Settling in

The question I’m being asked most at the moment is ‘how are you settling in?’, and this post is by way of a proper answer.

The first two or three weeks were overwhelming.  I’ve always thought it unfortunate that most fiddly bureaucratic and administrative tasks have to be done when you’re new: new in town, new in post – in this case newly emigrated.

We didn’t understand whether American TVs connected to aerials.  We had no idea where to buy envelopes, or the New York Times.  We weren’t quite sure of the rules about crossing the road.  I had a vague memory of having once known how street numbers worked in America, but couldn’t reconstruct it. For days I couldn’t work out how to make a call on our landline.  (It’s on the Northwestern network, it turns out, and you have to dial 9 first.)  Our conversations with people at the accommodation office, a couple of rival banks and (worst of all) the health benefits adviser were characterised by M and me gaping gormlessly and exchanging anxious looks as we wondered how much of what was being said we could get away without having repeated one more time.  I finally lost my patience, and temper, in the post office, when the guy behind the counter insisted I had the postcode wrong on the letter I was trying to send to my Mum – it needed another digit.  ‘If I put another digit on it will be WRONG and it will NEVER GET THERE,’ I said, and stormed out of the building.

Then there was the upheaval of the move: our favourite crockery broken, only a few books and a couple of pictures brought along, endless takeaway meals, jetlag, my bank’s September-long inability to comprehend that ‘I’m moving to the US, here’s my new address’ meant ‘I’m moving to the US and I will be using my bank card at my new address, so don’t assume I’m an international fraudster and stop my card’.

That all subsided gradually, as we joined libraries, gyms and the essential Netflix; we subscribed to the magazines we thought we’d actually read, rather than the infinite supplements of the New York Times; we got cellphones; M got a social security number; I applied for my employment authorization.  We got enough furniture and household goods to live our daily routine (though not enough for visitors to have anywhere comfortable to sit).  We assembled a working knowledge of which shop would sell us the food we wanted and precisely where in the shop it would be lurking, under which unfamiliar name and in what unfamiliar packaging (baking soda, not bicarbonate of soda, boxed up like icing sugar, but located in the cleaning aisle).

But we still weren’t really settled in.  For weeks (I’ve only just left this phase, and maybe relapse is possible), every time I did anything, I would think, absurdly: ‘I’m buying file paper IN AMERICA.’  ‘I’m eating my breakfast IN AMERICA.’  ‘I’m taking out the rubbish IN AMERICA.’

Another weird self-conscious thing I had was the mute phase.  Everything would be OK – I could pass as American, I understood how things worked just about well enough – so long as I never opened my mouth to speak.   I became acutely aware of that moment when I revealed my Britishness to my interlocutors and saw them do a double take as they adjusted to my accent.  And so I tried not to speak.  But it didn’t work.

Related to this was vocabulary sensitivity.  Could I bring myself to say ‘cellphone’, talk about being ‘all set’, or ask the shop assistant where their ‘tanks’ (not vest tops) were?  Would it sound phoney?  Would I be losing all my integrity? But if I didn’t, would anyone have any idea what I was talking about? Where was the middle way between uptight refusal to adjust and going weirdly and unconvincingly native?

And then there was the currency thing. I mentally converted every single price into pounds, assessed whether it was cheaper or not than in Britain, struggling to remember how much a wireless router or a laundry basket would cost, or how much I would find it reasonable to spend, and how much I should subtract for the following factors: 1) we’re only here for 3 years and nothing we buy needs to last; 2) everything is supposed to be cheaper in America; 3) I’m not earning any money, so I should be thriftier than usual.

I still haven’t settled in altogether, I suppose, but here are some good signs.  I’ve more or less stopped doing all the things in the last four paragraphs.  I cross streets confidently with the lights against me, just like I did back home.  And I walk everywhere listening to my iphone (yay!  iphone! portable illusion of control!), singing quietly to myself, not so worried any more about keeping an ear out for danger or trying to fit in at all times.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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3 Responses to Settling in

  1. L says:

    Reminds me of the bit in Hitchhikers’ Guide about how being at a distance from one’s place of origin gives a constant low-level background anxiety (Ford Prefect being several thousand lightyears from his home planet, he was more or less bouncing off walls).
    I know lots of people are much more relaxed and adaptable than that, but I’m not one of them, and in my brief year living in the US I never thought I would get past the sensation of foreignness, however long I stayed.
    So I am deeply impressed you’ve got so far so quickly. I think it can be a great position (perfect for blogging) to be outside and inside at once (Walter Map, Hoccleve…)

  2. And Chaucer, Mr. Marginal, of course!

  3. Pingback: Days 16–18, August 9th-11th: the inevitable language post | alarichall

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