Navigating Life In The United States
Congratulations to the students who have been accepted to universities in the U.S this year. I know how excited you are having gone through the same a few years back. When I left Kenya for the United States, it was my first time on a plane. I have had vast experiences over the past few years, that led me to write this article. Had I heard some of these thoughts before, I would have been better prepared to navigate life. I am sharing them so whoever is leaving their country for the U.S. can have them in their subconscious, and retrieve them when they find themselves in similar situations.
1. The U.S. is hot in the summer.
I landed in Philadelphia at the end of July. Despite years of watching American movies and reading American novels, I still thought it was always cold in the U.S. So when I embarked on my journey, I wore a relatively heavy coat. When I got out of the airport, I was shocked by how hot it was. I kept looking around to make sure I was not standing under or over a chimney of some sorts. Before then, I did not know what humidity was beyond its meaning in English. Apparently, it is one of those of those things you have to experience to truly understand. Because of this, carry light clothing when you first come, the upside is your luggage is lighter. Another observation was that although it was 8 p.m, the sun had still not set. I would later remember what we had learned in Geography classes. Days are longer than nights in the summer. To my then graduate advisor, Kwezi Mkhize, thank you for all you did for me.
2. It Quickly Gets Cold In The Winter
On the flip side, the weather takes a drastic turn in November in Philadelphia. This is true for all states in the Northeast, and Midwest when the winter sets in. If you end up in the Western and Southern States, this shouldn’t be a problem. I remember wearing sandals in late October my freshman year. While crossing the street in Philadelphia, Pamela Edwards the director of the Penn College Achievement Program turned to me and said, “You are gonna have to get some warm shoes.” In a recent YouTube video on Dadas Lounge, Angela Okhupe shares that no amount of clothing bought in the tropics will suffice. It is important to save up before leaving home and once you arrive on campus to buy good winter boots and coats
3. You will miss home and food from home
When my parents came to visit a year ago, my younger sister called them out for carrying millet flour. In Swahili, we call it ‘wimbi’ and make porridge or ‘uji out of it. I was disappointed. The moral of the story here is carry dried vegetables, spices, and whatever flour is native to your culture. When you miss home, the closest thing you will have to it is food.
4. Carry Pictures
In the age of social media, this is not as big a deal. But in addition, carry memorabilia from home. This could be anything from art, to your favorite blanket, to jewelry. Somehow in my excitement, I forgot to carry pictures. Thank God for social media.
5. People Relations Are Different
How people relate in the U.S. can be different from people relations in your home country. At the risk of over-generalizing, I found relationships here to be task-based. We would take a class for a semester, and be cordial for that time, but that did not always translate to friendship outside of class. I found it hurtful when people you knew would break eye contact when you tried to wave at them. At the same time, I did meet amazing friends and staff members at different centers that were incredibly welcoming and loving. Melanie Young’s family, for instance, invited me to spend my first Christmas away from home with them. As I mentioned, this point may be an overgeneralization but is important to be aware of as most of my friends experienced it too.
6. You will become more aware of your race
There is so much more conversation on race and race relations in the U.S. For those of us from Africa, you will “become Black”. Essentially, you will become more aware of your diversity. Again as Angela points out in this video, that comes with some privileges and challenges. In my case, I became more Afro-centric. I chose to use my middle name over my first. I also became passionate about defending Africa and calling out anyone who propagates a single story.
7. Get your driver’s license
If you are coming to college, take the time between high school and college to learn how to drive. With your foreign driver’s license, all you have to do is pass a written test to get a U.S. driver’s license in most states. As a bonus, with a driver’s license, you don’t have to walk around with your passport for identity purposes. Depending on where you live in the U.S., the driving test examiners can also be severe. Therefore, get your driver’s license abroad and avoid having to take driving tests.
8. You will go places you have never been before
Leaving your comfort zone will expose you to the beauty of the world. You will thrive and meet amazing people. Be curious and explore as many places as you can. Being in New York City for the first time was surreal. Funny story, I did not know you had to pay the people in costumes if you took a picture with them. So I excitedly took a picture with Sponge Bob Square Pants, only for him to ask me for money. Since leaving home, I have traveled to France, Botswana, and other locations within the U.S.
9. It will get challenging
Adjusting to a new culture, a new accent, a new way of thinking, a new writing style, new food, etc can be overwhelming. Sometimes it gets to you. Long distance relationships suffer or end altogether. Even getting your family and friends to understand the time difference can be a struggle. This is all part of growing up. If you stay in your comfort zone, you will never grow.
10. When # 9 happens, know that it is ok not to be ok
Seek advice from older international students. Call your parents and talk to them. Yes, they will worry about you. And yes, you do not want them to. But sometimes you have to seek out your support system and allow them to love and support you. Most U.S. universities also have counseling centers where you can get more help if your homesickness extends beyond unhappiness. You don’t have to struggle alone.
For more inspiration on thriving as an international student abroad, check out the Dadas Lounge YouTube channel.