Moving anywhere can be a challenging experience. Moving to another country includes many more pitfalls. Because cultural differences. Because language barriers. Because it’s another country.
The first time I arrived in Iowa City, Iowa, where I was moving from Sweden, I almost turned and ran.
It was 2 am. I’d just stepped off a Greyhound bus and was walking towards the university campus and the Student Union hotel. But right in front of me was a huge sign proclaiming “Road Closed”. Behind it, city blocks of holes in the ground. “Urban renewal” — tear down the old downtown, whether it needs it or not and build something new, shiny and definitely ill-fitting for the area. It was a thing in the 60s and 70s. That night the area looked like a bombed out wasteland.
I walked around, through parts of downtown still standing and made it to campus and my waiting bed.
But it was quite a first impression. Did I really want to spend the next 4 years here? Maybe it was a huge mistake to come here for college?! Could this turn out well?
Moving to a new country is a long process. I spent many months preparing. College applications. Visa application. Gathering info on this new place I was moving to. But all through that time I was still in my old, well-known surroundings. Now I was in a totally new place, where I didn’t know anybody. I’d even left my friends I’d visited in Chicago behind. I was west of the Mississippi, in uncharted territory.
Things looked slightly better the next morning that brought a sunny day.
After all, I was living a long-time dream: Someday move to another country. Live there. Prosper. Then after some time go back home, changed. See if people still recognized me. They’d all be amazed at how I’d changed. Yeah, that was the dream.
This morning I wasn’t focused on that dream at all. I had more urgent things at hand: I needed a place to stay and a place to live. Being a new student, I could stay at the Student Union hotel for one night for a very minimal rate. My budget didn’t allow for the regular rate, so off to find a more economical place to sleep.
I found that at the local Youth Hostel. That was easy. Now on to finding a place to live.
A place to live
I came to Iowa City earlier than planned because I needed to find a place to live. All of a sudden.
The original plan was to stay in the university dorms. Except the University of Iowa had a record enrollment that year. So while with my friend in Chicago, I received a letter returning my housing deposit and informing me that there would be no place in the dorms for me.
Here I was, looking for a place to live. Just 2 weeks before classes started. I knew I was very late in the game.
Next door to the Youth Hostel, I noticed the sign of a church campus ministry. Found a pastor there and asked him about Christian group housing in Iowa City. Because my friends had told me such things existed around college campuses.
Sure enough, the pastor gave me an address. I went there and found a tall, hippie-looking guy. His name was Dick. We talked. There were no openings at the house. But he invited me back for dinner. Maybe if I met some of his friends…
Next, I hit the streets of Iowa City, armed with a listing of apartments and rooms for rent. Quickly realized that “apartment” can mean many things. Some didn’t look fit for human habitation. Looked at a really nice boarding room, but felt the equally nice old lady who owned the house would be forever watching over my every step.
It was frustrating. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. What could be found in a college town 2 weeks before classes started?
By evening I was over-heated, over-tired and no closer to finding a place to live. I went back to Dick and that promised dinner. He introduced me to his friend Jonathan, who happened to have just graduated from Film & Broadcasting, which was what I was starting out in. Jonathan then decided that we needed to go check on his old apartment, which just might still be available.
Soon I stood in a basement efficiency with a shared bathroom, mis-matched paint and windows that gave a closeup view of the grass outside from an ant perspective. It was the best I’d seen all day long, but so far below what I’d wished for.
Then a girl walked in with her father in tow. Also looking for housing. She was ready to snap it up, but I was there first. I took the apartment. I paid as much for it as my friend was paying for her much nicer and bigger, real apartment, but then again, she wasn’t in a college town.
At last, mission accomplished.
Only hitch was I couldn’t get into the apartment until September 1. Classes started in late August. My new friend Dick came to the rescue: He and several friends were moving into a rental house and invited me to stay there until my apartment was available.
When I first arrived in Iowa City, I didn’t know anybody there. At the end of my first day, I’d made a couple new friends: Dick and Jonathan. Dick also invited me to a Bible study and to visit his church. And it turned out that a couple of Dick’s friends, Debra and Cheryl, lived just a block from my new apartment.
Staying with Dick and his roommates, I met more people. The circle widened.
Setting up a household
I’d shipped 3 boxes from Sweden and together with what I carried in my backpack, that was the entirety of my worldly belongings as I got started in the New World.
Nothing in there for setting up a household. But plans had changed.
Fortunately my friend Debbie was happy to share her tips for cooking and surviving on a student budget. That got me started. Along with what I remembered from Home Ec classes back in junior high.
I also discovered discount stores (K-Mart) and garage sales and cobbled together the necessities like bedding and the basics of a functioning kitchen.
Shopping and stuff
On top of that I had to find a bank so I could receive funds from my account back in Sweden when needed. Checking accounts existed in Sweden, but nobody used them. In the US they were the way to go.
I located the post office so I could send letters home.
Found the supermarket closest to my apartment, but still a good walk away. Even longer when stocking up for the first time and having a lot of things to carry home. At that point, I walked pretty much everywhere (or occasionally rode the bus).
As soon as I was in my apartment, I went to the phone company to get phone service set up. They actually offered me a choice of a party line or my own private line. I’d only ever heard of party lines in old movies and of course went for the private line. Back then, if I wanted to call home to Sweden, I needed to place the call with an operator. No direct dialing.
Laundry was another issue. There’s a limit to what you can hand wash in a sink. So off to find a laundromat (remember to bring lots of quarters and a good book to read).
Then there was the Iowa driver’s license. That required a driving test. Meaning I needed a car. Fortunately, Debra had a car. She was a bit confused when I asked to borrow her car so I could go get a driver’s license. Took a moment to explain that I already had a legal (though out-of-state) license that allowed me to drive there and back, regardless of how the driving test went. Fortunately, I passed.
I eventually decided that I needed to get a TV. Because I was in Film and Broadcasting, so needed it for my studies! That was another adventure. Sears was in the mall, on the outskirts of town. I learned that even a 13” TV comes in a big box. But somehow got it home.
Towards the middle of my first semester, I made the decision to buy a car. Mostly because I needed a way to haul film and video equipment. That turned out to be a simple experience. A couple at church were selling their 2nd car and after doing an inspection of it (trying to look like I knew what I was looking for), we shook on it, money exchanged hands and they took me to take care of the title transfer and registration, as well as helped me get insurance for the thing.
I’d never been to university before, so was glad for the orientation that the International Office on campus provided for students from other countries. The International Office staff also arranged a number of activities to help foreign students feel at home.
I participated, but also made sure not to rely on those offerings, because I quickly figured out that many foreign students hung out in cliques with their country people and didn’t really get to meet “the natives.”
I had come to the US to meet Americans and learn the local culture.
Then there was of course regular university life to get used to. Like all other students, I pushed my way through the bookstores to pick up a million required books and panicked at the long lists of what all was going to be covered in classes during the semester.
One of the first Sundays in town, I went to Dick’s church. Turned out to be quite high church, with all the formality. My friends in Chicago had taken me to visit Bible churches and I really liked their informal focus on teaching. So set out to visit some of the other churches in town.
It seemed logical make a list of churches from the phone book (coming from a town with exactly one church). I made a short list of about 20 and decided to visit a good number of them before making a decision.
The first I picked was Good News Bible Church. Come Sunday morning, I set out to walk to church. Turned out to be a few miles before I reached the county fairgrounds where the church met.
But I was just in time for the service.
During the service, the pastor asked the congregation to introduce visitors. Since I didn’t know anybody there, I stood up and introduced myself. Apparently it was quite a novelty to have a visitor from Sweden who walked to church!
Americans are nothing if not friendly and I had multiple offers of a ride home after church. Plus offers of a ride to church next week.
As it turned out, because everyone was so friendly there, I came back the next week and every week thereafter. Never made it through the rest of the list of churches.
I lived by myself, but wasn’t lacking for friends. Through Dick I found myself in a group of guys and gals that did all kinds of things together. It wasn’t long at all before I was helping paint the interior of a house for missionaries.
Church also helped connect me with people. There were plenty of college kids like me, as well as young professionals, in the church and I started getting to know some of them. I also found myself invited by families in the church for Sunday dinners.
I was at this point older than the average college student. If I’d gone to college directly from high school, I could have been in graduate school by now. So it’s not surprising that many of my friends were grad students and young professionals, rather than freshmen.
In school in Sweden I’d had many years of English and on the SAT I had if not the highest score on the English part for foreign students at the University of Iowa that year, at least one of the very highest. Even so, there was plenty more to learn, to really fit in and make the lingo flow.
Thinking back, I know I intentionally set out to hang out and fit in with the locals as I came to college in the US. To me that only made sense. I was in a different country and I wanted to discover as much as possible about it while there. I wasn’t there to hang out with other Swedes or Scandinavians (and there were a handful or two). So I wholeheartedly dove into the new culture and figured things out.
As I did, I was blessed beyond belief with new friends and experiences. Not only did I learn about the new country and culture, but also learned about myself and what really made me tick. That in itself is worth a small fortune.
Summing it up
You could say that I had an advantage compared to many foreign students. I could walk down the street and not be immediately recognized as a foreigner. To Dick and his friends I didn’t quite sound like I was from Iowa, so they determined that I was from the east: East Dundee, Illinois. Apparently that was far away enough to explain the difference.
But even with the advantage of by and large blending in, I could have chosen to stay apart. Later I met some Scandinavian students who did that. They went to class and then came home to hang out with other Scandinavian or European students. Read papers from back home and behaved like expats. For me, Iowa City was not a foreign place. It was home for the next 4 years and I intended to make the most of it.
It’s been many years since I first arrived in Iowa City. But on the occasions I go back there, it still very much feels like home. And I still have friends there. I guess that’s what happens when you embrace a new place and culture and make a real effort to connect with people there.
Have you moved internationally? Think back at what the adjustments were and what it felt like to be in another culture.
Do you know somebody around you from abroad who has come to the US for a season or permanently? What could you do to make them feel more at home? (If you don’t know, just offer to be a friend.)
What can you learn about yourself as you learn about someone from another culture?