International Influence: Expats Make Themselves at Home in Oakland County

Fatima Koenig walks her dog in Oakland County. Photo by Jake Turskey

When Fatima Koenig learned that her husband was being transferred to Oakland County, she had to run for a map.

Her husband, Thomas Koenig, was assigned in 2012 as CFO of MTU America, a diesel engine supplier with a regional headquarters in Novi. The family moved from Ludwigsburg, just outside Stuttgart, to Bloomfield Hills.

“Being from Germany, people vacation on the East Coast, West Coast or Florida,” she says, explaining that she wasn’t familiar with Michigan. “I didn’t expect much, but when we  came here, we found it is so beautiful.”

Koenig says she loves the nature to be found in Oakland County, its proximity to the vibrancy of downtown Detroit, and the friendly, open people she’s met here. Soon after arriving, a friend told her about the Birmingham Bloomfield Newcomers Club, a volunteer association dedicated to connecting local women from around the world through social events and activities.

Koenig attended a BBNC Welcome Coffee and felt right at home. She soon started planning events through the group’s Venturing Out Committee, serving as 2018-2019 president. The group hosts cooking classes, yoga sessions and book clubs, along with Meet Your Neighbors and Moms and Tots groups. More than that, it offers a chance to connect with people in similar circumstances and share information about navigating a new place.

Right now, BBNC has about 300 members representing up to 30 countries, from Europe and Asia to South America and beyond.

“I think the most basic thing we have in common is that we are all away from home,” Koenig says. “We are all new in the area. We are open for new adventures and meeting new people.

“Most members are really interested in all the other cultures in our group.”

GROWING INTERNATIONAL POPULATION

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of global transplants to Oakland County is on the rise —  especially  the Asian population, up  more  than  37  percent  over  10  years  at last count.

Six Oakland County communities rank in the top 10 statewide for having the largest Asian populations, based on census data. The county’s Indian and Korean  populations are  also growing. Such population growth is driven by the fact that 1,040 foreign firms from 39 countries have located in Oakland County. In fall  2017, that included more than 240 Japanese-owned operations — the largest cluster of foreign firms in Oakland County, employing more than 12,500 people.

It’s typical, Koenig says, for international families to relocate with the intention of staying in Oakland County just a few years only to have their stays extended. Some make the move permanent. In many cases, Koenig says, women do not have work visas, so they turn to volunteering. The BBNC helps them find ways to put their skills to work.

LIFE IN TRANSLATION

Many families use translators or relocators when they arrive, to take care of tasks like setting up utilities, getting a driver’s license and learning where to shop — everyday errands locals take for granted.

“The typical story is we arrive here, and the husbands have their jobs, so their lives go on like they did back home,” Koenig says. “For the woman, everything changes from one day to the other, and you have to figure out how everything works.”

As more and more international families move  to  Oakland County, newcomers increasingly rely on word-of-mouth information from those who arrived before them. That’s how it was for Kazumi Suzuki, a mother of four who arrived three  years  ago  and  was pleased to discover places like Novi Dentists, which has long catered  to the community with Japanese-speaking staff.

Tsai-Yu “Jessie” Han came from Taiwan in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree on an education visa at the University of Michigan. After graduation, she was hired by Comerica Bank to work as a UX designer at its Auburn Hills campus.

While Han’s biggest challenge was the language barrier, she appreciates that the area is less crowded than her home country and  the cost of living is much cheaper. She appreciates clean air, wildlife sightings and a mild climate (most of the year).

She also likes that there is a robust international community that she can relate to. And occasionally, something happens that reminds her of home — like a motor scooter sighting.

“Scooters are very common in Taiwan, but there’s not a lot in Michigan,” she says. “Overall, I guess it’s when I see something I am familiar with back in my home country.”

COUNTY SUPPORT

Oakland County has stepped in to help with various international business brochures, published through Advantage Oakland in French, German, Italian, Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

In fact, the county recently published its first family- focused Japanese Resource Guide in partnership with the Japanese Welcoming Committee. In both Japanese and English language versions, the guide connects new arrivals with companies to set up their home, along with local attractions and Asian grocery stores like the mammoth 168 Asian Mart in Madison Heights.

It informs them of resources like Novi’s Ringo Kai Japanese School, one of the largest Japanese schools in the U.S., and the Japanese Program at Providence Park Hospital in Novi.

It also contains information about Asian Village, a $50 million residential, retail and restaurant development underway in Novi. As part of the project, Sakura Garden, a Japanese-inspired oasis with cherry blossom trees bordering a 4-acre lake, opened in 2018.

GETTING ACCLIMATED

Many of the area’s companies provide relocation services through their human resources departments to help acclimate new arrivals. One of these is Bmax, a French company with its U.S. hub in Pontiac.

Oleg Zaitov, originally from Russia, came to the area via Bmax’s French headquarters and relied on the company’s assistance to find a home in Bloomfield Hills. Less than a year later, the 31-year- old engineer has found time outside of his demanding work schedule to visit Eastern Market in Detroit, shop at Trader Joe’s in Bloomfield Hills, attend meetups at HopCat in Royal Oak and swim at L.A. Fitness near his home. He enjoys the adventure of learning his way around a new place and meeting people from around the world.

“Many people here have traveled,” he says. “They speak different languages and they have interesting experiences.”

Co-worker Nicolas Innocenti, a project manager  originally from Toulouse, France, also had help getting settled at his Oakland County home. He enjoys many things about the area, especially walking through downtown Royal Oak and witnessing the history and resurgence of Detroit.

The longer he is here, the more he realizes things are quite similar to home — except for the snow … and the scope.

“It’s a very big distance between  good things  to  see. The avenues are very large, cars are  bigger, the fast food … the size of  the drinks is bigger,” he says. “Otherwise the differences are small.”

This article, written by Wensdy Von Buskirk, originally appeared in the 2019 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine.