It would be too easy, if everything would go super smooth when moving into a foreign country. America is a great country, but there are also some things that can really challenge you during your first year. If you’re a seasoned expat, you know exactly what I’m talking about. True to the fact that you can never have it all, each expat struggles with a few things that are unfamiliar or just strange until we eventually get used to it or just figure it out. Here are my 9 biggest struggles during my first year in America:
Oh my God! The water really required some serious integration skills. The smell of chlorine was just awful during the first few months. It still is, but now I’m just used to it and don’t smell it as much anymore. But in the beginning I had a hard time rinsing my mouth with tap water or taking a shower in that stinky water.
We drink a lot of tea and it took us a while to figure out why our tea tasted nothing like home. It was because of the chlorine taste. As soon as we used a Brita filter for tap water, the tea was back to normal and we were one step closer to happiness. Didn’t solve the problem entirely, but at least we didn’t have to drink stinky water anymore.
Charlotte, NC city water is actually not too bad. During our travels we experienced a few cities that had a lot worse water. We noticed, because you usually get unfiltered tap water in restaurants. In the mountains however, the water tastes awesome. That’s because the mountain folks have their own springs and don’t have to rely on purified city water.
Understanding people over the phone
I am not a lip reader, but somehow it helps a lot when you’re seeing the other person’s mouth while having a conversation in English. On the phone however, I was completely lost at first. The sound isn’t as clear as a natural voice and people usually don’t talk loud enough for me to understand. So I had to constantly ask the person on the other line to please repeat what he just said. It got even worse when I was talking to somebody with an accent.
Responding in English fluently
After learning English for 9 years in school, you might think I should know how to have a fluent conversation in English. Well, the understanding part wasn’t really an issue, but the talking part. Unfortunately I didn’t really practice that a whole lot and all I did was to just learn vocabulary, read English books and watch English movies and TV shows to improve my language skills. But actual conversations were nothing I did prepare for, so I ended up making these long pauses (mentally translating my response) and answering with broken and very simple English, just to get some words out of my mouth in a timely fashion. Making spontaneous and witty responses while talking to somebody wasn’t really an option in my first year. It felt more like a brain freeze.
The toughest situations were whenever I had to deal with bureaucratic things like taking care of my SSN or work permit. It’s a lot different when you’re having an easy and fun conversation during a vacation than when you are forced to respond in English trying to resolve an issue. It all gets better though over time.
I believe my body height varied during my first year by about 10cm, because I was struggling to remember how tall I am in feet and inches. Come one, why does it have to be so complicated? Can’t they just use decimals and stick to one unit? Anyways, after alternating from anything between 5’9″ to 6’1″, I finally did the math right and calculated that 185cm rounds up to 6 feet and 1 inch (in short: 6′ 1″).
Same with the weight. Up to this day I still weigh myself in kilograms, just because I am used to it. But doctor’s offices always ask for pounds, so I had another number to remember and I’m sure my weight fluctuated by 40 pounds because of translation errors. Today, I know that doctor’s offices actually switched to the metric system, but they still ask Americans for pounds, feet and inches, just because they are used to it. So it’s totally okay if you give your doctor your body measurements in the metric system.
Figuring out prices
Shopping in Germany was so easy. You just paid the amount that was on the sticker and all taxes were already included. In America, they always show the pre-tax amount on the sticker. Then at the cash register you’ll find out the total amount including all taxes. To make matters worse, there’s not just one nationwide tax rate for everything. The tax rate depends on the type of goods or service. It depends on the state of the store, the type of item (groceries are a lot less tax), and the individual city or county to figure out the exact tax.
The other thing that boggled my mind was how expensive healthy food like vegetables are here, while junk food seems to be on an all time low every single day.
Letting go of certain foods/habits
Like every European, spoiled by good bread and pastries, I went out on a search for good bread pretty much from day 1. Same with certain German specialties, that I just couldn’t find anywhere. Sometimes I got lucky and spotted it in a random store as a specialty order for 2-3 times more than I was willing to pay for it.
In my first year I thought I have to find certain foods in order to make us feel more like home. This is a mission guaranteed to fail, because you can’t have it all. The faster you adapt to your new environment and the food it comes with, the happier you are. And over time, you’ll find more and more foods from home, that happen to be in different stores or all of the sudden in your favorite grocery chain (Greek Yogurt anybody?).
Waiting on my work permit
Waiting on the goverment is never fun, especially when you submitted a request and you’re not 100% sure that you filled out everything right and met their requirements. My work permit took a very long time to process and even exceeded the 90 days, that they stated as the maximum amount of time they would need to process. During that time I couldn’t really call anybody and also didn’t want to appear impatient and jeopardize the approval. So I ended up waiting about 100 days until I finally got my work permit, ready for my first job in America.
Remembering my SSN
You Social Security Number (SSN) is a big deal in the US. Even though you shouldn’t share your number with a lot of people, you constantly need it for filling out forms at the doctor, your employer or the bank. And with the constant fear of identity theft I also didn’t want to write it down anywhere and carry it around with me. It took me a very long time until I finally knew my SSN (and the one from my wife) by heart and I had to cheat a little beforehand. I did have a piece of paper with my SSN and I covered it up as part of a long phone number. This way I felt safe that it would be useless to a thief, if all they see is a long strange phone number.
We moved to the U.S. in early September and during the first week after our arrival we both developed a cold. Reason for that was, that we went to the mall and into all kinds of stores to make ourselves at home in our new apartment. Unfortunately, Americans really love their air condition and religiously keep the temperature indoors to about 70 degree Fahrenheit or lower during summer. Outside temperatures in September in North Carolina are usually in the 80′s and 90′s and people are walking around in flip flops and short clothing. But inside a store you almost have to wear a sweater, because it’s like walking into a freezer when you come from the outside. Our bodies were not used to that craziness back then, so they reacted with a cold. And not just once. Fun times!
Same in the office. It’s hot outside and you are almost freezing to death at your desk. And when you sneak up to the thermostat and secretly set it from 70 to 72 degrees, it won’t take long until the first person complains “it’s kinda hot in here”.