Coming to America: A Fish Out Of Water

julien picture 75JustinBradley Partner Julien Bois shares some of his experiences as a newcomer to the United States from France, as well as some advice for those who those who might find themselves in a similar situation. 

Philadelphia airport, August 1993. I must admit, I was lost. My English was average at best and my heavy French accent got me a lot of head-tilting looks. I was not as prepared as I thought. After all, on a map, Philadelphia looked so close to Delaware – my ultimate destination – that I even thought I could bike or hitch-hike there. First lesson I learned being new to this country: don’t make assumptions. I roamed around the airport asking how I could get to the University of Delaware. After a couple of hours I must have looked as sad as a lost French poodle and a Good Samaritan named Hank offered to drive me there. It was not too far out his way, he said. Lesson number two: Americans are easy to talk to and have a strong impulse to help people in distress.

Being new to a country and its culture, I was determined to learn and adapt as soon as possible. First stop, my French accent. I wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. The “th” sound is, for the large majority of Francophones, the hardest hurdle to jump over. “The university” sounded like “zee university”. So I practiced. Every day. I would repeat the word “therefore” over and over again until I got it perfectly right; and then move on to the next challenging word.

Second stop, pop culture. I tried to make friends on campus, but when trying to break the ice, students often referred to strange shows such as Seinfeld or Cheers. I tried talking about Starsky and Hutch, but of course, I got those tilted-head looks again. Music was also a different ballgame. I came in the middle of the grunge movement and the only English songs I knew were from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Not exactly “cool”. But, I learned and within 3 months I was starting to “get it” and was making friends.

Third stop, history. Let’s be honest, as foreign nationals we have a tendency at times to easily dismiss America’s young history. I once told my friends in college that I used to live in a flat in France that was from the 12th century. Typical French snobbism. But again, I learned and it enabled me to understand this country and its people better. What fascinated me was the Declaration of Independence. In particular I was touched by the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Happiness. What other country on earth refers to this as a right? I was in love.

After graduation I was lucky enough to get multiple job offers – I was so happy: I was living the American dream. I was determined to work hard, learn like a sponge and keep my head down. After 6 months I was invited by my boss to have lunch with one of our largest clients. I was ready I thought: French accent? Check. Pop culture ice breakers? Check. I was really ready. The waiter came and turned to me first, so I ordered an entrée and a glass of wine. Again, a tilted-head look from my boss. How could I not know that in the US we don’t often drink wine at business meetings? Back to my first lesson learned.

That was over 20 years ago and I am now proud of my accomplishments. My English, although not perfect, is good. I can talk about the latest House of Cards episode and I am much more knowledgeable about the history of this great country. I became a partner at JustinBradley 3 years ago and a US citizen in 2015.

The United States and Washington, DC in particular is a place where many people from other countries and cultures come to have a better life. Hard work, learning the language, the culture and US history were keys to my success.

Now, I try to pay it forward whenever I can. Whether you are coming from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America or Asia, yes, it will be tough at times. Yes, you will be home sick and will want to go back home. And yes, we have to adapt and work harder. But if you – like I did – fall in love with this country and its wonderful people, the pains and aches are worth it.

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