MY SIMPLE GOAL for the first day of 8th grade was not to sit alone in the cafeteria. I had never eaten in one before, but based off of every movie my 13- year-old self had seen, it seemed a cruel and unnavigable jungle crawling with mean girls on diets and boys that were too cool to talk to you.
About six months before moving to the States for the first time, I had been living and going to school in Vietnam. Before that it was Thailand, before Thailand I lived in Tunisia, and, before that, my birth country of Turkey.
When my parents told my sister and I the news, “Girls, we’re moving to Traverse City, Michigan. What do you think?”, I didn’t think anything; I just saw red.
Traverse City is a small lakeside town in Northern Michigan that is famous for growing cherries. It conjures up every stock photo image of “Americana” that one could think of — pies, friendly neighbors, and soccer moms. Hanoi, Vietnam, where I had been living, was a different story. We lived sandwiched between two lakeside karaoke bars, and I’d fall asleep to the same drunk man scream-singing Air Supply’s “Without You” every night at 9pm.
It’s very easy to touch on the main differences between the States and Vietnam in the late nineties — namely, one country was more “developed” than the other in terms of modern conveniences such as healthcare, standards of living, income, and so forth. The only thing I really enjoyed about the move was the “bigness” of what the States promised. I’d get to have cable and eat cereal and pizza whenever I wanted, AND there was a mall.
This was going to be the fifth country I was to move to, and by then, I had developed a pattern of psyching myself up for the new home while simultaneously slashing and burning ties with the current one. This entailed brainstorming all of the positives of the new place (food, activities, social events, etc.), in addition to listing all the things I “hated” about where I currently was and pushing people away. Hopefully, by the time I boarded the plane, I wouldn’t cry.
The scholastic fashion situation in the US stressed me out more than anything else. These were strangers who were going to judge me based on how I looked. In Vietnam, it was a small international community. There were twenty-two kids in my grade, and while we weren’t all best friends with each other, everyone was at least accepted. The expat community was a transient one, and there was always a new kid as well someone departing, and there was an unspoken protocol that was followed to help ease the transition for the new kid and to help those left behind cope with the loss of their friends. I was terrified that I wouldn’t make any friends.
The first day of 8th grade was a bit of a blur. I remember a girl named Kristen — referred to by the other kids as “Monkey” because of her long limbs — invited me to sit at her lunch table. She helped me navigate the cafeteria and buy lunch — something I had never done before. I bought everything that was deep fried. I looked around my lunch table. I was also sitting with this kid Mike, who smelled like cheese, and a couple of kids in wheelchairs. I don’t think it was the “popular” table, and I couldn’t understand why that was supposed to matter, and why, if I thought it was stupid, it did matter to me.
The rest of the day I waded through seas of blondes, getting lost and arriving late to every class. Upon arriving home, I locked myself in my room and started plotting my escape back to Vietnam, or, barring that, boarding school.
It was such an odd thing — moving to a place that I supposedly was from, but had very little I could identify with. I was an American according to my passport, but that was it. Before moving there, I saw the continent as a vacation point. I’d go in the summers to hang out by the lake or in the trees, stock up on mac and cheese, and then saunter back to Asia before it got too cold. I enjoyed it and had no problem being an outsider, because I was one. I had been an outsider all my life, and it had become part of my identity. All of a sudden, I had moved “home,” but it felt more foreign than anywhere I had ever lived. There was a pressure to identify with people right away because we spoke the same language and lived in the same location, but our ways of life and how we chose to communicate were worlds apart.
I didn’t even know how to converse with people, or, at first, how to find any common ground. Nobody had heard of any or most of the countries I had lived in. It wasn’t that they weren’t interested in what I had to say, they just didn’t have any context for it. On the flip side, I wasn’t raised with any of the current trends (as it turned out, Vietnam was about ten years behind in American pop culture, hence the reason behind my sister and I always dating slightly older people), so most things had to be tediously explained to me.
In retrospect, the most difficult thing about moving to the States was being a transient person moving to a static community. People grew up in Traverse City and stayed, or else they grew up in Traverse City then moved to Chicago, only to move back after they married. There just wasn’t anyone to share my experiences with who had lived similarly to myself. It was lonely and very isolating. It was easy and kind of fun getting used to the ins and outs of American life: drive-thrus, malls, and big houses where the electricity always worked. The tough part, though, was not having anyone to tell that to.
You’ll find friendly people everywhere you go; that’s never a problem. And you’ll find people who you couldn’t be more different from who you nevertheless adore. Sometimes, though, you just need a person with whom you’ve had a shared experience or who mirrors you in some way, to remind you that someone gets you and you’re not alone.