There are times in life when we are left baffled by events, actions or people. To make some sense out of these, our brain tries to match them with something in our past. People are more often left confused when they first meet individuals from outside of their community (cultural, professional, geographical, etc.) or when they take themselves out of their comfort zone. Deciding to live abroad, provides an endless number of opportunities to feel just like that: confused, reluctant, and at times baffled. Twenty tears ago, the first week I arrived in Vancouver, I felt confused of what to expect and unsure of what was expected from me.
It is a challenging and conflicting time for a newcomer: on one hand, you experience a strong wish to start your new life, to become independent and productive, but on the other hand, a normal reluctance in front of a foreign society and its yet unknown rules and regulations forces you to stick close to your community, the people you know and trust by association with your former life.
I landed into one of the friendliest and most open to giving advice and insight community: neighbours of the same nationality, friends and acquaintances would visit and give the advice they considered necessary to help me start making sense of the new land. Imagine every evening having anywhere between two to seven people coming over with drinks and a heart full of good intentions. Once the wine started flowing, the advice would begin on where to find certain foods, on how to find a good job or where to find a nice park to relax. The problem was always towards the end when we were forced to take sides on who had the better choice. But this is a different story! Although contradictory and most of the times subjective, one piece of advice seemed to be consistent: as a newcomer you have to renounce your former life, give up everything you once knew and start from scratch. Change had happened, now you had to manage the transition into the unknown future.
In his book Transitions, William Bridges explains change and transition as two different concepts. Change is sudden and situational while the transition process is psychological and happens over time. All transitions, he says, are composed of an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. The problem I had experienced is that it is easier said than done. Theoretically we all know that as a newcomer we need to let go of our old life in order to move on into the neutral zone of transition. In a time when you have lost your trusted network of friends and relatives, and when even the way you see yourself is changing, letting go or ending the connection with “life as you knew it” is the most difficult. “[…] ending is making us fearful. They break our connection with the setting in which we have come to know ourselves [..]” says Bridges. How can one overcome this fear?
One of the most important things is to reach out of your community. Get out of your community and ask the help of professionals. I won’t deny it: most of the people within your community are extremely nice and willing to share their settlement experience. But their opinions are biased and emotional based on their subjective, unique experiences. By reaching out to a newcomer settlement service you will get a very objective and tailored to your needs approach. You will find out where to polish your language skills based on your existing level and future needs, learn reliable information about Canada and the specific area you live in, and most important of all, gain confidence and start understanding the Canadian way.
Experience and have fun with something new every day. Except for few basic things, nothing will ever be the same. From the way you used to drive back home to the way the bed sheet is designed, from the way people interact on the streets to the way people address each other, everything needs to be re-wired. Such a process of replacing habits and common knowledge with new habits and concepts can be overwhelming. In the classic action-reaction model, our minds will go into that resistance mode and will fight back as hard as possible to change. Trick your mind! Be open and instead of criticizing or comparing with what you used to know start having fun with change. Begin with small steps: what about a new way of setting the table? Find a new park or a new place to discover at the end of the week! Try to use the very Canadian “eh” at the end of a sentence and join into the smiles that will follow, eh? It is not necessarily about what you do but about the attitude that in time will change, and you will become more accepting of the new ways.
Develop a new habit: asking for help! Well, what do you do when you are lost in the middle of a new city and have no idea how to go back to your hotel? Ask for help! When you are new to Canada, or any other country, city, place, there will be more times when you have no clue how to do things or where to find things. From not being able to find the right word when you need it the most, to not knowing how to change the colour at the pedestrian crossing, life in a new country will provide a huge number of opportunities to get upset and lost. Ask for help! Instead of wasting time trying to solve something or to find certain information by yourself, develop this very healthy habit of asking for help!
Stop talking and start listening more! We all have been there. There are times when we get frustrated in the process of settling. Maybe because we are lacking the understanding of how things are done and why things are done in a certain way. Or just because we got hit with a not so rare moment of nostalgia and instead of breaking down and crying, we go on the offensive and start explaining how things are done much better in the old country. Sometimes we remember similar situations that happened back in the old life and we feel compelled to tell the story out loud! Well, not only that it makes us sound very pretentious but for most Canadians is boring and sounds more like mambo jumbo! In our stories, there are almost always cultural references, and jokes specific to our mother language that are difficult, if not impossible to translate. When nostalgia hits, I have learnt to bite my tongue and start asking questions! Showing interest in the way things are done, in people I meet or places I visit, not only engages them but also provides a very good way of learning new and interesting things about the Canadian way that otherwise would take time and effort to discover.