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Helping Children with Cultural Adjustments

Updated on May 14, 2012

'Home is where the heart is'. I have found this saying to be a guiding principle for a life filled with cultural adjustments. I learned from an early age that through my willingness to try something new, I could broaden my view on life and appreciate the subtle gifts in places which previously seemed merely like a dot on the map to me.

The following is a true story adapted from an essay contest which I entered at the age of seventeen at the request of my high school English teacher. This opportunity fell into my lap just two years after moving from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Westfield, New Jersey, USA. And even though I was very much unsure about what to write (or, for that matter, how to write in the English language), the choice had been made for me and I respectfully obliged.

My essay was eventually printed in the town newspaper as one of the three best submissions. I happily celebrated this accomplishment with my family, who was mostly proud but also a bit puzzled. How was it possible to do so well when the assignment entailed writing about what it meant to me to grow up in Westfield? After all, I was the new kid in town, and having a feeling of home in Westfield was not something I would have ever chosen to put in the same sentence. At least not at that particular point in time.

My elementary school in the heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  We did have a few trees on the school grounds.
My elementary school in the heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil. We did have a few trees on the school grounds. | Source

Challenges of Moving from a Big City to a Small Town

Sao Paulo is ranked among the top ten largest cities in the world and had been our home for ten years. Westfield, on the other hand, is a sleepy community roughly 45 minutes outside of New York City and prized by the locals for all things green. Needless to say, moving from one to the other triggered tremendous changes in my life. A few of them were welcomed without hesitation, most were welcomed only upon much investigation.

How wonderful that we could leave our car unlocked in the driveway without fear of being robbed. But seriously, who had ever heard of obeying stop signs and red lights while driving at night? In days past, it would have been all too dangerous to come to a stop for the fear of being mugged. In fact, we had learned to slow down for green lights because habitually someone with a red light at the same intersection would certainly be crossing our path in a hurry.

Yes, fifteen is a difficult age to do anything well except for being fifteen. But even if I put the inherent awkwardness of the teenage years aside, what was left, plain and simple, was a big city girl trying to integrate herself in a foreign small town. Westfield was a town highly regarded for its tranquility, safety and standard of living. But for a child like me who previously considered Sao Paulo her home, moving here represented just the opposite to me.

I was a city slicker at heart and loved the energy of a big city. I enjoyed the opportunities to experience different cultures and thrived on the diversities all around me. I remember feeling extremely apprehensive about the recognition Westfield had earned over the years - one of a tightly knit and homogeneous community. Having lived most of my life among a population of 20 million, it was very frightening to think of having to adjust to life in such an intimate environment. Everybody knew everybody and everything!

Making a Small Town Feel Like Home

Moving to Westfield was initially, as expected, a shock and clash in values. I was one of the very few non-English speaking students to attend the local high school. And definitely the first foreign student to be enrolled. We met one another in the ESL class where we received help with the command of the English language. By and large, we were outsiders. I tried, very slowly, to make connections with the local kids. I was welcomed, but not with open arms. Neither could appreciate the other.

But over time, I began to recognize not only that life in a big city had its drawbacks, but that living in a small town had many hidden rewards. After two years in Westfield, I had gained enough distance and was able to look back more objectively to evaluate how life had changed for me. Many of our initial differences had made way for new found similarities which became the building blocks for feeling like I was at home again. Time was key.

First and foremost, I noticed that life in a small town had brought with it a lot of freedom. Since life was primarily focused around the town itself, distances between places became minimal. While it used to take 1 hour on several highways to get to school, I was now able to walk on my own and be there within 10 minutes of leaving home. And, attending public school within our own neighborhood also meant that I lived close to friends. This was quite a change from the days when public schools did not meet academic standards, private schools were a must, and students lived literally hours apart from one another. In Brazil, spending time with friends after school was very limited because it was simply too time consuming for my mother to manage drop-offs and pick-ups.

How to Achieve and Support Cultural Adjustments for Children

I give my parents a lot of credit. They opened doors for me that lead me to places I would have otherwise missed. They never stopped encouraging me to be adventurous and to embrace changes in my life. They instilled the drive in me to explore new opportunities with curiosity and optimism. They taught me to live life with courage and acceptance.

Research shows that ensuring an international move is a happy one is highly dependent on making cultural adjustments successfully. My parents worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support my efforts to feel at home in a culturally different environment. Here are a few of their key lessons that helped me make the move.

  1. Speak positively about the change, today and always
  2. Give yourself time and exercise patience
  3. Learn about the new culture and learn the new language
  4. Be open and understanding about challenges
  5. Believe in your children's own strength: children are resiliant and adaptable
  6. Enjoy the adventure as a family

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