Sunday, October 08, 2006

Learning to Walk

When I first moved to New Zealand, there were several things I needed to learn in order to fit into Kiwi society. Some were small, some not so small, and some were important enough to learn quickly. Among this sort were New Zealand spellings and the metric system.

In my part of the publishing industry, creating ads and editorial layouts primarily for newspapers, it’s a pretty good idea to be able to use and spell words correctly. Doing this in New Zealand meant using their spellings, of course, which are mostly the same as Britain but with a few exceptions, including the use of many Māori words.

I was generally able to adapt to this pretty quickly, except sometimes I’d revert to “check” instead of “cheque”. I have no idea why that one word would be so hard.

Adapting to the metric system was easy for weights and measures, a little more difficult for temperature. If someone told me it was 21 outside, I had no idea if that meant it was time to bundle up or strip off.

With both language and metrics, it soon dawned on me that the only way to learn them and make them second nature was to just completely switch and not be tempted to make any conversions. This was hardest for me with those temperatures until I remembered that when I was a kid, early each spring my mother would have me draw a thermometer on paper, with various temperatures indicating what weight of coat I was to wear.

I didn’t make an adult version of that thermometer, but the memory of it helped me to realise that there once was a time when I didn’t know how American temperatures felt, either. Eventually, I did learn them, and so I knew that eventually I’d learn what metric temperatures would feel like, too. And I have.

So in some ways, learning to live in another culture has been like learning to walk all over again, though hardly that dramatic. The point is that things I once took for granted—like spelling or knowing what jacket, if any, would match the temperature—had to be learned all over again.

There were other things I needed to do—learning to drive on the left hand side of the road being hardest of those—and I’ll talk about them and my coping strategies in future posts. But if I could say one thing to my newly-arrived self, or any other new expat, it would be this: Relax. The things that seem so foreign at first will eventually become everyday and familiar. Just give yourself time and cut yourself some slack. And remember, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run.

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