When you relocate to a new country, there are many inevitable awkward moments you run into, whether you’re extremely cautious or simply go with the flow. I’m not even talking about the food where it is apparently normal to add sugar to baked beans or meat, or eat jello with turkey.
It’s not about eating raw fish or crunchy little lifeless animals from the water! And I won’t go into details about a story of someone I know who yanked treats from kids as they rang the door bell for tricks or treats on Halloween. This new comer thought kids were handing out candies!
In the fall of 2006, I said goodbye to my dearest siblings and many friends who gathered at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda to send me off halfway across the globe. I was very excited about the opportunity to continue my studies and experience a new culture. My next stop? United States. The next paragraphs are my observations and experience!
Comparison & Conversion
When you arrive in a new country for the first time, in order to adjust, you start first by comparing everything around you to what you were used to in your home country. You compare buildings, cars, people, dress fashions, you name it.
When you make a trip to the store to buy milk and realize that it’s sold in gallons, yes a gallon (what is that?), for $3.21, you immediately convert it in your own currency to see how much that would be, for example, in Rwandan Francs. Oh, before you figure this out, you first wonder what is a gallon compared to liters etc. Then you do the math to make a decision if your purchase is ideal.
In my very first effort to get my hair done when I arrived in the US, two friends (white and Asian) took me to the best place they knew. The stylist lady who was either white or Latina (definitely not black) assured me that she knew well how to work with black hair. I was ecstatic! The whole process lasted about 30 min. I was very impressed because it normally takes no less than an hour in Rwanda.
To my dismay, not only did my hairdo look as if they didn’t do anything to the hair, but it also cost me around $80. The hairstyle I was looking to get would normally have cost me around $10 in Rwanda. That was the last time I tried…well, until an African friend took me to an African beauty salon where someone finally knew what she was doing!
Oh, yes! You definitely think in Kinyarwanda at first (or whichever your native language is) and translate into English before responding to someone who just asked you what courses you are taking or your major at RIT or how long you have been in the country or simply what you do for a living.
Researchers say that you will know that you are comfortable in a new language when you no longer need to translate in your head from your native language to your new one before you speak or answer a question. Caution: At some point, you may become too comfortable in your new language that you might need to translate back into your native language before you talk; isn’t that funny but true?
Few months ago at my brother’s wedding, I vowed to myself that I’d make an effort to use Kinyarwanda only during my 5 minutes speech. Howbeit, in front of our honored hundreds of guests, as I searched in despair how to say “on behalf of” in Kinyarwanda, I feigned a smile as I apologized to the audience because I had no other word to replace it in order to complete my phrase. I indeed felt betrayed by the language I have spoken my whole life 😦
Moments of Boldness
As funny as this may sound, it is a moment of truth! Most likely, casual, humorous conversations and jokes will be different in your home country from your new home. For example, in Rwanda, weight issues are not only an icebreaker to start common daily conversation but also a way to let people know that you pay attention to their size.
People are not afraid to remind you that you’re fat and that you should probably start exercising. This is not a private conversation. It’s in the open for everyone around you to hear. Or perhaps that you are too thin and someone fears you may not have enough food in your home.
So, take a person from that context and into the United States. Also note that the only English words this brave person knows how to say related to weight is skinny and fat. Well, you can connect the dots. This creates an awkward moment when you tell someone in the US, especially women, that they are fat (they didn’t just “put on a few extra pounds” because you probably have never heard of such an expression).
I think that the cultural influence, in addition to the language barrier, may bring embarrassing moments for newcomers!
I am normally very careful in what I say to people because I am afraid to hurt their feelings, but once a dear friend poured her feelings out to me and some friends. I went on to tell her it was a first world problem. YEP! I sure did! Back then, it seemed like an innocent comment to go along with our fun conversation. Now I know that it was not the case.
Oh! Did I also mention that I once told a friend I had known for a few years that it was probably about time he started thinking about growing up, because after all, it was a new year and his sense of humor wasn’t amusing anymore! Who in the right mind says that? Fortunately, this gentleman found it funny and laughed about it! A word of advice: DON’T DO IT!
When you move to another country, at first you tend to stick to what looks familiar. For example, when you spot at the grocery store the powdered milk NIDO used a lot in Africa for tea, you want to jump with excitement for all shoppers to know that you have found a hidden gem in your new home. Similarly, when you go back to visit your country, everything looks so amazing that you want to snap photos of women carrying baskets on their heads or babies on their backs, in the streets, or just a typical traffic jam in the city.
You cherish everything that keeps you close to things you grew up seeing. You want to take everything back with you when you return to your new home…food, clothes, traditional decorations, everything. Likewise, if you could take everything you started liking in your new home on the trip with you, you would just do it. In the end, sometimes people will notice some obsessions that seem all too unfamiliar to both cultures.
You see the first picture with my siblings where my sisters and I are wearing Rwandan women traditional outfits? Those outfits have been around for ages. They’re basically worn by women on special occasions in Rwanda. Married women can own and wear them anytime (for parties etc.) but single women mostly rent them for special occasions.
Now, I am not entirely sure why I am beyond excited to own not one, but two of those, for myself, which are the gifts my brother and his wife gave to me on their wedding day. I cannot wait to wrap one of them around me and walk in it. And why am I obsessed with this? I have no clue!
Where are you from?
This one will probably follow you always especially if you move to a new country at an older age. Your accent will always be such a giveaway. As soon as you open your mouth, at least in the United States, people are eager to ask where you’re from. Some people are funny enough to conclude that every black person with an accent must definitely be from Jamaica, and that’s probably one of the states of Africa, because after all, Africa is one country with many states just like Unites States.
Challenges on both ends
As harsh as it sounds, when you go back and forth between the two cultures, you will definitely realize that you blend in neither culture. You just choose what to adapt to and what to ignore. For example, time is very important in western countries, while it doesn’t mean anything in Africa at least. When in Africa, I often find myself annoyed by people who are late for meetings, especially when they don’t call to let me know that something came up.
When that happens, people around me wonder if I just fell from another planet because being late is normal in Rwanda. Similarly, as much as I try very hard, after several years, I still struggle to find the food that I like or adjust to the cold/hot weather in the US. Rwanda is a tropical country and the weather is close to perfection: (high 50s – low 90s) all year around.
In a country that speaks a different language than yours, you will realize that when you don’t pronounce their language the same way, you may be asked to repeat. Shortly after I arrived in the United States for the first time, I asked someone a question that had “learning” in it but they definitely heard “running“. Only then I realized that, “R” is pronounced differently from “L” in English while in Kinyarwanda they are identical.
If you visit your home country, no matter how often you do that, you will realize that you live in the past (or at least the last time you were there). You will be amazed by how much everything has changed: new fashions, buildings, roads, sayings, new obsessions. Even if little has changed, it’s a big deal to you how everything looks. The excitement may plunge you into long explanations, only to realize that you sound like you are speaking a foreign language to your own people.
Believe me! Your efforts to describe that new beautiful tall building they just built where the bus station used to be won’t seize the moment for those who have seen the building under construction the year before. The breathtaking view from the hill where you can see most of the downtown Kigali at night with its beautiful lights? It’s just in your head, no one else finds it that stunning! It’s just life, you go into a series of emotions, whether young or older.
Embracing the new culture
This is very important and the final phase in the process of adjusting to the new culture and definitely a big deal if you want to enjoy your expatriate life. Some people tend to stick only around the community of people from their home countries. This one may render you bitter toward the new culture when you’re faced with a situation outside your community.
I once met a man from Rwanda who had been living in the US for 12 years at the time, but this man couldn’t speak English for a whole minute, literally. I was heartbroken! Take time to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Be patient, humble and respectful. Explore, learn, master the language, and adapt to the culture. This will definitely make your life easier.
How about you? What has been your experience in a foreign country?