Kadri Bennett lives in Denver, Colorado, in the US. She has lived in States for eight years, has four children with her American husband and currently runs her media business with him.
Kadri, what made you leave Estonia and how did you end up in the US?
After graduating from the University of Tallinn, I wanted to see the world before settling down and having a family. I had a successful career in Ekspress Group and I was excited to face a new career and life challenges in a new environment. I considered London to be the perfect place to start, but after a short trip I wasn’t sure the daily cycle (office-bar-home-office-bar…) was the environment change I was craving for.
I had the opportunity to visit Miami, the so-called cultural melting pot. I had never considered America as one of the options and my view of American culture had been mostly negative prior to my visit. But after a short stay I had seen and experienced many different sides of it and the tropical weather didn’t hurt either. So I ended up extending my stay. After weeks and weeks of beaches and vacationing I decided to give it a real try and started to look for a job, despite my language challenges (I only studied German and Russian in school).
Despite not understanding 80% of the menu I was hired as a waitress in a local restaurant. Eight months later I was asked to manage it. After meeting my husband, I had the chance to also work in a pharmacy, in the accounting industry and in finance. Now, eight years, four kids and a move to Denver later, we own and operate a media company and broker home essential services in 24 countries worldwide.
What were your first impressions of the US?
My first thoughts were how unpleasing to the eye American streets looked. It felt like there were no city planning or guidelines. Every business has the most colourful sign and every building was of a different style and colour.
The businesses stay open all hours of the day and many restaurants, pharmacies and grocery stores stay open 24 hours. The American culture is strongly consumer-oriented. I was surprised to learn how affordable are all the well-known clothing brands and it does not break the bank to eat out every day (although it may break your scales).
In a certain way I felt like going back in time - public internet access was hard to find eight years ago. There were some internet cafés where you paid $1 for 30 minutes. People were still doing business with personal and traveller’s cheques and no one had heard about automatic wire transfers.
Even though these things have improved greatly, it is still hard to predict your total at the store, as tax on items is not included in the price tag but added later. And every city area has a different sales tax.
As I arrived in the States with certain negative preconceptions, I was pleased to see that there is so much more to Americans then what see or learn from the media. They are kind, friendly and open. They are always willing to help, donate and volunteer. Many people still live by the very same beliefs that this country was founded on and have a strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.
How do you manage and what challenges have you had?
Eight years ago when I first moved to the States, my biggest challenge was the language. I had never learned English in school and all I knew I picked up from the TV. The second biggest challenge was the immigration process. And not to be able to visit home when my paperwork was pending.
Culturally it’s been the hardest to realise that accountability has no value in American social and business circles – from a simple “I will call you” to business agreements. People here give empty promises easily.
All our four kids were also born in the States and it was a whole new world to me when I discovered that maternity is not supported by employers or by the government. Maternity leave is regulated only for companies with over 50 employees and the maximum time off is three months, which is not compensated. Medical expenses related to the childbirth can range from $6000 (natural birth) to $100,000 (complicated child birth). Day-car centres here take on babies as early as six weeks old. Because many mothers cannot afford to stay at home longer.
Day care expenses start from $800 per month per child. That’s why most American families hire a nanny when they have more than two children.
Now, when our five-year-old started kindergarten, I have discovered how being a melting pot has affected the American school system. Many kids do not speak English and teachers need to put in extra effort to teach them basic language skills. That takes away time from other students. Because of a wide variety of religious beliefs the school system doesn’t celebrate Christmas and any other religious holidays. It’s sad to see how a multicultural environment seems to deprive kids from a variety of experiences instead of enriching them. So many parents place their kids in private religious schools or home-school them.
How do you make a living and what has been your best work experience?
Even though in Estonia I did enjoy working in a corporate environment, I could not imagine doing it here. I have seen so many people mistreated and the corporate office environment is far from professional. But I do admire the culture of American small business. The owners work side-by-side with their employees and have a great respect for them.
I had a chance to manage a restaurant, work in a pharmacy, offer accounting services and consult in the financial field. And after our twin girls were born I stayed home and dedicated all my time to learning and improving my photo and video editing skills. So I have had the chance to learn and test my skills in so many different areas here.
For last three years my husband and I have operated a media business and brokered home essential services. These are two different businesses. One is a media business where we offer video production, photography, graphic design and music production services. And we are also licensed brokers for all home essential services (phone, internet, cable TV, electricity etc.) in United States and 23 countries worldwide.
What do you like most about life in USA?
I truly enjoy the land of opportunity. You can be who you want to be. You can dream and chase that dream. You can change you career or life path when you decide. Small business is still the driving force and people are glad to support local business owners over big corporate businesses.
As an Estonian I had always valued my sarcastic side and I was quick to criticise, but struggling to share an uplifting word or a compliment. I have learned to be more loving and recognise the power of a kind word. I do credit my years in the States and the people (mostly my husband) around me for my personal growth.
What is the most difficult about living there and how do you cope?
The most difficult thing for me is to be so far away from my family. My family has always been really close and loving and supportive towards each other. The first couple of years away from them were really hard. Luckily my brothers and my mum visit quite often.
It was also difficult to realise that all my experience in the publishing industry and a bachelors degree don’t have much value here. But, in the other hand, it made me work so much harder to prove myself.
It has been challenging to keep the Estonian language and traditions alive in a multicultural marriage setting. I do not have any close Estonian friends here and the only time my kids hear Estonian is when I am on the phone or on Skype with my friends and family. I am happy to see that our oldest son is showing more and more interest towards the Estonian language and traditions.
In the last couple of months I have learned that there are about five other Estonians in Colorado. I have not have had the chance to meet them yet, but hopefully I will soon. When we lived in Miami, there was a lot bigger chance to meet Estonians on the streets or hear Estonian spoken in a store.
What do you miss the most about Estonia?
My family. I miss my childhood and college friends. And food. My husband is still talking about all the great dishes he was introduced to on our last trip to Estonia. Everything tastes better in Estonia. Everything.
I miss the access we had to lakes and forests. Most land and lakes in States are private property and access to them is limited, denied or ticketed.
I would love the opportunity to live in Estonia at least for a couple of years to give my children the opportunity to experience my heritage first-hand. This is something we will work towards.
What do you think should be different in Estonia?
I do see that the Estonians’ desire to imitate Western culture is pushed to the limits. I do hope that not everyone needs to leave Estonia to truly start valuing our culture.