Strategies of Cultural Adaptation for the Immigrant

“How can a living fish live out of cold water?

How can a living fish live out of cold water?

How will I be able to live

How will I be able to live

Without your, without your, without your company…?”

(Old Brazilian folk nursery rhyme)

Feeling like a fish out of water? Feeling like an alien or excluded from social interaction? Having feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and lack of confidence? These are some of the emotions experienced by those who migrate to a new country. In this article, we’ll talk about strategies to deal with all that and better adapt to your adopted country.

I know those feelings very well because I have already been there. I remember that, right after I arrived here in the United States, I would take the newspaper or go on the Internet and keep browsing job opportunities. And I would ask myself: Where will I fit in? Where’s my place here? What am I going to do? Will I get a job here? Am I competent enough? Is my English good enough? Is my Brazilian college degree as good as the ones here? Will I get professional success here in the United States? And so many questions and insecurities hit. It was a long process until I could see myself professionally, find my way, and then consider myself totally adapted to the American culture and its professional life. I want to share my experience and the ones of other people I have helped along the way, hoping this will help you go through your cultural adaptation process.

The first thing I would like to say is that you’re not the only one to feel that way and go through it all. All immigrants go through that state of fear, insecurity, and anxiety, questioning their capacity, their ability to speak English, or their professional competence because they come bearing in mind this idea that everything here is way better than in Brazil. If you’re at this point, what I have to tell you is: do not get desperate. Give it some time! As time goes by, you will get adapted the same way other people did. But you need to help yourself: be merciful to yourself, accept that it is a process of radical and significant change in your life; it will take some time until you get used to it and feel comfortable in your new home. Therefore, this is the first point, do not get desperate. All that insecurity and fear will fade out as long as you get to know more about the context, search for information, and inquire about how things work and get used to them. Immigrating is super radical! It’s a crazy thing! Because you’re adapting to a different culture, a different language, and a different way of thinking and acting. So be patient with yourself and treat yourself well in that process. Appreciate each little step and each small victory in this journey because it will be a slow process; you will not be able to adapt overnight.

So what can help you with that adaptation? I want to offer here some suggestions so that you can better adapt and then become part of the society in the country where you are now.

First suggestion – make friends with Americans. It doesn’t matter your English is not perfect. Talk to people. Some people will receive you with wide-open arms and will help you. Other people can criticize you, other people can surely make fun of you, and some other people will look at you with that superior look because prejudice exists and is part of the reality, whichever country you are in. But don’t be discouraged. You need to know who you are, know you’re worth, remember you are in a brand new situation, accept the fact you are in an adaptation scenario, and do not throw in the towel because of attitudes by other people towards you. But I’m quite sure that little by little you will find out there are many cool people around. So talk to people. Interact with Americans. The more American friends you get to make, the faster and more relaxed your adaptation process will be.

And how to make American friends? Go to churches, look for American churches, even if you do not understand the language completely. Go to the gym, say good morning, good afternoon to people and, who knows, somebody will start a small talk with you? Go to a club. Go to events, free community events, in the city library, or online activities. Begin to network with people in your profession, start to ask how things work around here. Interact. That part of the social interaction and connection with people is crucial. I know there is a great temptation, that is, the temptation of remaining only inside the Brazilian community. Sometimes, people who get here, in an area where there is a large Brazilian population, stay in their comfort zones, interacting only with Brazilian people speaking Portuguese. Because of that, they are missing fantastic opportunities to develop in their community in English and get to know the culture so that one day they might feel comfortable in it. Therefore, this is my first recommendation.

Second suggestion – Inquire. Information will reduce much of your anxiety, the feeling of not belonging and being an alien concerning the culture, the environment, and the things that happen around you. So learn the ropes of culture and search for information. Ask! Ask immigrants that have already gone through this stage, ask Americans, ask teachers. Read! Reading is something fundamental in all life situations. Read about immigrant cultural adaptation, about the American culture, how it works, and the American culture mindset, how they think, and what social relations are like. Watch! It’s possible to learn very much by observing people: how they relate and how they behave in specific situations. Will you make mistakes? Sure. Mistakes are part of any learning context. But you should not feel discouraged by those.

Third suggestion: Stick to the purpose of learning English – People want to learn English like magic. English is not grasped like that. If you want to learn English quickly, you must dive into it, invest as much time as you can: read in English, watch TV in English, talk in English, no matter how many mistakes you make, take an English course. Study English and invest in the language. But also, don’t be so hard on yourself and be aware things will not happen overnight. Don’t spend six months investing and get discouraged, saying, ‘I can’t learn.’ My dear, you’re not going to learn English in six months! Not you or anybody else! The investment in learning English is a long term investment. You should not be discouraged. You’re not going to get even close to what is to be fluent in English in a six-month time; it will take much more than that. But if you stick to the goal, steady, keeping self-discipline, not quitting, with courage and determination, you’ll get there! But you’ve got to be patient with yourself. 

You should appreciate what you have already conquered. I’ve talked to immigrants who said, ‘I’m so far behind! I’ve been here for three years now, and I only got to the intermediate level.’ My friend, you got to the intermediate level of English, that alone opens a lot of doors. Be grateful for that achievement. Of course, you’ll continue to invest in improving over and over. The better your English, the more open doors you’ll find. But value what you have already conquered. If you could survive, get a home, enroll your kids in school and get to the intermediate level of English, you’ve accomplished a lot in three years! Don’t take it for granted. It’s a long term adaptation journey. Do not get discouraged by the long way to learn the language. Keep investing. You can win. I want you to believe you can win.

Fourth suggestion: look for support. Search for emotional support in friends, in Americans who are friendly to you, in your family back in Brazil, in different professionals such as pastors, counselors, psychologists; search for the professional support of career coaches if you’re interested in job searching. Look for backup! This is a complicated process, and any difficult process becomes more comfortable when you have a support network. When those people encourage and listen to you, hear your cry, they comfort and motivate you. Don’t try to get through that journey alone. You can even get it by yourself, but it’ll be way more complicated. Make your own support network here. That’s a possible solution.

Fifth suggestion – become bicultural. The scholars in Social Psychology and Sociology say the best strategy for cultural adaptation is to become bicultural. What does it mean? It means you get adapted to the culture of where you are, but you don’t lose your own cultural identity completely. You learn a new culture, but at the same time, keep some values from yours that are important to you. The scholars say the most successful people in this area are the ones investing to become bicultural, that can adapt and learn new behaviors and ways of thinking as they retain, feed, and nurture their own culture formed in their home country. So you become a hybrid being – I always say that to people. The immigrant becomes a hybrid being. You’re not who you used to be anymore, you’re not a native, but you become something new. If you ever go back to your home country, you’ll have trouble adapting to it because you’re not that person anymore. Your identity changed, your values changed, your behavior changed, you’re a hybrid being, a bicultural person.

Sixth suggestion – invest in intercultural competencies. The world of Psychology and Sociology also discusses intercultural competency – the skill of knowing how to live, adapt, and establish interpersonal relations in a new culture. You’ll have to work on this competency. You’ll also need to work on your flexibility and ability to adapt, besides the intercultural competency – the wisdom and tact to deal with differences and varied ways to communicate. Another critical skill is resilience because the immigrant’s journey is not an easy one. It’s not a comfortable journey to anyone, no matter how intelligent, highly competent one is, and how flexible the person is. So you’re going to need resilience.

The journey of cultural adaptation for the immigrant is a tough thing! But in the end, you’ll find you’re stronger than you think and will win! This immigrant’s journey will make you a more confident person each day. So don’t you give up! Don’t believe you are the only one and alone. I’m at your disposal to hear from you, to help you through that cultural adaptation and, in particular, in your integration into the job market. Happiness, the feeling of belonging, and the inclusion are possible dreams. Get in contact with us, help yourself, and stay strong!

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