By Ekaterina Siemoneit
I first came to the United States as a high school exchange student when I was 16. I was placed in a family of 5 in a small town called Fairbanks in Alaska where I lived for a year. From the get-go, I was stunned by how enormous everything was compared to my hometown in Russia. Gigantic cars and trucks, schools, stores, boxes of cereal – literally everything. The only thing that was super small were sidewalks (everybody drives their huge trucks, no time for walking).
I went to a giant high school where I was always lost in the crowd. Maze of corridors and what felt like billions of lockers surrounded me. I was overwhelmed and anxious, no one bullied me, but I was in constant stress there. So my host parents decided to transfer me to a much smaller school on the military base 40 miles away from Fairbanks. There were only 300 students there (comparing to 2000 in the first school) so it felt like home because everyone knew each other. I spoke decently in English by then, so I managed to make friends.
Six years later I graduated with my Bachelor of Architecture from university in Moscow, Russia and came to live in Anchorage, Alaska. By then I have been to states several times and got used to the scale of life. Here are some ‘culture shocks’ that I had to deal with the most:
To have a college degree in states is considered a big accomplishment, because of how hard the programs are here and also how expensive they are. If someone in the USA tells you your degree is worth nothing, consider them wrong. Any degree matters, even if it is foreign and even if it doesn’t meet American standards. Translate all of your transcripts from the original language into English, submit it for evaluation review to one of the degree evaluation services. Provide courses descriptions and recommendation letters. Make it count! I worked as a Design Assistant in the Interior Design showroom. The owner was a businessman and could care less about Interior Design or my degree in architecture. He just wanted sales and told me that my degree didn’t matter and that it is worth nothing. Never let anyone make you feel less about your education and accomplishments. Always try and do everything you can for your success. Eventually, I found a job in an architectural firm, where the owners were ecstatic about my Bachelor of Architecture, even if it was from Russia.
Before you consider your career as an architect in the United States it is crucial to get familiar with the Imperial Measuring System, because it is NOTHING like Metric. It is very illogical, but on the plus side, it improves your arithmetic skills because everything is in increments of 3, 12, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64th, etc. The scale is confusing and conversion is a nightmare. There is no alternative version of millimeters which blew my mind because an inch is a whole 2.54 centimeters! So, the dimensions will be 7 feet, 5 inches and two thirty seconds if there is something less than 1 inch. It is pretty complicated for the first time and then you learn and remember all the conversions.
Codes and standards
There is a code or a standard or a rule for everything in this country. Every serious professional must have a license or a certificate approved by the government or the organization. Codes and standards are hard to memorize and sometimes seem useless, however, they work. They make a life of any professional easier and more difficult at the same time because even though they are hard to memorize, they provide a guideline and organization to any professional field.
Americans smile all the time because not smiling is RUDE and god forbid if you don’t smile back at the stranger in the elevator/grocery line/sidewalk. Always say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. It was so hard for me to accept these gestures from people I am completely unfamiliar with that it made me introverted. Small talk is a part of being polite, and the more masterful you are at it the better connections you can make which is crucial for your carrier. Examples of small talk topics: weekend plans, pets, children, food. I have a trick for this matter. When I need to go to a place where I have to meet a lot of new people and make small talk to them, I wear something interesting, like a button-up shirt with cat silhouettes instead of polka dots, or my smartwatch displays time in a funny manner ‘four stinking twenty-five’. You can think of a piece of your own that can reflect your personality, but it must be a conversation starter.
Money. Rule number one: don’t talk about your salary and don’t ask people about theirs. It is considered rude. The only appropriate time you can talk about it is when you are offered a job and during your annual performance reviews (always request them from your supervisors – this is how you ask for a raise). Finances for me is something very intriguing, almost sacred knowledge. When I was first invited to sit at the financial meeting, I was super nervous and excited. I really wanted to know the numbers that stood behind architecture.
Everyone has an opinion in political subject, and it might be very different from yours, so I realized that the best solution to avoid any conflict is to never talk about it (just like about money). I would also recommend not to talk or develop the subject of politics of your home country. It would be safer that way, there is no place for a heated argument in the workplace.
Since I touched the subject of politics, it makes sense to mention religion. Most Americans are quite religious, and the religions that are practiced are numerous. For me, religion and faith are very intimate and I feel uncomfortable talking to anyone about it. However, I am not a fan of some religious practices, I don’t express my opinion on any religion in the working setting. However, some religious Americans will try to make you go to their church (which I see as an intrusion to my personal life), you will have to learn how to politely decline. Or if you are interested to learn about church communities in the United States it would be the best time. Also, through the church, you can make very useful connections and friends.
In the United States, unique personalities are praised and celebrated (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk). People look up to them and try to stand out from the crowd. I came from the country where being weird or unique can be potentially punished, so it took me some time to warm up to the idea that yes, I can have that tape holder in the shape of the cat, no one will judge me. From my experience, people would much rather have a person on their team who has one of a kind personality that they enjoy than a person who feels dry but has more skill.
Being an immigrant
America is a very diverse country with people from all over the world. You are not alone. There are millions of people who have a life story like yours and who face very similar challenges as you do. Majority of citizens who were born in this country will not discriminate you because of your origins, however, I would be lying if I say that it wouldn’t be harder for you as an immigrant to succeed, just because you have less background here than people who were born and raised in the United States. Every immigrant must double their efforts to accomplish the same thing. I can say that all my hard work, my ambitions, and dedication paid off so far. Even in dark times, I kept trying. Be honest to yourself, make sure you did EVERYTHING you could in order to achieve your goal and become who you want to be.