Welcome to the United States
A Day In The Life of An Expatriate Spouse, by Julie Duffy, first published in The Montgomery Post, PA February 10, 2001
Welcome to America!
I used to puzzle over people who migrate to new countries only to spend their lives in insular, immigrant communities. It seemed like arrogance or ingratitude. Now however, I think I can offer a new perspective: they're just tired.
In my life, so far I have relocated five times. I've been on four coasts, in three countries on two continents. My most momentous move was when I left Scotland for the USA. I now feel qualified to tell you that trying to be understood in a new culture is exhausting, even when you speak approximately the same language as the locals, and especially if (like me) you hate to look foolish.
My first few weeks in the States were spent in Boston, MA. In the beginning, an average day would go something like this:
- Nearly get killed walking to the store because I keep looking the wrong way when crossing the road.
- Try to get keys cut and realize I don't know where to go. Find success at Hardware Store. Feel good about new, adventurous self.
- Lunch. See no familiar eateries. Join the line at the busiest sandwich shop around. Sandwich man yells, "bread?" I say, "Yes!" Sandwich man rolls eyes, offers fifteen choices of bread (what on earth is pumpernickel?). People behind me sigh. Pick one at random. "Cheese?" "Yes!" Seven more choices. (I'm panicking now.) Ask sandwich man what he means by "everything on it?" The shuffling and muttering behind me grows ominous. Can barely concentrate as he runs through an impossibly long list of options. Opt for 'everything'. Discover I hate pickles and pumpernickel. Realize 'peppers' doesn't mean bell peppers, but fire breathing demons. Lose feeling in tongue. Give second half of sandwich to guy begging outside of department store.
- Decide to buy a new CD. Misled into trying "Hits and Misses" Girls' Clothing Store and several instrument shops before giving up.
- Spend three hours at the grocery store blocking the aisles as I read the labels of every cleaning fluid. Realize I used to buy everything by looking at the packaging. Fellow shoppers stare at me staring at everything. Decide to eat only vegetables their packaging is familiar. Steer clear of the weird, bulbous tubers and fruits everyone else is loading into their carts. (It will be two years before I figure out what to do with a squash).
- Try to buy comfort food but see nothing familiar and comforting. Ask a passing shopper for advice. Discover Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream!
- Checkout. Start packing own groceries, get weird look from cashier.
- Home. Cook dinner. Try to convert recipe measurements (in ounces or grams) into the unfamiliar 'cups'. Roommate laughs at my recipe with its weighed out ingredients. Give up.
- Make sandwich instead. Roommate laughs at me for automatically buttering the bread. I laugh at her for automatically putting cheese on everything. She reminds me whose country I'm in. I apologize.
- Try to plan for tomorrow. Discouraged by the thought that there is no such thing anymore as a simple errand.
- Curl up with Ben and Jerry. Feel much better (see? I'm assimilating!)
- Decide to find a fantastic job and hire a maid/personal shopper.
You see, I was ready to be confused by the money and politics, but the real challenge lay in the little, everyday things. In the end, getting bamboozled by politicians just made me normal. Light switches and keys, which turned the wrong way, were the things that triggered hysterical homesickness. It was not being able to order lunch that made me feel stupid. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be when your grasp of English is limited.