A Stranger in a Strange Land


Arriving in a new country with little notice or planning can be disorientating at best. Although some of the language may be familiar through years of study, it’s different when you hit the ground running, so to speak.

And it isn’t just language that is confusing. People use terms you didn’t find in the outdated text books at school which taught you how to ask for directions but not how to ask for a doctor.

People you meet, sometimes friendly, sometimes curious, sometimes stubborn and sometimes actively aggressive. Calling home is sometimes a sweet relief but sometimes, especially when you have no plans, no job and are running out of money fast – it can be the culmination of built up disappointments – and a reminder to your family that you haven’t really worked things out yet or that things aren’t as ok as you thought they would be. And you don’t want people at home to worry.

Everyone knows it’s  hard adjusting to a new country, a new culture – but you knew you would be different.

But you weren’t.

It’s the simple things – not being able to say what you are thinking to anyone because mastery of the language is restricted to simple ideas. Will people think you are dim because you can’t say exactly what you are thinking in more complex terms?

People speak more quickly than your language instructor back home did. And they don’t pause for your mind to catch up.

On finding a job – it doesn’t always get better. People laugh at your accent, your word-finding difficulties. It’s amusing.

The frustration about not being able to communicate becomes stronger.

Which shops sell what things? Where do you go to post a letter? How do you access a doctor? What happens if you witness a crime?

All things you are familiar with at home become different – not just the language but the way of interacting. The ways that families work here – it’s just not the same. Men and women behave differently and not in the ways you are used to the gender roles at home.

Sometimes people are more open – sometimes more closed.

Sometimes you can feel more lonely than you have ever felt because although you have family, friends – they aren’t just.. well… there. You came and you need to stay.

You break a million new social conventions that you were never aware even existed and subject to more laughter, more joking – sometimes gentle ribbing, sometimes stronger.

Being aware of differences around you makes you far more aware of those people you had met at home – new immigrants, older immigrants – surrounded by different attitudes to those they had grown up around. Thrown into a different culture, different language, dialects, phrases that need to be learnt and put into context.

It’s get better you tell yourself. It can’t be that hard to adjust. And it does get better – after a few years – maybe.

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But when you do go home, maybe after a year, or maybe two – there is nothing like those experiences to help you to understand what it’s like – what it could be like, to be in a different country, in a different state where nothing is quite like it was at home.

That’s what I was like for me anyway. I left the country seven years ago and came back again 5 years ago. It was the one of the best experiences I had – in retrospect – but at the time, well, it was exciting but also frightening. And lonely. Sometimes. I left not entirely sure if I was going to come back or not. In the end, I did. But when I go and see people who have moved here either through desperation or decision – I remember those days when I first arrived in my new country and think back to the feelings of exclusion which weren’t necessarily forced on me but that I felt at most turns and remember how even the most basic and seemingly obvious things become more challenging for me.

3 thoughts on “A Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. I remember in college I had the experience of living in a dorm next door to two Japanese students. (My school had a program for international students to come for a year just to learn English). I remember being annoyed at first because the pay phone in the hall outside my room (before there was such a thing as cell phones) would ring at all hours for them. The time their families could talk was in the middle of our night. But over time we became friends. I remember thinking how different our culture must have been for them- language, food, everything. But they did pay, probably a considerable amount, to be where they were. And they did intend to go home after a year. I just remember how confusing things were for them in the beginning.

  2. Where did you live? You’re all the richer for it, I assure you. I romanticize living in another country but then the details get in the way: marriage, kids, money….

  3. I wasn’t anywhere as different as Japan! Actually the photo above is one I took myself (as all my unattributed photos are!)
    I was in Italy, Reas. Very easy to romanticize. I did myself! And don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderful experience (after all, I stayed for two years and did have the means to return if I’d have wanted to!) but it was also, at least at the beginning until my language skill picked up, much lonelier than I’d imagined it. I moved to bigger cities later but at the beginning I went to quite an isolated spot ::)

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