Immigrants’ perspectives on life in the U.S.

One question I like to ask people who have come to live in the U.S. is in regards to what surprised them the most about living here. Something they did not expect to find– or something they didn’t think about before moving here. The surprises could be sensory based, as in, what sights did you not expect? Sounds? I leave the question open just to see the variety of responses.

The question comes from my own quick impressions from my experiences living overseas. Often, as been my impression when one passes though a country quickly, certain nuances are missed, or we have one or two experiences that are hard to make a definite comment about–unless one is paying close attention as Neil did with his series on North Korea. Because Matthew is living in Japan, there are things that he picks up on that many folks in Japan for just a week, as I was when I traveled there, would not find out about as easily.

The results of my question are as diverse as the people who gave the answers. Although this is about the U.S., the question “What has surprised you the most?” can work in whatever country you happen to be living in. Let’s call it a conversation starter.

Here is a sampling of what was said one morning this week. Keep in mind this is from immigrants who are living in Columbus, Ohio, a city with large populations of people from a variety of places. Recently Somalians are tipping the immigrant scale.

Two or three students talked about how people in the U.S. always have time to help. If you ask people for help, you’ll get it. This came from one Somalian man and also from one man from Ghana. The man from Ghana said that in his country, that’s not the case. (Again, remember this is his experience and his impression.) I asked him if, as an American, or at least as a foreigner, if I were in Ghana, would people help me? He thought they would.

His sister, also from Ghana, talked about the school system here. How everyone can get educated and how education is free. She also talked about how girls in her country don’t have much of a chance to go to school.

The person from Morocco lamented that she can’t find clothes she likes here. She is a lovely dresser and quite sweet and pretty. I told her that I bet if she were living in NYC she could find such clothes. I have a hard time finding clothes in Columbus that get me all excited. Let’s just say this is not an in fashion hot spot.

A man from Eritrea mentioned how much people work here. He said the work culture has been an adjustment. Let’s just say that his impression of work in Eritrea is “laid back.” He used another word, but I rephrased it.

One woman from Guinea thought the health care system is better. She said in Guinea you had to pay before you get treated at the hospital, even if you have a stab wound. This detail is from a story she recounted where she paid for someone else’s care since it looked like the guy would bleed to death if she didn’t help.

Other Somalian man commented about the interstate highway system–you can go from state to state easily and this is simply marvelous.

A man from Mauritania said that in the U.S. you can get business done by going to a place once with papers filled out and not have to keep going back to talk with several different people over several days. He did not find this to be the case in his country.

In the past another person was surprised to see wooden houses. In this person’s mind, wooden houses look awful.

Almost all of them talked about how much more expensive life is in the U.S. and how complex day to day life is. None of this was said in a whiny way, but matter of fact. Being able to save money is a real problem. If you listen to the news, they have company.

In general, all felt that moving to Columbus, Ohio was a good move. Some were living elsewhere before coming here. The move to Columbus came because they heard it was safer, cheaper, an easy place to get around, and had good schools. Now, if they say this when they are in their own home, I don’t know. An interesting study, I would think, is feelings of well-being of people who are enrolled in English classes compared to people who are not.