Adjusting To A New Life In The USA
by Ruby Bayan
I woke up late one morning; my roommate had left for work. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I walked to the window and looked out towards the parking lot facing our apartment unit. I noticed a couple of men in smudged overalls, painting the outside of the unit next door. Both of them were white. Suddenly it hit me. "Omigosh! I'm in America!"
Cozy inside the apartment, I sometimes forget that I had flown halfway across the planet to live in a society and culture extremely diverse from my Asian background. I'm always shockingly reminded, though, the moment I step out of the confines of my new home, that I am a stranger in a strange land.
In Asia, everywhere you look, you'll see the predominance of brown skin and black hair. Here, you'll see an astounding myriad of skin and hair color. On a regular day, however, I'd enter a restaurant or a supermarket and be the only one with toasted skin and raven hair, calling some attention if not a few stares. At first it made me uncomfortable, but eventually I learned to ignore the stares -- I just imagine that celebrities deal with it all the time.
The language is another thing I deal with. Back home we'd joke that Americans are so cool because they're all fluent in English. I'm fluent, too, but I didn't realize that practically each state has its own unique way of mouthing English words. Southerners, bless their souls, they spoke a mighty fine drawl t' y'all; African Americans, oh man, them be chillin' 'n jivin' 'n theih own ack-sents, too, man! And New Yorkers? From uptown? They duhn out-n-out threwn me offways with theih peculiah intone-ations!
I tried mimicking various accents to sound more American, but things went from bad to worse, because people couldn't reconcile the twang with my appearance, so I gave up trying. Well, I noticed that folks somehow understood my Asian English, anyway -- after I repeated a word or two, with matching full body gestures -- so, no problem.
The food? Oh, I have no trouble adjusting to American food. Steak and potatoes, burgers, chicken fillets, and submarine sandwiches, not to mention frozen dinners, are all okay with me. But I have to confess, I immediately hunted down the nearest Asian restaurants and Oriental grocery stores so I could feast on fried rice and spring rolls whenever I felt nostalgic.
Come to think of it, it's not the language, or the food, that I find difficult to adjust to -- it's the lifestyle. Of course, I don't expect Americans to behave or treat each other the way people at the far end of the world do, but having been raised in the clannish tradition of the East, I feel that the individualistic American urbanity takes a little getting used to.
Here, young adults are expected to pull out and get a life the moment they hit 18. The popular Asian concept of building a small town of in-laws under one roof may well be the ugliest nightmare to Americans. Yes, privacy is a valued circumstance, and a welcome blessing to all parties concerned, but it can get lonely sometimes.
But that's what westerners have always been known to adhere to -- independence, freedom, and self-reliance. Which is why the first things I had to quickly learn when I got here were how to run the dishwasher and clothes dryer, how to nuke an instant meal, and how to say the two all-important words: "to go".
I've come to the conclusion that self-reliance is the key to the American way of life. You serve yourself when you get gas; you mix your own coffee and pour your own soda at the deli; you choose your own relish from the condiment bar; and the most hospitable host will give you the warmest American welcome: "Go fix yourself a drink."
I admit -- the self-service scenario often leaves me frozen in my tracks; I get confused with the wide selection I'm faced with. Sometimes the abundance of flavors of coffee creamers, packets of condiments, and payment options can be overwhelming to someone who grew up within the limited resources of the third world. But I'm a fast learner -- now I know to cream my coffee with French vanilla, dab my chicken nuggets with honey mustard, and pay at the pump.
There's still a lot of adjusting to do, though. I still need to get used to referring to the compass instead of saying left or right when giving directions. I need to remember time zones, area codes, zip codes, and pounds not kilos. I also need to decide whether I'm a Republican or a Democrat. And most of all, I need to understand football. That shouldn't be too hard. How do Americans say it? "Piece-a-cake!"
Read more about my life in the US in my blog: Neural Spork
[First published in New2USA.com, 2000]