By Erika Sanhueza Pinto
I arrived in the United States from Chile over six months ago, in March 2013, with a mixture of feelings. At first I felt happy and excited to begin living with my husband in a new place, and I had heard that Cambridge was a beautiful place. Then it hit me that I had left behind my life in my home country. I thought I would miss my family a lot, as I am so close to them. It calmed me down when I realized I would be able to speak with them on the internet, but it wasn’t quite the same. I had a lot of friends who I used to meet up with, and speak with daily. I would meet once a week with a conversation group for spiritual growth. I had a job; I had confidence in myself and what I wanted to do in the future. I had been practicing yoga and meditation.
Suddenly, everything in my life had changed. When I arrived in Boston it was raining a lot, and it was dark by 6pm. “Oh my goodness, this is so crazy!” I thought. Three days later I started taking an English class, and walked about 25 minutes each day through the snow to class and back home again. I found this very unusual, because it doesn’t snow in my home city. I didn’t understand anything when I went to the shops to buy something, because people’s fast speaking and my slow understanding were not a good combination! Sometimes even a basic question was so hard for me to understand... “Please repeat! I am sorry, I am still learning English!” I used to say. And one time, the person in the post office had no patience. I felt embarrassed when the line of people behind me had to wait, while I tried to make myself understood.
Adapting to life in the US is a transitional process, and I’ve been learning more about myself and my new life; for example, I’ve had the courage to go back to supermarkets, pharmacies, and stores, etc., knowing that there would probably be something I wouldn’t understand again. I usually try to ask for extremely simple things, and then see how people’s eyes widen as they ask “What was that?” Ha ha ha! It’s funny, but it’s also hard. I know that all change is a process. Some changes have a short transitional phase, while others require a longer time, depending on each person, each life history, each culture, etc. In Chile I felt more self-confident because I knew the language. It was easier for me to speak, and other people’s body language was the same as mine. But here, people are different and they think differently. In Chile I was talkative, but now I am quiet. Although I have a lot of ideas, it’s difficult for me to express them. I used to feel more daring, but here I am more cautious. But the most important thing I have learned during this period has been that it’s possible for me do the same things that I did at home, because I am the same person, and it’s always possible to regain the self-confidence I had. Every day my experience is growing and I’m getting used to life here.
Finding different activities has helped me both with the transition, and also to open my mind. It has been very important to get to know my beautiful new environment. When spring arrived, I was very surprised at the transformation of wildlife around the river—the trees, flowers, ducks, squirrels, people exercising, bicycles on the bike paths, and the emergence of new green areas each day. I love the greenness of the city. I visited museums, explored a lot of different streets, walked along the river, and watched the ducks. My husband has been very supportive, but he could not always be with me, as he has also been busy working during this transition, so it has also been important for me to start having my own personal life in Boston. Meeting other people also helps avoid unnecessary conflicts with my husband, as he was the only person I had to talk to at first in the US. I love his patience with me, but it’s beneficial for a healthy relationship to develop one’s own interests. All my good friends, whom I have known for many years, are in my home country, so I have to be open to making new friends.
Friends understand and support each other, and making friends from other countries and cultures is an enriching experience that I never anticipated. I found that a great way to meet people is through taking classes. To begin with I took English classes at the New England School of English (NESE). The classes are usually really intensive, and they give you a lot of homework! After that, I took some conversation classes at Boston Life, which has been a great way for me to practice speaking English, as I only speak in Spanish with my husband. At Boston Life, you can have one-hour conversation classes with American English speakers as frequently as you like, every day, or once or twice a week. English classes have helped me a lot to understand others, and in my ability to speak…and have others understand me!! It’s been a very nice experience. Again, it’s a process, and sometimes people still don’t understand me. But I am expanding my vocabulary, and I am now able to ask people to speak more slowly, which helps me understand more.
Another way I found to meet people and practice speaking English was by finding language partners. I have had two language partners from the US, one organized by NESE, a service that this school provides, and another I met from the MIT Language Conversation Exchange website. We not only conversed, but also had a fun and interesting time together. Then I also started participating in an MIT conversation group, which has been a wonderful inter-cultural experience. I have attended two groups, one hosted by the MIT Women's League, and another by the MIT Baptist Student Fellowship. I have also continued to develop the interests I had back home in Chile, such as taking a class with an organization called The Art of Living, which is a mix of yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises,.
The various activities I have written about here make me feel liberated. It’s important to understand that it’s normal to have a lot of different feelings. It is a process, and understanding ourselves, and making mistakes are key to adapting well to a new environment. Finding different activities to engage in despite the weather, making use of your time, and opening your mind, are all very beneficial. Feeling grateful for your life, listening to music that you enjoy every day, talking about how you feel with those who feel similarly, sharing the happiness in your heart and smiling every day, are the best things to help you face this process. I love asking new arrivals how they feel—it’s a simple action—but because I have been experiencing the same problems, I can understand how they may be feeling. I feel really thankful for everything I’ve been experiencing in my new life here. Every day this transformation gives me a new sense of enjoyment with my husband, family, new friends and classmates here.