Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Four ways moving to another country is like being born all over again

There are a couple of fundamental moments in our development that we don’t find out about until later in life. That’s only possible by scrolling through photo albums of first steps, first words, first bath etc. These firsts are our parents most treasured recollections, but have little to no significance to us.

Despite our best efforts to remember, our brains will bring to the surface nothing more than blurred, often distorted bits and pieces of information. Like the smell of your mom’s sweater as she carried you in her arms or a mental snapshot of dangling toys over your crib.

Some people though, get to have a born-again experience when they move to another country. I am one of them and can tell you right off the bat, that there’s a pretty good reason for not remembering how we surmounted the challenges of human growth. If we were to do it all over again, learning to walk and talk, we would feel vulnerable…self-conscious…Terrified.

That’s exactly what most people go through when they attempt to adjust to a new country. Here’s why:
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1. You have to learn not only the language, but its intonations and social meaning. When I moved to 
Chicago, I thought I had a good grasp of English. I could carry a conversation; that wasn't the problem. What made me cringe every time I opened my mouth was how rigid I sounded. Not much different than a baby spitting words. It took me a while until I figured out that speaking like an American requires relaxing the tongue and throat muscles, while dropping the jaw a bit. With that out of the way, I still had trouble choosing my words. Back home, when someone says “How are you” they expect to hear a detailed report of your day including what you had for breakfast. Here, as I quickly learned after having people avoid me, is this question is just a longer version of “Hi”.

2. You discover novelty in everyday life.couldn't tell you if I was happy or rather annoyed when my mom exposed me as a baby to the sun light.  But I sure knew the adrenaline rush I had when I had a cocktail on the 95th floor of the Hancock building in Chicago. Or how stunned my husband and I were to see the Cloud Gate, a bean-shaped mirror sculpture placed in Millenium Park. It was like this part of the world had just risen minutes before and was luring us in to discover its charm.
Retraining your taste buds can be a blessing in disguise. You probably don’t remember transitioning from purees to solid foods, but there is a big chance you cried for your pureed veggie concoctions for the first couple of days. My first morning here, I almost threw away our milk carton after having a small sip because it tasted like dirt to me. Gradually, I grew to love many American food staples I’d never even considered trying such as ribs and S’mores.

3. Get used to your new environment. The snow storms everyone warned me about weren't a deal breaker for moving to Chicago. Romania, my home country, goes through four seasons a year, so I was prepared to brave the hard weather. What really took me by surprise were the tornado-like storms. My first one caught me completely off guard. I was riding a CTA bus, when the sky suddenly got darker and violent rain drops began striking the bus roof, as if they were bullets. In the distance, a lightening show awaited us. When my station came, I ran through puddles like my life was at stake and made it home soaking wet and scared to death. While I couldn't say I got used to such weather events, I did learn to prepare accordingly.

4. Connect with people. Making buddies on the playground or in the daycare must feel like second-nature. How complicated can it be to babble your way into a group of toddlers, maybe even share a half-chewed rubber toy? But when I got my first job with an American company, I almost had a panic attack. My first day was the worst. I kept stammering through conversations, nervous, like a sheep facing a pack of wolves. My head was spinning. “Should I shake hands?” “Do they even do that?” “Don’t stare, don’t stare!” I survived and eventually, trust settled in between myself and my coworkers. They taught me how to connect better with Americans and I became willing to let go of judgments. 

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