnicity because of what I look like. Because of this, I have the power — and the responsibility — to let racists know that racist behavior is unacceptable. So far I have not personally witnessed any incidents of people threatening foreigners, but if I do I will speak up. If I feel it isn’t safe for me to confront the perpetrators in person, I will speak out later and help publicize the incident. And I am encouraging my friends to do the same. Hopefully, just as these Tyne and Wear Metro passengers did in Newcastle in November 2015. (Here’s a Guardian article on how people can respond in such situations.)

Ageism. I probably won’t do much about this. I have limited time, and despite what I say about how ugly it is, racism is so much uglier and its effects far worse. People generally don’t hate and attack old people just because they are old.

But that’s enough for now; I’ve already spent more time on this than I had planned and I need to get back to my thesis.

Time to renew my passport

I’ve just returned from just over two weeks in the US — ten days with family and friends in Maryland and North Carolina, and five days in California at the CHI 2016 conference (more on that later). Good thing my passport has more than six months left on it, but it is time to renew it. Fortunately, I can do it mostly online via the US Embassy London. The online renewal process seems quite straightforward (they seem to have been taking lessons from the UK’s Government Digital Service in their Citizen Services web design) but the requirements for US passport photos differ from those of the UK and EU. The bad news is that I can’t get mine done at an automated photo booth; the good news is that the US lets you smile. Fortunately, I’ve found a chain of photo stores that do them, and they have a convenient location in the Newcastle City Centre. It takes approximately four weeks for processing and return, so it’s as well I’m not planning to travel outside the UK in that time. I’ll get my photo done and my application sent off this coming week.

Hi ho, hi ho — it’s back to work I go!

Dearest friends and colleagues,

It is my great pleasure to inform you that you are reading the blog of the new Principal User Experience Consultant at Natural Interaction Ltd.

I will start on 16 October, initially working one to two days a week under my student visa whilst finishing my PhD. Then, some time after the company get themselves registered to sponsor Tier 2 visas we will switch to that and I’ll be a permanent employee. I could not be more delighted about this. Chuffed, even. :-) We are all very excited about the great work we can do together.

Here’s how it came about: A year and a half ago I gave a talk at World Information Architecture Day 2014 in Bristol, about a technique I had learned during my PhD research that I saw as useful for IA practice. One of the attendees came up to me afterwards to ask me questions, saying he thought the technique would be useful on one of his projects. Adam Babajee-Pycroft and I have kept in touch, and prompted by the success he had with it on that project we have developed a workshop to teach the technique. We will give a short version of this workshop at UCD-UK 2015 next month and are preparing a longer version for other venues. Last week we had a Skype call to discuss the first workshop. I had already decided to ask Adam about the possibility of working for his company, and before I could get a chance to mention it he brought it up. He said he knew I was coming to the end of my three years and asked if I had any availability to work. I explained that my student visa does not allow me to work for myself and asked if he would consider sponsoring me for a Tier 2 General visa — and he said yes! We have been working out the particulars in the intervening time (during which time I was trying desperately not to count my chickens); and now, in less than a week, I have a firm offer letter and expect to have a signed employment contract tomorrow. There will, of course, be a probationary period (UK standard of six months), but every time Adam and I talk we discover something else on which we are very much in tune, and I am confident that this collaboration will work out well for all of us.

After I switch to a Tier 2 General visa I will of course be allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. What we plan is two days a week as a base, with more as needed for client projects. I envision continuing to do some research on techno-spirituality, probably on my own time because I doubt my visa would allow me to do sideline work that different from UX consulting. Client work will be done mostly at client sites and internal company work can be done mostly anywhere, so I will have the flexibility to live anywhere in the UK that has adequate access to air and rail transport. I’m open to staying in Newcastle — especially if I end up doing a fair amount of work for clients here and points north — but as much as I love the area during the day I have to confess that it doesn’t have enough Renaissance music to satisfy me and the Toon nightlife is a bit rowdy. Plus, I’ve always fancied living in London. I’ve got lots of decisions to make in the next few months!

When I came to the UK, almost three years ago, I was going to do my PhD and return to Maryland at the end of the three years. After about a year here, I decided I wanted to stay. And now it looks as though I just may be able to do that. And unless I end up in central London, one of the first things I’m going to do when this goes permanent is buy a car.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen my musings about staying in academia or returning to industry, and in particular my decision that I would return to industry. I am still slightly sad that the academic route didn’t turn out to match my dreams, but industry really is where I belong — where I feel most at home and where I can make the biggest contribution. And now that I have an even better grasp of research, I am excited about making even more of a connection between the two than I managed to do before.

So if you have any UX consulting needs or just want to explore and discuss the possibilities, please contact me. I’ll have to start out slowly, but if you have a substantial need we can always consider having Adam take the lead with me supporting him in the time I have available.

Stay tuned!

Absentee ballot requested!

I’ve just put in an online request for an absentee ballot for the November election — Maryland has statewide elections this year in addition to the Congressional one, so it’s important. (It’s always important, but Maryland’s having its statewide elections in the “off year” makes it especially important that I vote every time, if I can.)

I put in an online request for the primary, and they sent me the ballot via email. I was in the US at the time I received it, so I asked a friend to mail it for me, which she did, but then I got an email from the state saying they hadn’t received it. Big sad. This time I’ll post it from the UK (I wish I could send it electronically as well) and hope that service is more reliable. At some point I have to go look at the ballot questions and also see what the Democratic Party recommends for each one. I may or may not move back to Maryland, but I intend to remain involved as long as I’m able.

Homesick for snow

My Maryland house in the snow

My Maryland house from my neighbor’s,
early in the January 2014 snowfall.
(Photo by Mary Donovan)

Just last night I expressed how much I hate the hot summers in DC. Today I’m thinking about how much I miss the winters. They’re having lots of snow this year (here we’re not — I’ve seen only one light dusting so far), and my house in Maryland has two woodstoves. (Well, OK, it had one when I lived there; the other was installed in my new space just before I moved to the UK.) I remember how much I loved building a fire and tending it all day, with the snow piling up outside. After it gets going, the woodstove in the den will heat the whole main floor all by itself if the outside temperature is not much below freezing. And what a lovely smell!

Snow gives me a sense of peacefulness and calm that I find nowhere else (except in singing Renaissance polyphony); I’m far more cheerful than usual. I didn’t even mind shoveling my 60-foot front walk.

The last time I felt homesick was the Fourth of July last year (my first July 4 here). I think I’m going to create a page (under “Living”) about things that make me homesick. (There are lots of things I miss, but not many that make me actually feel nostalgic for being there.) Stay tuned.

Of Elephants without Donkeys

Elephants stand at various points around Newcastle’s sprawling city-centre mall, intu Eldon Square. Elaborate and fanciful they are, painted elephants about five or six feet high. But it feels weird to see elephants alone. My Unconscious keeps tugging at me: Where are the donkeys?

I am from Washington DC*, you understand. For 35 years I lived just outside the city where US national affairs are more a part of local culture than they are anywhere else in the world. And this means that Elephants and Donkeys are inextricable: you just can’t have one without the other.

Elephants and donkeys, you see, are the symbols of the two major US political parties. And for six months, a decade ago, the city of Washington was dotted with 200 statues of these animals. The exhibit, called “Party Animals“, cropped up everywhere you went.

But the exhibition of elephant statues in Newcastle is this city’s turn to host Elephant Parade, a tour of art works designed “to raise awareness of, and funds for, The Asian Elephant Foundation, a charity which supports elephant conservation projects.” It’s here for a month.

Still, I feel a little discombobulated seeing large sculptures of elephants with no donkeys to complement them. And perhaps offset them.


*Yes, yes, I know I grew up in North Carolina. But I lived 3/5 of my life in the DC area before moving to Newcastle.

It’s been a year now

Today is the one-year anniversary of my arrival in the UK to do my PhD. (Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of my enrollment as a PhD student at Northumbria.) I’m having a lot of thoughts and feelings about this, but I have no time to write about them right now. I’m just posting this short note to acknowledge the anniversary.