Everyday Things That Become Challenges When You’re An Immigrant
The first weeks, sometimes months, as an immigrant are the hardest. That’s because when you move to a foreign country, things that used to come naturally suddenly become challenges. Even if you speak the local language and are somehow familiar with the culture, there’s still that feeling that you’re different, and you know that people will notice that you’re not from around there.
In my first days as an expat, I couldn’t leave the house alone. That’s not uncommon, especially when you don’t speak the local language. I’ve heard stories about people who needed months to feel confident enough to be outside on their own in a new country.
Even the smallest task becomes complicated when you have to combine language barriers and low self-confidence. Here are some things we all do almost every day that require extra energy when you’re an immigrant:
Going to a Grocery Store
Supermarkets, farmers markets, and grocery stores are places where you can learn many exciting things about your neighbors and their habits. You get to see what people eat, how they prefer to buy food, what they wear every day, and other little things that help you get to know the new place you’ve chosen as your home.
Every trip to the grocery store can become a way to learn and familiarize yourself with the local culture. However, being around so many foreign people can quickly become overwhelming if you decide to go alone. So, I avoided doing grocery shopping on my own for months after moving to Italy.
You might think it’s easier with supermarkets — you go in, get what you need, pay, and leave. Not so fast! I had multiple “what ifs” in my mind every time I would think about entering the supermarket alone. What if someone asks me a question while waiting in line? What if my credit card doesn’t work? Improbable scenarios become too real when the thought of talking to someone terrifies you.
Taking the Kid to the Park
I would go to the park or playground during uncommon hours to avoid meeting other mothers. I was scared they would open a conversation using words I didn’t understand, and I would embarrass myself and my child.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only one with that strategy, and other immigrant mothers would be at the park at the same hour. It’s hard to believe, but the conversation is easier when no one has mastered the local language and you need to communicate with a mix of several foreign languages and your hands.
I stopped feeling anxious around locals in time, but it only happened when I finally became confident with my language skills. So, if you see immigrant mothers talking only amongst themselves, it’s not because they don’t like you. They’re just more comfortable in a group where no one expects them to pronounce words correctly or use the proper tenses.
At first, it was fun going out to a restaurant and playing tourist. After all, I was dining in an Italian restaurant, enjoying the food, and having an excellent time. However, after one or two evenings, you become aware of the little things that your friends do differently during dinner.
Learning how to behave in public places takes time and practice, and it becomes frustrating when you’re trying so hard to blend in and no one seems to notice your progress. Eating out can quickly turn into a social obligation you’d rather skip for some comfort food in your kitchen, where you can be yourself without anyone judging your tastes.
If you have immigrant friends and want to offer them dinner, ask them if they want to come over instead of going to a fancy restaurant.
Answering the Phone
I’ve never been a fan of cold calling, but when I started receiving calls in a foreign language from people I had never met, answering my phone became a horror story. As were calls from my kid’s school or the doctor’s office.
Communicating in a language you barely understand is challenging enough in person, so it’s almost impossible during a phone call. I would ask people to repeat the same sentence three times, and I still wouldn’t feel confident responding.
My partner had to call people back more than once just to confirm that I had understood what I was told. It’s frustrating at first, and phone anxiety can last long after you learn the language. If you know someone who struggles with phone calls, you can help them by offering to practice with them or texting instead.
It Takes Time
Becoming an immigrant is an act of courage, and many of us aren’t exactly ready when we take this step. We might think we know what to expect from this new adventure, but the truth is, it’s all so new and overwhelming that fear often takes over.
Every conversation with a stranger, every email in the new language, a doctor’s appointment, or driving to the grocery store become significant milestones as we build new lives. If you’re living in a foreign country, give yourself time to learn. If you have friends who are new immigrants, just be there for them and let them talk about their challenges and small victories. They might seem like everyday things to you, but they’re monumental achievements for them.