For as long as I can remember, my Septembers have been chaotic, confusing, bewildering and that has always been when things started seeming so overwhelmingly real. Starting back school after three months of trying to entertain myself during the non-Internet era, going back to the uni after two months spent in the soothing and carefree comfort of my parents’ home, returning to work at this very same university after feeling blessed to have spent almost two months in the very same house … You got it – Septembers are meant to be tough for me!
Since that was the beginning of a very brand new start for me here in the USA, I realized that first month would be challenging, but little did I know that September would render that all familiar feeling of being confused, bewildered and overwhelmed. But now the reasons for that were all new… Those few days I had spent at the gateway orientation in the sunny (and occasionally rainy) Miami gave me and, I guess the other few dozens of amazing people I had been lucky to have met, the illusion that another chaotic September would take its time and the feeling of a real life would never kick in. It certainly did and I kind of knew it would especially when I bid my goodbye to Miami and got on my plane up to New York. The comfort and casualty of a domestic flight got me thinking of how I was no more a visitor but more a temporary resident moving from one state to another. It felt strangely “normal” to be flying to New York as I had already been in the country for a few days. Was that the “everything is possible now” feeling kicking in…? I knew my supervisor was meant to be waiting for me at the JFK Airport. “There is already someone actually waiting for me”, I thought! It somehow made me feel I was already starting to belong here. “Even if she fails to show up for some reason, I will handle that!”. Yes, I instinctively knew the “honeymoon” stage we had enjoyed in Miami was now officially over! What might follow was supposed to be filled with its joys and responsibilities as I am now here on my own. Well, I know there are already a few amazing people I have a connection with here in the country that was merely a word or a bundle of stereotypes a few days before! “How much is it going to cost me to catch a taxi from here to Montclair if there happens to be no one waiting for me?”, I was thinking as I was making my way wondering how far head-spinning and mind-blowing skyscrapers of the New York City were from there. After literally half an hour walking to the luggage claim area, I saw the sign that read “MONTCLAIR” and my supervisor holding it and that was when I knew the worst-case scenario was off the table. Well, somehow my suitcase, which was actually one of the first ones to show up on the luggage belt, seemed considerably heavier now and that made trying to break the ice and making a good first impression that one never gets to make again a lot harder. I was trying to remain cheerful and linguistically agile and occasionally remembering to look out of the window to see if the New York skyline was in view as we were changing from train to train, going up and down one elevator and another. I wasn’t quite able to comprehend I was actually already on the New York subway and a tiny miniature part of the city’s crowd who had no idea I was thinking of how I was here for real now with my enormous suitcase on that train taking me where I trusted my supervisor to know. It was getting increasingly hard to be making a small talk but I was still hoping that what she called “a recognizable Russian accent” would improve. Well, it is tough for language teachers to reconcile themselves with how their national and linguistic identity would show up despite the years of linguistic training and teaching experience.
As we arrived in Midtown New York and had to walk to another subway station, I discovered one of the wheels of my suitcase had got broken, which explained why I wasn’t performing my best socially and linguistically as carrying it along the New York sidewalks was incredibly and excruciatingly difficult! “Look, this is New York for you”, I said trying to distract myself from the heavy suitcase and being disappointed at how low-key and physically uncomfortable my first walk along a street whose name I didn’t know and care to know yet was. I had a feeling I might have seen it in some Hollywood films. “Just give yourself and New York time”, the growingly and maybe unreasonably optimistic part of me was saying. My supervisor got apologetic again saying that she wished we could have driven all the way to Montclair, but that was a Friday afternoon and the New York traffic would definitely get insanely chaotic. There was actually a rationale behind staying optimistic as a few other people in the New York crowd offered help with my suitcase that my supervisor suggested we took turns to drag. I couldn’t bear letting her do that for too long of course. During what was our final train ride to her hometown where she suggested I spent the night instead of going to Montclair, I felt relieved enough to notice a group of teenage girls that reminded me of a few other Hollywood films. It felt awkward to be listening to their private relationship dramas, and we both felt we had to keep the small talk going. The landscapes of New Jersey offered a nice topic for it. They actually looked a lot like those back home apart from an abundance of American flags waving in the wind on the roofs of occasional typically American houses. After a short ride from the train station (yes, cars are an essential part of living in this country), I got to my first American house that looked amazing with the surroundings too serene to be true! Squirrels! These “girls”, as my supervisor called them, were an incredible and unexpected part of my first evening in New Jersey! They were everywhere running from a tree to tree not really minding the newcomer to the Garden State!
I was yet to discover how grocery stores are an essential part of reminding us of the inevitable daily routine. At the place where we drove together with my supervisor I was curious enough to sneak a few pics of whatever I saw on sale trying to figure out the prices and stop myself from converting the U.S. dollars into roubles! I was pretty amazed at the selection! I knew I would have to learn to work my way through it without going broke. After a typical American dinner in a typical American kitchen at my home for the night and more small talk, I was ready for my first night in New Jersey and a more casual and routine life here in the USA. I had already estimated how large the house was and felt ashamed of how a walk from my room to the bathroom actually made me tired. Well, that was a heavy suitcase with a dysfunctional wheel after all! It was nice I didn’t have to carry it upstairs as there was a small elevator in the house – Americans seemed better at making life easier! Thinking of recycling (I mean, can people actually care to bring their shopping bags back to the grocery store to be recycled?) and a bunch of other things that make life so much more routine, I prepared for a newly discovered French song to keep me awake for a bit longer among a row of photos of American smiling faces I didn’t know. I came here from Paris a few days ago after all… Good night, USA! Let’s take it one thing at a time!
After a brief relaxation in the garden following my first sleep in New Jersey and more encounters with squirrels, it was time to get to my house for the week to in Montclair, my future home town for the next ten months. Driving in a car through the north of New Jersey – that was so American and real! During the first week me and a fellow Russian Fulbrighter spent living sharing a room in a house together, I couldn’t get enough of the views that provided me a generous portion of rows of lovely houses and green spaces surrounding them. What really amazed me was how open those spaces were and there were absolutely no fences or anything! As much as privacy is valued and nurtured here, I could get a quick look and imagine whoever and whatever was behind the walls of another gorgeous place. I felt as if I was walking along a row of lives, not merely architectural structures as there were all sorts of personal visible touches that indicated touching sparkles of life inside them. That week we felt more like a pair of tourists eating out all the time and speaking our language. The downtown Montclair appeared to be a nice place but with not too much happening. I had yet to learn to embrace a different American suburbia. I think I was always compulsively on the lookout for something remotely European about anything – trying out a few Italian restaurants, peering at some of the facades in the downtown – and I was happy to get my appetite for that part of the world delicately fed with a generous portion of something explicitly American on top.
Moving to my permanent house was when the reality of having to deal with daily life kicked in. I was missing my lavender-colored room back home and did all that I could and could afford to do to make my new place for the next ten months remind me of it. That did involve spending a bit more than I could have and I had yet to learn to figure out my finance. There is an element of childish insecurity and helplessness about coming to live in another country for an extended period. I actually felt no one I had around me minded me being a child and some people seemed kind enough to provide a secure space for me to learn by making my own mistakes sometimes. I had to remember the time I moved away from my parents’ home to study when I was almost 18 as such a trite and routine thing to do as doing grocery seemed new and weird. We had moved to our own apartment back home six months before and I had to do almost the same all over again here in a different continent! Buying a bunch of essentials like dishes, towels, blankets, etc. with my US dollars was a bit overwhelming and I would have never thought it would be from back home! That is something we as humans find ourselves doing on a daily basis almost anywhere we happen to be in this big world. But on the other hand, there are these small things we don’t become aware of until we move anywhere new that make those basic experiences different depending on where we are. How to find a suitable bed linen for my American bed, what kind of food it is cheaper (and hopefully healthier) to buy and finally whether to swipe/insert/dip your credit card! These are the small things we tend to overlook crossing the borders and oceans in pursuit of bigger things! But there is basically no way of escaping having to deal with them. Being someone who used to cook frequently back at home, I had to accept that at least during my first week of having to get used to a new selection of foods and sharing a kitchen with a few other people, I would eat mainly sandwiches!
Me and the fellow Russian Fulbrighter were given a tour of the university campus by my supervisor who had driven us here. It seemed huge set on top of a hill overlooking large green spaces. As it was still August and also unlike in Russia, not all schools and universities started back on September 1, the campus was deserted except the two of us following my supervisor showing us around. What I couldn’t stop imagining and thinking about was all those people I hadn’t met yet that would flock here a few days later and how I might end up becoming friends with some of them and that could be sitting on any of those comfortable benches all around that we might be having plenty of insightful conversations! I knew for sure I would have to get lost here a few times before I felt comfortable navigating the space! There were separate buildings for institutions that merely took a tiny shabby office back at my home university! That certainly looked like a fantastic place for thriving academically, socially and personally! The Conrad Schmitt Hall that housed the Department of Linguistics looked nice and welcoming, and we could actually get into my supervisor’s office of course! Before that we could enjoy a few views of the New York skyline from a building in front! Yes, New York was just 12 miles away! I knew for sure the physical environment one works in has a huge impact on one’s performance and makes all the difference to how doing whatever it is you are here to do feels! Even though I would not have my own office of course, I could feel I would be comfortable working here.
Getting started with my research wasn’t as easy as I’d thought as any study involving human subjects has to be certified and approved by a special committee. This is something you initially find yourself peeved over as you think getting kick started with what you came all this way to do is what would make adjusting a lot easier. Through the course of the first month I had been learning to see the bright side of things going incredibly slow as that left me with much more time on my hands to explore whatever the university had to offer. First off, I did find myself trying to attend as many events as possible as American universities are universally known for engaging their students at all levels. First and foremost, that was a great way to meet new people and introduce myself to them. I had to struggle a bit explaining what I was as I came here as neither a student nor a teacher. It did flatter me a bit when people would mistake me for a student, but as someone who had been a teacher for five years, I wanted to be treated with due respect and taken a bit more seriously. With my supervisor away or too busy with her major duties, I was trying to master being absolutely independent and learning to make connections with people. What I found was that maintaining a connection was the hardest part as people who were willing to talk to you once might not be as interested in you if you happen to talk to them again. That was something I had expected about the American work ethics and I could do nothing but accept that and not take it personally. Eventually I did find myself attending other colleagues’ classes, going to meetings of a range of students’ organizations, visiting seminars on professional and personal development, etc.
As an English teacher, I found the whole experience of being in an English-speaking country a fascinating yet overwhelming one at times. What I found was that I did feel more laid-back and relaxed talking to international people than I did with Americans. As my research has to do with bilingualism, I was profoundly interested in learning what it is that changes the way we use English and what it is that shapes the way we use it and how we are effectively perceived by others and ourselves in the process. Admittedly, that wasn’t always an easy linguistic ride for me as sometimes I had trouble understanding people especially in catering. On an unusually hot September day, I found myself being served a hot coffee instead of an ice one and while sipping on it, I was thinking of how on earth that miscommunication could have happened! I was really admiring courage and flexibility of those who came here with no professional training in English and the way they were getting by being so creative with the language and willing to use it as a tool to connect with whoever and from wherever they met was marvelous! Of course, I wasn’t too certain about how flexible I would have to be with my research as my supervisor had been convincing me, I might not be allowed either to get people to write emotional texts or conduct interviews as the idea of my research is to compare how non-native and native speakers of English use it in texts of different genres. One thing I was absolutely sure about was that studying languages and how all these people go about using them was something worthy committing to. I will to be patient till I find a specific way of addressing this and making it more comprehensible as of course, there had to be a solid scientific evidence base to whatever instincts and perceptions we have. People and languages did inspire immensely even though there had been times of self-doubt and questioning during the first month as well. I was growing to love being around people more and more and little did they know (or sometimes that ended up to be a whole new conversation point if I chose to tell them) that I was listening to them carefully and analyzing whatever they were saying!
As for making friends, of course the initial surprisingly strong connections with “the Miami people” that I had met during the gateway orientation had to start fading away as the reality kicked in and after Miami a lot of us parted ways to travel all over the East Coast. Even though as September 3 rolled around and the campus was getting busy, it wasn’t always easy to find people to have all those conversations with. Most of people I saw on campus were American students I overheard talking about relationship dramas, courses to take, etc. I wasn’t considerably older than them, but I had just finished teaching kids like them two months before coming here, so I was longing for a more mature company here in Montclair. That was when I felt I had to go introduce myself to some teachers who I considered colleagues even though I wasn’t technically a teacher here. We did keep in touch with the fellow Russian Fulbrighter and would catch up on campus regularly. I was really curious about how her studies were going and of course, as we had things bringing us together, age wasn’t much of an issue, but I admit I couldn’t help feeling like a mentor to younger people sometimes sharing with them my experience and preventing them from making some of the mistakes I had made at different points of my life. It was so amazing to finally get to meet some of “the Miami people” during one of welcome receptions organized by the Fulbright in New York! We hadn’t been aware of how much work would and effort would be put into helping us to bond, make new friends and keep in touch. There was a certain pressure as we kept being told we were special and we knew we had to live up to all the expectations, but on the other hand, we were also free to be whatever we were just laughing, talking, catching up and having a good time with an incredible amount of like-minded people. They are the biggest and most precious value after all! It wasn’t just about this country, but the fact that it had all these people in it was a reason enough to love it! I couldn’t believe that just a few months before that I was suffocating with no prospects for any social life and professional development and now after meeting those people I feel obliged to keep going through self-doubts and all. Arranging to go out with a few people I’d already met was something new as back home unfortunately, my social life was non-existent. Of course, sometimes things fall through as plans might be cancelled last minute, but it is so good when you get to hang out and share your anxieties, dreams and plans just to find out how we are all quite the same no matter where in the world we come from, but there is indeed something we can teach each other based on our experiences of what we call the comfort zone of our home countries. As much as I was starting resenting American food, my belief in the bonding power of having meals together was reinforced! Eating out has never been so much fun as conversations and laughs are able to turn a bad dish into a good one and a good one into an exquisite one. Fulbright is about so much more than just connecting with people as you also get to experience your new “firsts” and discover a lot about yourself and your own goals and values while you are exposed to the world like that. One of my “firsts” during my first month in the USA was getting to hold a baby of a fellow Fulbrighter from Chili and experiencing a moment of mutual confusion just to find that babies can be cute and how much they need us adults (or bigger babies) to hold and nurture them into their adult life. We decided this baby boy had to become a Fulbrighter when he grew up after having been held by so many Fulbrighters! I will remember him for sure no matter what my decisions and values later in life will be…
Of course, not forgetting the location where most of these happy and enlightening moments were taking place – New York… Never would I have thought you would be this big chunk of my American experience and my life here as such! After the awkward first encounter with you when I was dragging my suitcase against your sidewalks, I finally could enjoy my time with you and take things slowly unlike all those crowds of tourists that come every day just to take a quick look at you. All the things that you realize are happening right here and now and all those myriads of people coming, leaving, staying for a countless number of reasons are just mind-blowing! Being a tiny little particle of the world’s biggest linguistic and cultural melting pot took a few visits to become aware of. Just being on the notoriously imperfect New York subway trying to navigate it was so overwhelmingly ordinary! I have no clue whether that was the power of New York or I was ready to take in the city like that, but I kept having a feeling I had been here for a long time even when I got lost a bit. Times Square, Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, Fifth Avenue – I knew I didn’t have all the time the world with you, but I did have time to be able not to worry to take ridiculously many pictures and just enjoy feeling so casual about taking a train or a bus from Montclair to find myself in the busy vibrant heart of Manhattan that takes all the diversity quietly and never gets a heart attack seeming to take in whoever comes in.. And the rest is history – people are coming, leaving, staying… I did have a few moments of discovering the city as a tourist on a few guided excursions to give me more of an idea where to keep exploring. Of course, it took a little time to realize how close to the Atlantic I was and that was when I let my overflowing love for water go overdrive! The ocean – I’d been dreaming to just come like that and take a promenade along a boardwalk just watching you flickering your lights against the sun and whispering your gentle loud whisper into my ears! I had been here a few times alone as well and that was the place where my own company was all I needed. Coney Island had also been a place where I had had a chance to connect with other Fulbrighters during the Coastal Cleanup Day. There wasn’t too much cleaning to do, but being able to make a difference and trying to abandon the idea that being environmentally-friendly is all about talking was great! Rockaway Beaсh was a perfect location for a date with myself with its long waves playing with my dress and having no inhibitions about touching my feet and ankles.
Finally, apart from being one of the most uncertain times of the year, September is when I have my birthday! I had no doubts I would be spending it with you, New York, and the fellow Russian Fulbrighter. Of course if it hadn’t been a weekday and just the first month of my stay, I might have had a few more people joining in, but that turned out to be a great experience anyway. The magnificence of New York left me no time to think of how weird it would be to be spending my birthday away from anyone I would normally have with me. Having my new friend who was the first I had done an interview for my project with in Central Park call me at midnight and all the birthday wishes I got on Facebook were mostly from the people I had already met and that made me feel I could matter and make a difference and it’s never too late for that! The sweeping height of the Empire State Building just to take a memorable look down on the city to know it would still be there for months ahead followed by a delicious meal in Little Italy to wrap the night with a rooftop party walking along the Hollywood-style busy streets of Manhattan. Just like I did the nights before and after, I came home that night just to take some time to sit back and reflect – that was all happening and real! I’d just had my birthday in New York and it didn’t seem to mind my festive spirits! Being a year older can actually feel good when you welcome a new year of you like that!
September has been more than I had expected, but it didn’t fail to be uncertain and confusing. The only difference was that it felt perfectly OK like that this time. It was feeling like a start of something new. Of course no road is perfectly smooth as we occasionally push the brakes and pause at turns. Everything seems and feels stronger – a toothache as you don’t want to experience the American healthcare, cravings for Russian homemade food get too much, but all the things that color up your soul and inspire you to wake for a new day are so much more intense as well – new connections, impressions and emotions and the English language to live in! “You will be fine in two or three months”, said the manager of the house where I rent a room on the day I moved in. I was already looking forward to how that would feel and so many more things on my way. Here is to the September to remember! I wouldn’t mind playing back some parts of you for sure!