How Living Abroad Changed the Way I Interact with Newcomers

– Written by JP McMaken

            People move sometimes, and they move for a ton of different reasons. Chances are you have either moved somewhere new, or have come across someone in that situation. I personally, at the age of 11, moved across the Atlantic Ocean to Switzerland, where I lived until the age of 15. Living there was the best and worst experience of my life, but it was nothing if not transformative. Until that point, I had rarely left my hometown, and I had very little interaction with people who didn’t live less than 20 minutes away from my house. After being thrust into a completely new continent, environment and culture, I became the newcomer, the stranger. Living abroad gave me the chance to experience what it was like to have to adapt. Looking back on it now, it is possible to see how I was treated, and mistreated, to discover how to interact and welcome newcomers I come across in my own space.

The Stress They’re Dealing With

Do you remember the stress of your first day at a new school? Or maybe your first job interview? The fear of an environment you are unfamiliar with, the knowledge that you are being watched and judged by people that are in said environment. That stress is similar to what newcomers have to experience for a long period of time. This is only worse if the newcomer doesn’t speak English as their first language (or whatever language is spoken in the area). The environment becomes not only new, but near hostile when you can’t understand what the people around you are saying. Speaking from personal experience, this level of stress can dominate your thoughts on a near daily basis, especially if there is nobody there to help out.

Stereotypes: They Don’t Help

While this concept is reinforced everywhere, it is still important to mention. There are stereotypes for everyone, every nationality, profession. I personally was bullied a lot when I was living abroad based on American stereotypes. I was told that Americans were stupid, fat, and entitled. I found myself trapped in a defensive battle with these bullies, trying unsuccessfully to prove through my actions that not all Americans were like that, but that only served to inflame them further whenever I made a mistake. For example, I’m a slow eater, like very slow. Kids would see me eating for longer than everyone else, and assume that I was just a fat American eating my second or third helping, when I was just taking my time.  I didn’t think I fit those stereotypes, nor did I think that the other Americans I met abroad fit them either. People aren’t defined by stereotypes, and every person is different. This fact is important to remember, because it is so easy to just fall into sorting people based on stereotypes.

What I Learned

In school in Switzerland, I wasn’t placed in a regular classroom. I, along with about 10 other international students, were separated from the rest of the student body and placed in their own class, in order to focus on the development of speaking French. While that would make sense academically, that decision without a doubt ruined my class’s chances socially. Interacting with other local students during gym class and recess became a nightmare. Because we didn’t work together, and were only seen during times of little teacher supervision, I never had the chance to be introduced to these kids. They didn’t know me, and therefore I was a target. Not only did the bullying not help me, but it also hindered my language development. A lot of language use is in casual conversation, not just in academia. If I had even one local student reach out to me, it would have helped significantly, in both reducing my stress of being new and my language development. It is surprising how much of a new language you can learn by interacting with people outside of learning in an academic setting. I can assure you that newcomers you may meet in the future will be grateful if you reach out to them first to try and ease them into their environment. After all, it is the one you’re comfortable with.

– By JP McMaken