Learning to Walk

Imagine a newborn giraffe standing up for the first time, wobbling all over the place on its new, shaky legs. That is how it feels to come back to your passport country after growing up overseas - except you’re an adult giraffe and people expect you to be able to run.

I lived in the Middle East from age three to eighteen. I went to a Kurdish international school, was home-schooled, then attended boarding school in Europe before my family moved back to Australia. I was friends with people from many diverse cultures and had much cross-cultural and multi-lingual experience. You would think that communicating and making friends in Australia, a country where I spoke the language fluently and looked like I fitted in, would be easy.

When I first moved back to Australia I was determined to be myself, be honest, and put effort into making friends. But I soon realised that there’s only so many times in a conversation you can ask, “What is that?”, before it becomes very annoying for all involved.

I hated the looks of shock and disbelief when I admitted to not knowing something that everyone else seemed to be familiar with. Soon I gave up asking and just laughed or nodded, pretending I understood the joke, pop-culture reference, local hotspot, menu item or slang term, hoping the ongoing conversation wouldn’t require me to input anything that would reveal my ignorance.

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One day I was ordering food from a restaurant with a group of friends. Restaurants and cafes always made me panic internally as the process of reading a menu, ordering and paying were all so different from what I was used to. A friend of mine turned to me and asked if I’d like a “parmi”. I couldn’t fake my way out of this one, so I asked, “What’s that?” She laughed so hard and kept saying, “I can’t believe you don’t know what that is. Where have you been?”

Of course she knew where I’d been, and I don’t think she meant any harm, but I felt awful. I was so sick of appearing stupid and ignorant, when I spoke three languages, could find my way around any airport, and could barter for items in a crowded, maze-like, Middle-Eastern bazaar.

I may have cracked a bit, but I was on the brink of tears and brutally honest: “You know where I’ve lived, and I may not know what a parmi is but I know many things that you have no idea about, so please just explain it!” She did and a parmi turned out to be a German schnitzel with a weird Australian name. I never forgot that.

Learning any new culture is hard. Simple tasks like buying groceries, ordering food, getting petrol, having simple conversations and taking public transport are unfamiliar and sometimes scary. Regardless of the many priceless experiences you may have had up to this point, at the beginning you may still feel new and useless.

But soon your wobbly legs will grow strong and you’ll be running with those with whom you thought you’d never fit.