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10 Unexpected Problems You're Going to Have When You Become an Immigrant

by Claire Litton Cohn Sep 26, 2016

Temporary or permanent, you’ve moved away from the country of your birth (and passport) into the wild unknown… or at least, unknown to you. You’ve shouldered your backpack or closed the door on your shipping container, and found a place to stay for the first few weeks in your new hometown. Whether you’ve been gone for two weeks or twenty years, here are some problems that might sound familiar to you… which you never would have experienced without leaving home.

1. You can’t eat your favorite foods anymore.

Whatever it is, chances are your new country either doesn’t have it, it tastes different, or it’s very hard to find. There are all kinds of glorious new and exciting flavours and taste profiles to explore… but if you’re exhausted from a day of figuring out the health insurance system, what you really want is whatever brings you back to your happiest childhood dinnertime memories. I just moved to Sweden with my toddler daughter, only to discover that it’s one of the few European countries that doesn’t import Goldfish crackers. Since this is about half my daughter’s daily diet, we are scrambling to come up with an alternative to those tasty cheesy fish.

2. Telling jokes and dating are suddenly incomprehensible.

Unless you’re utterly fluent in your new country’s language from the minute you move, the nuances and idioms of that language will come slowly (if at all). Telling jokes and impressing potential new partners with our repartee are among the top ways we flex our verbal muscles, and feeling uncertain about verb tense or vocabulary will leave you quiet. I remember once being very impressed with myself when I could join in a brisk conversation about World War 2 with a bunch of native francophones… and I still couldn’t have made a pun to save my life. Especially if your native language is commonly spoken in your new home, you may find yourself never reaching this level of fluency in a second (or third) language.

3. Personal space rules are totally different.

My husband was waiting in line for something and noticed someone edging closer and closer to him, until they were touching. Being from the United States, where people have pretty large personal space bubbles, this drove him nuts. But for many people around the globe, this is just how you stand when you’re in line… waiting too far back is rude. You’ll likely have to readjust how you think about basic interactions, even with strangers on the street. Remember: in countries where they drive on the right, pedestrians walk to the right of the sidewalk, and vice versa.

4. Bureaucracy and paperwork in every country are very, very different.

You might have done a lot of paperwork in your home country — maybe you registered a business or bought a house or signed a contract. No matter what, you have a whole new pile of papers to sign, date, and figure out what they mean with the help of Google Translate (once you have your new phone contract up and running, assuming you figured out how to get one!)…and everyone you’ll be dealing with has understood how it all works since they were children. Swedish leases (called firsthand contracts) are very difficult to get; you can be on a waiting list for years before getting one. We just found out a few weeks ago that the contracts are for life, which we never would have guessed, but Swedes assumed we knew.

5. You miss your support network more than you expected.

Family or chosen family, you’re now possibly thousands of miles away from the people who meet you for sushi after work. You’ll make new friends, of course, but you can’t make new family… and even friendship takes a while to really settle in. Social networking provides an illusion of closeness, but you may also just not have time to keep up with all of the people you care about even with a daily status update or tweet. Human beings do not function well in isolation, so be kind to yourself while you adjust. Schedule regular video chats with your nearest and dearest, download a secure texting app (I like WhatsApp), and try to keep in touch without letting it occupy your time so much that you ignore face-to-face opportunities with new people.

6. Your partner/family doesn’t love it as much as you.

For whatever reason, you’ve settled quickly and adeptly into your new normal. But your spouse or kids: not so much. I met someone on a local social media group who said that her teenaged kids had a terribly difficult time when they moved to Italy — they went from a familiar (American) culture, to the more restrictive culture of Italian youth. The things teens talked about were boring to them, and there just wasn’t anything to do in the evenings. They stayed miserable until they left Italy a few years later. If your family or partner are suffering wherever you are, you can’t feel comfortable. Do your best to help them adjust and address their problems; if you are the person whose job brought you all to the new place, you may have had corporate assistance and training to deal with your new culture… while they likely just got thrown in the deep end.

7. Grocery store confusion.

We’ve already discussed how hard it is to find your faves, but… what’s with all this yogurt? What’s the difference between this entire row of tomato sauces or fish pastes? Does anyone know how to cook this frozen lamb head? I’ve often had to resort to internet searches to figure something out (what even IS Vegemite, Australians?) or determine which of the numerous cartons before me contain the correct form of milk. Items aren’t where you’d expect them to be — salt is with the sauces, not with the spices — and that tube you thought was squeezy cheese turns out to be caviar. It might take a long time, months even, to sort out what all of this stuff is and how to find it. Investigate multiple stores until you find one you like, with prices that work for you. This might be a somewhat more expensive process than you’d hope, or you might get lucky and discover some incredibly cheap things you never would have found tasty before.

8. Forcibly changing your mental habits.

I was so worried about accidents when I started driving in Australia that I mentally chanted “keep to the left, keep to the left” until I could drive on the correct side of the road and change lanes and use the turn signal instead of the windshield wipers. Then I went back to the U.S. for a holiday and ended up almost killing us on a highway in a rental van because I’d totally overwritten my previous fifteen years of driving experience and kept turning into oncoming traffic. It can be literally a matter of life or death to change things that you’ve taken for granted most of your life — like where the seatbelts are — so you have to do it quickly. It took me years to stop climbing in the passenger side of a car when I was getting ready to drive somewhere, too.

9. Your home country might cause some frustrating problems.

Canada offers a savings program for parents who want to put money aside for their children to go to university; the government, both provincial and federal, puts in a certain amount for free based on what you contribute. Sounds great, only the United States considers this a “foreign investment account” on par with tax shelters by billionaires in the Cayman Islands, and this makes filing taxes in either country a long and arduous process. Do you have to pay taxes in your passport country as well as your new resident country? Do you need to legally declare yourself absent? How do you vote? Figuring this stuff out might take a while, and you also might not know you’ve made a mistake until something comes back to haunt you.

10. VPN blocking and regional websites.

Netflix, I’m looking at you. The websites you can access might vary by country… and your favorite tv show in Canada might be inaccessible in Spain. Your Google homepage persistently tries to present itself in your new country’s language (based on your IP address), not the language you actually speak. Netflix has shot down all of the VPNs that make it easy to switch between areas so you can watch movies in peace. The internet superhighway has a few off-ramps, and you might find yourself stuck on one of them.

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