There Are 3 Ways to Adapt to a New Country
Moving to another country has been, by far, the most transformative external event in my life. Everything I thought I knew about myself was questioned. If you’ve ever moved, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, picture this: the world as you know it, but completely different. A parallel universe.
The people, the language, the food, the buildings. Even the cars and the air. I remember when my brother-in-law drove us from the DIA parking lot and my main thought was “Damn, the place is so clean! “.
Of course, my thoughts were quickly reconfigured when I went deeper into the city — the rural areas. Even worse when I experienced the full cycle of snow: cold, awe, then ugh.
The weather — or even how clean a country is — is easy to deal with. The person you become with the new challenges, that’s another level.
When people think about the US and being Black, the question of race is often brought out. It’s one of those aspects of being in a new country and being different that each person finds a way to handle. I can’t say I’ve experienced enough to share tricks and tools. What I can say is that it’s only as bad or as good as you make it.
So, what happens when you move?
A lot! How you deal with these changes would determine whether or not moving was a good idea. Some people thrive despite their odds. Others crash under the weight of the new society, and a few become more than they were. Or less.
I’ve made my personal views about being an immigrant and thriving because — not in spite — of it. This experience has been informed by my own journey as well as friends and other immigrants.
There are some ways that are healthier than others and some threads that connect those who make it and those who don’t.
Let’s dive right into them!
1. Reject Who You Are and Become Someone Else
For starters, you can pick up the accent — it’s called code-switching.
When you talk with your family back home, they can make jokes at you, or try to understand. They may never. They don’t understand that you’re not pretending, that you sound this way because you really want to be heard.
You find out that you keep getting picked on — you decide to fully immerse yourself in the culture, letting go of anything that reminded you of home.
You build a new identity. You decide, after months of isolation and feeling alone, that no one would ever really understand you and that to adapt, you will have to carry a new name. You accept a new pronunciation of your name — mostly because you’re tired of explaining that it’s not the right name.
Are you tired? Or are you giving up?
Either way, you give up your hairstyle, your sense of style, even your sense of humor. You start listening to podcasts and watch the shows everyone at the office watches — just so you can finally have something to say during the brief periods when they’re not asking statistics about death in Africa.
All you think about is how best to fit in here. How much you can try to be American. It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s exhausting.
Which is why I won’t really recommend this path for you.
2. Bend Reality by Imposing Yourself To Your New Environment
You’re proud of your roots. So you remind everyone who would listen about the exact location of Cameroon on the world map. They can’t hear you? Psh. That’s their problem. This is America. Land of the free and the brave.
They can use Google translate, no?
You wear your colorful attire every day to work just because you need to make a point in style. You use every opportunity to point out the racist nature of the culture.
Are they uncomfortable? Good. They should be. You know where you come from and what “they” did to “your people”.
If you survived Cameroon under the harshest of conditions, you can make it here. In fact, you are so certain you can make it here, that when a new friend recommends you try to keep some distance when having conversations as Americans love their space, you reply:
“Where I come from, people hug each other”.
Almost every sentence starts with that phrase, “where I come from”.
Most people wonder if you want to go back. You compare everything so easily to where you were born that they probably are wondering why you came here, and when you’ll go back.
You don’t live in the matrix — you’re enlightened and this whole culture is there to experience you. Not the other way round.
Could you at this point extrapolate what the next few years would look like? Does a part of you fear that because you refuse to change, you will remain…the same?
3. Merging what works for both you and the environment — letting go of what doesn’t serve you with grace
When I moved, I tried the two above and realized quickly I wasn’t going to survive. I was newlywed, and yet to have a driver’s license. I was so stuck in my ways that a lot of the fights I had with my wife about how to adjust to the US revolved around me being humble enough to try new things. I was certain I would “make it” just by being myself.
I was wrong.
And, what is this self we’re so proud of? Isn’t it constructs we’ve convinced ourselves to believe in and now defend?
When you reject your roots, you don’t bring anything to the table.
I have watched this happened when people asked me about Cameroon and I tried to minimize my love for the country or downplay the effects of the civil war on me.
When my wife and I would wear colorful clothes to church on Sundays, I’d often feel embarrassed whenever people asked where it was from and what the designs meant. Truth is, it’s when I moved that I realized I didn’t even know that much about Cameroon. I carried pride in a place I was yet to even fully understand.
I was so stuck being “Cameroonian”, that I almost did not become “a Cameroonian in the US”.
It’s easy to flip from complete rejection of America to complete rejection of Cameroon — or wherever you come from.
The solution is not a balance of both, but an acceptance of what each brings to the table- your table of life.
I would never have worked the job I had now if I was in Cameroon. Customer service agent? Definitely not a smart job option for Cameroon.
The experiences I have had, even the way I speak has drastically changed. The people I have met, the perspectives I have about the church, family, work, the economy, I cannot say that I would have grown the way I have in the past 2 years without moving to the US.
This growth happened because of the foundation I got from Cameroon, our rich history. Our societal norms, our families, food, and ways of life.
The way to adapt to a new country is not through the stubborn refusal to “change”.
It’s not through throwing away our origins and adopting all that is new and shiny — that isn’t change either. That’s a cop-out.
Not everything about America is good. Same for Cameroon. We can always take what works and leave out what doesn’t.
The way to adapt to a new country — and maybe even in life — is to build a bag of experiences, engage in whatever is new and make our decisions, not from an emotional standpoint, but from utility and the general good.
If you reject who you are — your life’s experiences, you add nothing to the new place. You don’t provide a new perspective or open the chance of a growth-filled dialogue.
If you embrace everything that is new without looking at how it fits with your values, you drown your personality and become “fake” — a ghost of your authentic self.
Look at your new country. What’s there to take? Look at yourself. What can you give?
Do both. Take. Give. You don’t have to do only one. You’ve always been many things.
Why change now?