I am numb. Within 36 hours, grieving, I join my family in Romania to celebrate my dad’s life and say final good byes. My dad was 87 when he passed away on Aug. 20, 2023. Rushing to buy an overseas plane ticket while coping with the immense, indescribable grief of losing a parent is a unique experience that most immigrants living thousands of miles apart from parents go through. I had just spent six weeks in Romania taking care of my ill dad and 10 days after returning home I packed my suitcase again for his funeral. *I move, once again, from one world to another.
Born and raised in Romania, I have lived in Canada since 1996. Pursuing grad studies at the Univ. of Calgary was just the beginning of a fulfilling academic life. I now regularly travel in and out of Canada, particularly on work contracts and study leaves; I lived in many places around the world for short or longer periods of time, many times; more countries than my age. Yet, I am always happy to return to my new home, Canada. As such, I had many chances to reflect on what ‘coming home’ meant and why my experiences might have been different from those who were born Canadians. However, I have to say, I write this after almost 30 years of reflection, -- and experiences; I have had a lot of opportunities for personal growth. Likely not all immigrants would agree with me as some elements of personality, and chance, are at play. Some may still be struggling to adapt to the new life as an immigrant away from home, and might not have had the chance to reflect enough. Some might find the new place they live in very different than home and have feelings different than fulfillment. However, there are rich experiences and incredible valuable traits one develops because -- and not despite of -- being an immigrant.*
First, as an immigrant, one becomes more adaptable. Inevitable, frequent and rough are the transitions between cultures and customs whenever one travels between their country of origin and their new home. Learning the foreign language is a first, yet I’d say one of the easier steps for an immigrant. Navigating the customs and figuring out the subtleties of a new culture is part of a bigger journey; I know I am still living the journey, this is how complex this figuring out can be. And there is the travel back home, and realizing – or deepening – the cultural differences. For example, in Canada we take for granted the clarity of communication, almost contract-binding interactions when seeking services such as in healthcare. In contrast, taking care of my ill father in Romania meant engaging personal social networks to access services I would not have been aware of otherwise; high-context cultures rely on informal networks to solve problems timely. It struck me to realize that I needed to remember old skills and figure out the local incentive system when professionalism or ethical considerations are not what motivates people. The sooner I adapted and stopped engaging the values I now hold and share in Canada, the faster I was able to get things done! Similar to the game of cultural awareness, Barnga, the faster one figures out the rules (and I had to re-figure them out in Romania this summer!), the faster one can stop feeling frustrated and find strategies to move on. The wonderful thing is that the skills one learns in order to adapt translate to all new situations that life presents us with.
Resilience is a great biproduct of having to often adapt. Going back and forth between one’s original and the learned culture, developing the skill of adaptation is a process; it takes place over many transitions, each with its own reflection and insight into one’s values, customs and comfort level. And yet, there is always the need to look forward, learn and live one’s life. The journey to a better life is never easy and cultural differences often lead to one making mistakes, followed by recovery. Being an ongoing process, one overcomes inherent challenges and moves on, understanding and appreciating that fitting in a new culture, community or country, takes time. The immigrant has no choice but use the time in their favor.
For me, and I dare to say for most immigrants, moving to a new country signifies the hope for a better life. Canada presented me with unique opportunities to advance in my study and professional pursuits, some not available in Romania at the time. Realizing my full potential, however, was also possible because of the foundations and skills I built while growing up in my less resource rich country. Growing up during communist Romania meant that often my family ran out of eggs to bake dinner, or bread to serve cheese (note that my first time eating crackers was when I moved to Canada). Even the basic goods like milk, bread or potatoes were weekly rationed. Families learned to help each other by exchanging goods when supply was low. Electricity went out for the night? Never mind -- we studied at candle light as lack of electricity was not an accepted excuse for unsubmitted school assignments. Did not have a beer bottle opener? No problem, one can crank the bottle using the side of a door! Immigrants are more resourceful because they learned unique skills through hardships and an understanding of how to use them to adapt.
Lastly, when one transcends cultures, countries and communities, the human relationships, friends and new networks one creates become everything. As an immigrant, I learned the value of personal relationships as they are the unmistakable source of help in need, feedback when trying new things (though not always sufficiently fast or direct!), growth during honest reflection. Yes, the networks might be (much) smaller than some would have built back home. To adapt means creating new relationships and that hopefully brings out one’s best of character. It also means working hard to maintain these relationships, because there might be no family or old friends to lean on when life gets hard. One becomes more generous, compassionate and kind, because receiving means giving. A note to my fellow Canadian friends, colleagues, networks – I cannot write this without thanking you warmly. For how I went from feeling “different” to feeling “appreciated”, and how wonderful to realize that that was despite, or because I was different.
You’d not find it surprising then that I love engaging in numerous international research (or social) communities. I don’t have to go far for deeply diverse groups though -- I am grateful to work with a super international group of graduate students in my thesegalgroup.org, and in our inspireuvic.org we nurture ethnically diverse groups of students in Canada – more recently by engaging our students in working with others in Nepal, Singapore or the Canadian far north in Tuktoyaktuk! I learn and adapt every day, and feel empowered by trying to help others adapt.
If you are a newcomer to Canada, I hope you find this inspiring and hopeful of a life well spent. Because I only feel confident speaking about being an immigrant to Canada, my opinions are limited. However, there is growing literature on individuals with bicultural identity and how their skills relate to heightened intercultural effectiveness (wanted by organizations!) (Note 1), so there is some scientific backing to my madness. Please read, engage, and let me know how your journey of growth in a new country unfolds.
Note 1: See, for example, Thomas, David C., Mary Yoko Brannen, and Dominie Garcia. "Bicultural individuals and intercultural effectiveness." European Journal of Cross-Cultural Competence and Management 1.4 (2010): 315-333.Published: October 5th, 2023