Have you ever seen those giant bubble balls at fairs and festivals? They are human-sized plastic bubbles filled with air that you can pay to climb into and bounce around on water whilst staying dry and playing bumper bubbles with everyone else in the pool. Heaps of fun, let me tell you. You can run into people full speed, walk on water, all while staying warm, dry and safe.
I think to some extent everyone lives in their own bubble. We are comfortable and safe within the known confines of our home, city, state, and country. You know that even if you bounce over to a new state, you are still in the same “pool” with fellow countrymen. You become so used to having this unifying connection that you start to not notice it anymore. You don’t notice the small ties that signify home and comfort. You don’t notice the words and phrases that are unique to your country. You don’t notice any of it…until it’s not there to notice.
When I came to Australia, I felt like I was taking my little bubble on a trip. I was going on this grand adventure and everything would be new and exciting. And it is an adventure, and everything is most definitely new and exciting, but I have no bubble. Maybe I lost it somewhere over the Pacific ocean on that 15 hour flight, maybe it was when I landed…in any event, I don’t have one anymore and it is both freeing and terrifying. Ok, let’s step out of this bubbliness for those who don’t handle metaphorical imagery well…
There is no “comfort zone” in a new country. Everything you do is new. Every conversation you have is just a bit more challenging, and every relationship you form takes a bit more work. I find myself thinking so much. Should I say that? What might that mean here? Is that offensive? Does this person get that I am being sarcastic? How do these trains work? Why are all the shops closed?…The list goes on.
I had headaches all the time when I first landed in Australia. I thought maybe I was getting sick, but I never got any other symptoms. A few weeks in, I figured it out. I was over-analysing everything. I spent my days literally playing a really twisted game of Mad Libs with Australians where they would say a sentence and at least two or three of the words were complete gibberish to me (almost worse than having a blank space in Mad Libs). Not wanting to seem completely oblivious, I would try and fill those blank spaces in my head with words I thought meant the same thing, but let’s be honest, I had no idea. I finally gave up. If I was ever going to actually understand what people were saying to me, I’d have to swallow my pride and start asking questions. So I did. My go-to response quickly became some combination of “Sorry, what does that mean?” “Excuse me?” and then, when feeling more blunt, “no clue what you said there.” It was hard at first to always feel like that person that was one step behind every conversation, but slowly over the next few months I started to catch up. Thankfully I’ve met some very patient people willing to not only define their odd slang, but to identify my common-place sayings that have very, errr, “alternative” meanings here in Oz.
I have only met one American since I’ve been in Australia, and she’s actually a friend of a friend from back home. So while it was a new connection for me, I have yet to meet any Americans in Australia free of the connections I have back home. I can honestly say I never expected to be in the minority ANYWHERE. And here, I’m in it every day. When I go out, I’m with Aussies, Italians, Brits, French, but never Americans. Every other country will be represented by multiples, but I’m riding solo from the good ole U.S. of A. On the one hand, you feel a bit unique. It’s a completely fresh start. There’s no one to hide away and discuss back home with. All the conversations you have are brand new. On the other hand, you see complete strangers connecting over a common nationality and part of you wishes you had that too…because that’s just a bit easier isn’t it?
But that’s just me wanting a bubble back. That’s me wanting to be in my comfort zone, and while that’s perfectly normal, I think I need to fight that. A couple months ago I was thinking about how I’ve never had so many international friends in my life. But I’ve been here 5 months now and they are no longer “international friends,” they are just friends. I’m noticing the differences less and less as we share experiences. There will always be some language oddities and cultural differences that we have, but those are just good for a laugh.
I’ve had a night with Australians where they literally spent HOURS trying to mimic the American accent (quite badly…I need to train them better). I laughed the entire time as they parroted back phrases that are directly from the most stereotypical AMERICAN movies ever produced. Every now and then I’d give them some good ole country slang as well. Some of the repeatable favourites of the night were hoedown, throwdown, mightcould, y’all, ain’t, fixin’ and any combination of those words (whether it made sense or not).
I had another night at the Queen Victoria market with three French and one Aussie friend where we spent a solid hour trying to figure out what we were each saying as our accents were so vastly different. Sadly none of that conversation is post-able as, like everyone does when learning about a new language, we pretty much only shared words with dirty double meanings.
Being American with few other Americans around naturally means I get ragged on quite a bit. Like most countries, America has plenty of stereotypes that make Americans a fairly easy target for jokes. While at first it can be a bit exhausting, I’ve decided it’s much more fun to embrace the experience and respond with a shrug and “ ’Murica” or “we da best.” It’s a bit tongue and cheek, and some of the conversations we have do lead to more serious discussions of cultural and political differences, but mostly everyone comes into the chats open-minded, curious, and non-judgemental.
My experience so far isn’t quite what I expected. I don’t think I could have predicted just how out of my comfort zone every little thing would be. Everything I did for the first month or two took so much energy. I thought Advil and ibuprofen were going to become staple “vitamins” in my days. It got easier though. Every day I feel a bit more settled, a bit less aware of my foreign-ness, and a bit more a part of the culture here. It’s a slow process, and anyone who hasn’t moved abroad long term would never quite understand all of the little challenges, but it’s the little things that keep life interesting. I thought I was happy in my bubble back home, and I was, but you can’t truly appreciate how comfortable a place is, until you leave it. You can’t truly understand your limits if you never push past them. And you can never push past them if you don’t step out of that bubble.
On a non-metaphorical note…everyone should try the literal water bubble balls at some point though…they really are fun!