I found myself growing hot with frustration.

I tried to back up. “Let me explain. Both of you grew up here. You’ve lived in the towns where you now live since you were born. It means you know the rules; you ‘get’ how to do things, how things work. Those of us who move here? We don’t know these things”

I felt like I was speaking to children. The conversation began as I was telling some colleagues about our friends who just moved here for a year after living in Japan, Australia, and most recently, Romania. Their youngest daughter went to her first day of school yesterday.

“So?” was the reaction I got “Big deal.”

It was.

This was her first day of school in America. Ever. She’s in high school and she’s never attended school in the United States. Added to the equation is that this is a part of the country where people don’t move a lot. You meet many people who have lived here all their lives. Those of us who haven’t are the exception, not the rule. Both kids and school administrators are not used to having new comers. There is an assumption that everyone knows the rules, everyone knows how to fill out the forms, find out specifics, work the system.

So it was a huge, big, fat deal.

And to have to explain this felt more than frustrating. Everything seems easy when you know how to do it. But as Robynn said in a previous post, sometimes the “easy” is impossible.

So I tried to put the situation into a different context. “Imagine if you came with me to Pakistan and I wanted you to get something in the bazaar, or I wanted you to go sign in with the police. Would you know how to do it?” Silence “What if I said ‘but it’s so easy! everyone knows how to do that!'” I think I made my point.

I found myself yet again the outsider trying to defend other outsiders. It’s a role I have played often, but it still surprises me that people don’t understand. We become so comfortable with our normal that we consider it normal for everyone else.

It’s fall now and schools across the country have begun the school year. Elementary, high school, college, graduate school – it all begins in September. And there are a lot of outsiders, a lot of people who don’t have a clue where they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to get there.

They may not know that you are expected to wait in line in the United States or that in America the expectation is that you follow traffic laws. They may not understand that you don’t walk through a “drive” through to get your meal; they might be shocked at our public displays of affection to our pets and our partners; they probably don’t know that bargaining isn’t common – you don’t negotiate the price. And initially they won’t even know where to get the basics – eggs, bread, milk, and fruit.

We can step into these scenarios and be that person who makes life a little easier for the outsider, a little less daunting, a little more manageable. That person who reaches out and understands that some of these things really are big deals. The person that helps make the easy possible.

Do you remember what it was like to be an outsider? How did that work for you? Who was the person who came alongside you and walked you through the rules, the do’s and don’ts of life in another place? 

Bucharest to Boston: Little Immigrant Girl


“Be honest with me…Did you just ask me to come with you to Seattle because no one else could?”

The words took me by surprise. They were from Mariuca, a capable woman and excellent trainer. “NO!” I said emphatically. The truth was, there were any number of people who could have been asked that would have loved to be a part of the trip, but I hadn’t even considered them. “Good!” She sighed with relief. “You have to understand, I still see myself as a little immigrant girl, and can hardly believe I’m traveling across the country to do a training.”

At 26 years old Mariuca came to the United States. She entered the country a year after 9/11 with her airline allotment of two suitcases, the clothes on her back, and a whole lot of love for her American husband. Enough love to warrant a move from her childhood home of Bucharest, Romania to a new country and city, Boston, Massachusetts. At the airport in Bucharest her mom pressed a one hundred dollar bill into her hand and said “just in case you need it.”

Trained as a lawyer, she quickly realized that she did not want to go through the grueling process of reciprocity that it would take to practice law in the United States. Her profession was partly chosen as a result of her mother being a lawyer and having a dream that some day a mother/daughter team would practice law together. The mom’s dream ended and Mariuca found a job as a receptionist in a large city medical center. Daily the center welcomed people from around the world, and with a lot of people comes a lot of ethnically and culturally diverse groups, a lot of different languages, and even more needs.

Most who passed by the cute, energetic receptionist with the “accent” would never have guessed that behind the smile and ease were two seemingly contradictory things – an educated, confident lawyer and a little immigrant girl. Both worked in Mariuca’s favor. The background as a lawyer made her a brilliant problem-solver and an articulate advocate; the scared little immigrant girl gave her a deep empathy for patients and a willingness to go the extra step to ensure comfort and care.

Her skills were noticed. Mariuca ended up being promoted to an interpreter in the dermatology department, followed by a move to Women’s Health where she took on the role of a patient navigator. Ultimately she ended up where she is today – a supervisor and a trainer.

From lawyer to patient advocate and supervisor, Mariuca has made a home for herself here. She is well established in both career and community and has a beautiful little two-year old girl. But no matter how successful she is, there are still days when she feels like a little, immigrant girl with two suitcases and an unknown future. This is the place where she was as we traveled from Boston to Seattle and it was my job to remind her that she is a capable, amazing woman – that even if she was a little immigrant girl, she had worth and gifts, they were just undiscovered.

I’ve been told that an important part of care giving for Alzheimer’s patients is understanding what the patient’s life was like before they had Alzheimer’s disease and their memory betrayed them. One of the ways to do this is to post pictures of the patient on their door, showing people a little bit of who they were, and what things were important to them in the past. A physicist, a Nobel laureate, a firefighter, a mom – if we remember who they were, we may be more careful about how we treat them as they are. Seeing them in their current reality is only one small piece of the picture of their lives. I wish the same was true for immigrants in our communities.  I wish we had pictures that told more of the story behind the accent, that showed us the past life of a cleaning lady or cashier. It would be simultaneously eye-opening and humbling.

Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television personality, used to sing a little song as he would put on his grey, worn sweater. “Who are the people in your neighborhood?….These are the people in your neighborhood”. As I end the post I paraphrase his well-known words: “Who are the immigrants in your neighborhood?” Are they lawyers turned patient advocates? Doctors turned home health aides? Biochemists turned medical assistants? Do we know who they are? If we don’t we have only a small piece of a big picture. As the clichéd “nation of immigrants”,  knowing each other a little better could go a long way in increasing understanding