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Moving out of the US for the first time changed the way I view everything. Print E-mail

Friday, 18 November 2011 00:00

Written by Maryann Koopman

Moving away from the United States eight months ago didn't just change my perspective on one thing, or two or three - it changed the way I view everything. I can see how steps in my life led me here, from the small town of my childhood to a slightly larger town in another state, to a small city, and now to living overseas, in Ireland.   

One might think because I moved from one English-speaking country to another, it was an easy transition. No so. My first lesson was experience in true loneliness, not just for friends, but for the familiar and the comfortable. I felt guilty - after all, I wasn't living in the Amazon jungles trying to communicate with naked tribesmen. I was walking down cobble-stoned streets, old men touching their caps to me on their way to Mass or mothers pushing heavily laden prams up steep hills. We all spoke the same language, but we were so different! And for the first time since I was a teenager, I felt awkward, obvious, and very out of place.

I fought between assimilation and ethnocentrism. In the end, I reached a happy balance of appreciation for where I came from and where I am. And that is when my eyes truly began to open to the beauty of these other cultures, even though I'd never have thought myself narrow-minded before.

One additional bit of luck in this new personal broadening is that Ireland is currently home to many other nationalities alongside those born and bred here. I can now say I interact weekly with people from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czech Republic, Russia, Australia, South Africa, England, Scotland, France, Portugal, Spain, and a dozen different African nations.

In respect of time and space, I'd now like to highlight just a few of the biggest life-altering lessons I've gleaned in my time here.

My mind has been widened to the difficulty immigrants face.When I left the States, the number of illegal immigrants was soaring. The debates were passionate, with horror stories on both sides. Racism was finding a new breeding ground. I didn't know what to think, or what side to be on. One might think it's easy for an American to move to another country and find work, but that was not the case for me. I applied for over 50 jobs at least six months prior to moving, and still did not find anything. It turns out the regulations are very tight for Americans wanting to work in Ireland, and when I asked why, I was abruptly told it was because this is what America has done to the Irish. I still don't understand, but I know it's complicated and unfortunate. Living here, a qualified woman marrying an Irish citizen she loves, wanting to make a home here and continue investing in this nation, I can't even explain the frustration of trying to do just that. I now have more sympathy for people in other countries, namely those trying to live the dream in America, who also cannot. A friend of mine, a Latvian, once said to me "This is my biggest dream, to see America. But this is not possible." Because she is from a poorer Eastern European country, the chances are practically nil for her to get a visa to even visit the United States. This, I find tragic.

I've learned the differences between Faith, Religion and Community.Spending the last seven years in Indiana, I came to fully embrace Evangelical Christianity and its messages of grace, love and peace. But even the wonderful church I belonged to there did not have the community impact that the Catholic Church does here. Granted, this is a Catholic country, and most people are raised with the religion regardless of choice. It differs from person to person whether there is a deep inner faith or not to accompany the religion. However, I've noticed in most instances how the Catholic foundation brings unity. Whether it is a holiday or a crisis, people go to the churches. When a funeral procession passes, everyone on the street, whether in cars, on bikes, or walking, stops to wait out of respect. When the siren of an ambulance is heard, people cross themselves and say a prayer for the person in danger. It is moving gestures like these that remind me that there are no strangers in the world, and a few extra seconds of care and can redefine a culture in one's limited view.

I've learned to be patriotic.Irish folks often feel like protective older brothers to Americans. Our politics are dominant in their news, especially during a presidential year, and of course, who can forget the millions of Irish who populated America over the years? Nevertheless, as with real big brothers, sometimes one can feel smothered, and there is a need to stand up for oneself. Sometimes I've heard fellow Americans apologizing for their US heritage, embarrassed at the stereotypes. And while I shied away from being labelled American at first, I never felt right about outwardly shaming my homeland. Once I shed that burden of "what people must think," I felt comfortable laughing, discussing, agreeing, arguing and even correcting when necessary. In turn, it has made me love America more.

I've learned it is not my place to judge.More than anything else, I continue to remind myself that each of us comes from very different backgrounds. We as people and as nations have faced entirely unique problems in our social, economical, religious and personal statuses. I confess there are times when people's actions or opinions shock me, even from those close to me. But regardless of my beliefs, I'm learning to taste my own ignorance and remember to open my heart first.

In short, I have learned years of lessons in just these few months but the biggest lesson of all is knowing how much I have yet to discover.


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