What to Do When You’re New: In School, Work, or Your City

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Reblogged from Tiny Buddha:  What to Do When You’re New: In School, Work, or Your City.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” ~Buddhist saying

Moving to a new country as a kid can be traumatizing because of the challenges of fitting into a new culture and new social customs.

When I arrived in Northern California at the age of ten with my parents and younger two brothers, we were excited about being in America (home of Disneyland) but apprehensive about our how our classmates would react to us and how we would fit into the social environment of a school in a new country.

My earliest memories of starting school in the 4th grade were not having to wear uniforms like we did in Malaysia, not having to stand up when speaking in class, and not having a regular morning assembly every morning prior to school starting.

I welcomed the slightly relaxed curriculum, reading fun fiction titles in class and not having semester finals in elementary school.

The challenges I found were as expected—not understanding the cultural context of what was happening in the classroom or references to American sports, entertainment, history and even holidays.

It was also difficult fitting in and making friends initially in a close-knit school, where kids had grown up together since pre-school.

Most of my classmates ignored me in the beginning. I found it difficult to engage in team sports activities or find lunchtime friends to visit with. Yes, there was some bullying, as well, about my mismatched, out-of-fashion clothes, my military-ready haircut, and even my accent, but I tried to take that all with good humor!

While I recall eating lunch in solitude for several weeks and attending English as a Second Language classes trying to get accustomed to my new life in America, I did manage to make friends over the course of the school year and fit in.  I even started getting invitations to birthday parties by the end of the year.

Here are some ways I was able to fit into my new school. These are ways that you too can fit in at your new university, job, or city.

1. Get to know your surroundings.

In order to assimilate into a new environment, I had to understand my surroundings. My brothers and I spent countless hours watching American classics like The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, and The Cosby Show to get a better understanding of the cultural and social differences here, and even people’s sense of humor.

Whether you’re in a new city, a new school, or a new job, take the time to explore your surroundings. Try to find out where things are located, who to go to for help, and what the current policies and procedure are.

Talk to people in authority positions or with more experience so they can tell you what you should and shouldn’t do, and what the acceptable social and cultural practices are.

2. Find others who are similar to you or who share your background.

Since it felt like I was alone by myself at my first school in America, I decided to reach out to others who I did have something in common with.

In addition to the one other Asian-American kid at that school who I instantly became friends with, I was also able to reach out to kids who had just moved into the area, other immigrant kids and others who I shared classes with and had gotten to know better.

If you find yourself in a new city or university, search out people from your hometown because you will have many common interests and shared experiences.

At a new job, find colleagues who went to the same university as you or who share a similar professional background. If you’re in a new city, find others in the community that share your interest in running, cycling, playing music, or whatever your passion might be.  

3. Be able to laugh at yourself.  

In order to avert the negative and culturally insensitive comments by some of the kids, I was able to laugh at myself. I didn’t take the bullies or myself too seriously which helped me feel more comfortable while at school, as I was trying to fit in.

Similarly, in a new work or school environment, give your new classmates and colleagues the benefit of the doubt. If they make comments or remarks that are sensitive to you or hurtful, credit it to ignorance and them not knowing you well enough.

Try if you can to find the humor in what they said and if there’s even a slight hint of truth in it, use it to laugh at yourself. This will help you break the ice and fit in.

4. Embrace new activities and experiences.

New activities and shared experiences have a way of solidifying relationships with others. Participating in the school skit, a poetry contest, and a country-dance competition were activities that I participated in which introduced me to more friends and helped me understand the American culture better.

I doubt I did these activities initially with open arms, but I challenged myself to do something that I had never previously done before.

If you’re starting a new university or school, take yourself out of your comfort zone to try clubs, sports, or activities you might not have tried before. Go to plays, concerts, and lectures that you wouldn’t have attended.

At a new job, reach out and collaborate with others, attend social events with colleagues you don’t know well, and go to the company picnic or holiday party even if you have an aversion to such events.

5. Find mentors and teachers who can help you adjust better.

In my case, I was fortunate enough to have found the English as a Second Language teacher to be from the country I had just arrived from. My English teacher became a mentor, guide, and later, friend.

She helped me navigate through the first year of school, encouraged me when I was uncertain of myself, and helped me get acclimated with the cultural and social differences in the U.S.

A graduating student, teacher, supervisor or local community leader can become your mentor. All you have to do is approach them and ask.

At work, seek out someone with more experience, and ask them to help mentor you with projects during your initial days on the job. In a new city, seek advice from a community leader or even neighbor on how to avoid rush hour, where to do your grocery shopping, and what parts of town to avoid.

Being the “new kid” can be filled with much apprehension, fear, and uncertainty.

Of course, once you’re in the “in,” don’t forget where you came from! Every former “new kid” has an obligation—to help other new kids at school or colleagues on the job fit in to the new environment.

There’s no better way for you to continue to build new friendships and relationships than to welcome others. Just remember, the new kids will forever be grateful for your friendship and kindness.

Photo by Eaglebrook School

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Nietzsche, Culture Shock, and the Art of Adaptation

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Photo credit: Bob Writght from http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2009/09/23/pages/5946/index.xml

Mt. Princeton, Colorado.  Photo credit: Bob Writght from http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2009/09/23/pages/5946/index.xml

I burst into tears yesterday at the sight of some Rocky Mountains in the western part of the United States.  I moved away two years ago.  Shouldn’t I be over being homesick and culture shock? This question prompted me to research culture shock and reflect on my findings.

Travel vs. Moving = Vacation vs. Permanency

Part of the reason travel is so exhilarating is that you volunteer to go to another place and immerse yourself into culture and place for a duration of time of your choice. In fact, most times travel is all about you and your preferences: city/country, hotel, restaurant, museum/tours, shops, beach, etc all are chosen by YOU.

Relocating however is not a welcomed choice always.  As a trailing spouse, you may not even get to choose the place let alone the time the move happens. Instead, you are choosing your marriage or family over comfort (and career!) and must stay in the new place at least for a while.  So you can’t just ignore what you don’t like because you’re not on vacation. You must adapt or die, as they say.

Culture Shock is an Understatement

The unique or quaint aspects of your vacation destination are the very thing that exasperates you when it is a daily reality of your new home. I think the novelty of a new place wears on someone’s patience after awhile because what used to be easy, convenient or familiar is now absent.  This website stated “Real CultureShock can happen in places you expect to be similar – it’s the accumulation of tiny things that can tip you over the edge. Don’t expect that it’s just that there’s snow, or that the buildings are taller.”  It comes down to little things like customer service or social etiquette.  How the different sexes are treated, whether you have children or not, food preferences and even….past times and hobbies. Maybe just the standard of living, condition of roads and infrastructure, and the severity of blight and crime is new to you. Routine tasks now take all day or maybe a week or more due to perhaps lack of knowledge of services or delays in service.  You can read my post about trying to find emergency pet care and how exhausting and stressful that was.

I remember nothing “made sense” even though I wasn’t even dealing with serious cultural changes in hygiene, language, food, gender, and race.  One article I read stated that all one’s cues on how to act and react are stripped away when you change cultures.  It’s this removal of cultural props that is disorienting and confusing. When you are a tourist, on the other hand,  sometimes it is fun to get lost in another culture.  In fact, I used to travel for this very reason:  I wanted to remove the veneer and rediscover myself in a new context. Then the discoveries were to help me orient myself again back home.   I think we all can agree that relocating is not a fanciful delight but a gut-wrenching overhaul of everything you know and love.

Thus when you see something familiar like a snow-covered mountain in Colorado that is similar to other places you’ve lived and loved, you burst into tears.

For an academic perspective on culture shock, try Paul Pedersen’s The Five Stages of Culture Shock:  Critical Incidents Around the World (1995 Greenwood Press, Westport, CT via Google Books).  It was helpful to know culture shock was a process, unique to each individual and based on experiences and expectations.  I would agree that if I’d had more time to research Wichita before moving here, I would have been better equipped to handle the transition. This hindsight is what compels me to write this blog and urge readers to DO YOUR HOMEWORK before relocating. But also be kind to yourself when things are tough.  Further, Wikipedia offers an interesting discussion on their Four Phases of Culture Shock. Also this blogger describes it in his own words. Either way, isn’t it nice to know it all will pass with time?

IMG_20130801_151652But don’t worry about me…Guess what?  I’m all better now that I’ve shared this with you.  And now that I’ve learned some critically important cultural cues for Kansas and can appreciate Wichita and Kansas norms, the pangs of sadness are fleeting.  Read my other blog post about how it all gets better with time. Don’t forget what Nietzsche said:  “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Let’s hear about your experiences.  Any advice for those who have just moved?

Where are you from?

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I thought I had it bad because people always want to know where I’m from.  I must have “NOT FROM HERE” on my forehead that only they can see.  Anyway, when I say “Oregon,” most times folks will nod knowingly and say something like, “They are really liberal out there.  You must be a vegetarian” or mention that my clothes are different.  A couple of men when I started my new job as an Environmental Scientist with the State of Kansas said they hoped I wasn’t treehugger. Wait, don’t we work for the Bureau of Environmental Field Services? Once, someone said to me “you know we don’t say ‘Hey, what’s up’ because that was said in the ’90s.”  This was a professor at the local university.   Oh, sorry, I forgot those of us from Portland are still living the dream of the ’90s.

But my friend Deb reminded me about this great YouTube video.  And I that I should shut my trap because I’m not dealing with racist stereotypes.

Which reminds me, has anyone seen the movie The Guard with Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle? They tackle racism and stereotypes in an interesting way too.

Anyway watch the video and let me know what you think about racist stereotypes.

Disagreement on the use of “trailing spouse”

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Is “trailing spouse” a pejorative or offensive term?

Another blogger, whose husband has a job that relocates them periodically, has taken a strong position on the term “trailing spouse.” You can read her blog post here.

She doesn’t appreciate or identify with the “trailing spouse” description since she’s doesn’t feel like it is accurate:  She and her husband choose to continue to be nomadic.  She doesn’t feel like she’s trailing behind anyone.

It seems to me that she takes offense at the term since its not feminist.  However her particulars are the same as many expats or trailing spouses; yet she has been able to retain her career while others have not.  She doesn’t feel disempowered like many of us do; her career options do not seem to have dissolved due to regional differences in economics, market specializations, or politics. Therein lies the difference, I think.

Trailing spouse isn’t a great term and its use has been challenged by users on the web. What other terms would you use to describe the situation of a person who must [reluctantly] leave behind their career so that their spouse can pursue their own career?

Let me know in the comments below!

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Notes from the Trail: Year 1

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I am writing as a newly diagnosed “Trailing Spouse” however this was a domestic relocation:  We moved from Oregon to Kansas, Portland to Wichita, and Trailing Spouse is usually reserved for expat relocations where a spouse must re-identify themselves in a foreign culture and foreign language.

I feel this is a correct diagnosis for me since Wichita is foreign to me in nearly every aspect, and I am undergoing the career dissolution and identity-crisis that accompanies other trailing spouses.

It has been a difficult year.  It is primarily difficult since Wichita is so unattractive as a community and I’ve had to take a serious paycheck reduction, though I’m glad to have a job.  I find that people are unfriendly for the most part here and although I can manage that, it is the ignorant dismissal that is bewildering:  if jobs are supposedly so scarce, why is there just poor customer service? Why don’t real estate agents call you back? Why do people choose the mediocre standard of living?  Poverty is just rampant and people don’t bother repairing their cars after an accident so many cars are driven in a serious state of wreckage:  bumpers hanging off or removed, rear windshiels missing, trunk side panels crashed in,  and front passenger doors inoperable due a large side door cavity.  Many people live in total desperate sub-standard developing world housing.

I often feel it is the slums of Mexico in the middle of our so-called Heartland. It should be the Armpit.

This move has forced me to re-examine things I value, since I’m not in an environment any longer that supports and upholds those values.  Since I have to champion my values and fight for those that I hold most dear, I have involuntarily embarked on a soul quest.

In my first few months here, it was difficult to make sense of where I was.  I was not necessarily in a hostile environment, but things that were friendly or welcoming were not easily identifiable.  I’m not a mall person so finding shops that offered items that I would be interested in purchasing was a real challenge.

Here are some first things to do in your new location when you are a Trailing Spouse:

Find something familiar

For me it was finding familiar stores.  I looked high and low and the only ones that seemed familiar were Target, Home Depot, Starbucks and Big Lots.  These stores grounded me as I looked around for other familiar things.  Later I found Thai and Vietnamese restaurants and a good local coffee shop.  Later I felt secure enough to venture to new stores.

Unpack and Make a Room Homey

Unpack enough items in your new home and decorate a room so that it is your “safe room:” a place where you can go to recover from culture shock, awkward interactions with locals, or to combat sheer homesickness.  It will help to be around things that remind you of you and provide sense to a situation that frequently does not make sense.

Cook Familiar Comfort Foods

Once you have your kitchen unpacked, cook foods that you find warm, comforting, and fortifying.  You will need the strength to brave new situations and the leftovers are a comfort in a new office environment.  The nourishing food will also give you minerals and strength that the extra stress is zapping.

My biggest mistake was thinking that I could simply transplant the life had to my new town.  This was not at all possible.  I hope that this blog will ease the despair, confusion, and loneliness you might be experiencing.  You’re not alone!