My Sister recently got an Internship at an organisation with lots of ties to local and global communities. I’m so excited for her. 

I’m also very nervous for her. Nervous because she faces unique challenges as an African Immigrant.

We are from Zimbabwe. A beautiful Southern African Nation rich in culture, minerals, human and natural resources if not for the “shithole” dictator that ruled the country until about 6 months ago. I would like to sit down with my sister and give her some sound advice, but, like most Immigrant families, we lost our bond. The ties that bind were fractured by years of separation.

The time in between me leaving Zimbabwe, and her coming to America. The relationship we have now is not a sisterly relationship, but a motherly relationship. A relationship I unwittingly assumed when I came to America and inadvertently became the family’s breadwinner. Never mind that I had an education to go through and my own life to live. The complexities of that will be discussed in another post. 

In my personal journey to integrate into American culture and society, I have faced unique challenges most Immigrants identify with. I am a first generation Immigrant, which means, everything I know, I learned the hard way. My sister doesn’t have to, and you don’t have to either… to shorten your learning and integration curve, do this:

Be Yourself (but learn to mask when necessary)

To a 20 something immigrant, this advice might sound hollow but hear me out through this personal AHA moment.  Back in 2006 I had just completed a Speech class where the Professor told me I needed to enunciate better to be an A student in her class. I was feeling dejected because this was my Major, and seriously – my accent WAS NOT THAT BAD. If I couldn’t pull A’s and B’s in my Major, what was the point of it all? So I had the brilliant idea that, like actors do, I could get voice lessons and change how I speak. I just needed one more person to confirm this, and bingo, I could get back to the business of being a cosmopolitan American sipping on cosmos.

My next class was the super awesome Argumentation Class with a Professor who walked on water. Before class was over, I asked him whom he would recommend for voice lessons. He was surprised by this because he knew I was a Speech Major, so he asked why I needed the lessons. I told him I felt that my accent was holding me back, and his response changed my outlook. “Clara”, he said, “I love having you in class and I love your insights. Of all the things you will do, never lose your accent because that will set you apart. When you speak, speak with confidence, and people will listen to you”.

Be Kind, Friendly and Respectful to EVERYBODY – You are all equal

Literally. This is obvious to most people, but not when you come from a society with very little social mobility and chock full of entitlements for those with means. Growing up, we had a maid and a gardener. I would like to think that my family was very good to most of our maids because, unlike other families whose maids stayed for a couple months or years, our maids stayed for years and years and became part of our family.

However, looking back, we never really “saw” them as equal to us. We never knew about their own families or their hopes and desires. We didn’t look at them with kindness, but with pity. We were friendly only because it was the polite thing to do and respect was an abstract concept.

When I came to the US, I quickly realized this country was the great equalizer. The American Dream was a real concept, and the woman you see cleaning the toilet during the day, has massive ambitions. She goes to college at night and in four years, can change the trajectory of her life.

People here are not defined by their jobs at the time you meet them. That is temporary and sometimes fleeting. People are defined by their actions and integrity. What you say matters, and people do not forget. For others, even the most mundane of jobs fulfills them. They find meaning in their work, and work with pride. The mistake I made, was being brought up thinking there was shame in not belonging to the middle class and above. What I have learned over the years is to value every single person I meet, and respect their contribution to our shared community – no matter how small.

Lean In and Speak Up

A squeaky wheel makes the most noise. I heard this saying my whole life in relation to people who talk a lot. As a result, most African immigrants are passive in their approach. On a personal level, this was never a problem, but I have observed it in numerous Africans and other immigrants. There are many reasons to this, including the impostor syndrome that plagues most immigrants.

How do you successfully lean in and speak up? First, realize you are where you are because you have earned it. Like your co-workers, you have every right to have your opinions heard and concerns addressed. Second, find your voice. Draw from your unique experiences to contribute to new ways of thinking and doing things. Most companies are truly looking for breakthrough ideas and innovations. Draw from what you know and it could be that next big thing – just think – our new sharing economy is not new at all. People in developing countries have been surviving on these models for centuries!

Accept That You Will Be Judged Differently (positively and negatively)

There are those who will think you are incapable of delivering results because you have an accent; and those who will think you have a magic wand because you have an accent. Those who think you can’t deliver, tend to think every person of color in a respectable position got there because of affirmative action; and those who think you have the magic wand, think you got there because you are some sort of genius. Either way, you will never be normal. You will never be looked at through the same lens as everybody, and you will constantly be the one to go the extra mile and reassure everyone that you are non-threatening, and they can be comfortable in your presence.

To do this, it will help if you’re familiar with current culture. Listen to the evening nightly news so you know what the national conversation is. Watch the local news to understand what’s important to the community you live in. Volunteer as much as possible to meet Americans with similar interests and share your experiences doing this with your work mates. Say YES to almost everything you are comfortable with, including hunting trips, and above all, learn to have an open mind to understand your new community.

Understanding and engaging with the community you live in does not mean a loss in the values and interests you grew up with. Find a way to celebrate both. Invited to a cook-out? don’t bring hot dogs, bring your own unique cuisine suing your families recipe. Not only does it show that you are engaged and a team player, it will create conversations that you can use to start breaking down any barriers.

Those open minded enough and willing to know you will love it! Others will be indifferent and some will hate that you are breaking tradition. Whatever the case, always remember, this is not unique to you. You will not wow everybody, but they will appreciate your willingness to be part of the community.

Sign-up for Leadership/Professional

Just making it through college is not enough. College will provide you with the book knowledge, but to create a network you will need to move forward and succeed, you need to come up with a deliberate strategy to do this.

Things that have worked for me include joining programs facilitated by the Chambers of Commerce,  volunteering,  industry bodies, and at one time, I called my counterparts in similar organisations. We started having a monthly breakfast meeting, and it was through this network that I learned about a personal development opportunity that changed how I perceived myself. 

The development opportunity I joined was a year long leadership program for women. In this program, I met women who were law firm partners, bank vice presidents, CEO’s of their own businesses and others who had by all accounts reached the pinnacle of their careers. I remember sitting in the introductory session and feeling like such an underachiever. 

However, by the end of the program, I had made some really good friends and learned how to interact with people from the C-Suite. These days, I’m not intimidated by powerful people. They are on the look out for what will drive their organisations forward in much the same way you are about your career. Remember that advice about small minds discussing people and big minds discussing ideas? It’s so very true!

Work Smarter Not Harder. Time is Money

For years, I ran an event that allowed me the opportunity to meet with people from all over the world. I loved that job and took pride in the relationship management I gave to those people. In fact, I was so good at it that when they would show up at the office, they would not let anyone but me work with them. They would wait for weeks for my availability than deal with anyone else. Can you imagine my surprise when at some point, my boss mentioned that I was not very effective?

What I was failing to realize at the time, is that in America, time is money. As far as my Manager was concerned, these particular clients were not taking advantage of me by monopolizing my time that could have been spent elsewhere. I thought I was doing a great job catering to the clients and engaging them. After the conversation with my boss, I started setting clear expectations by letting them know how much time I could devote to them.

Often in non-western cultures, we show our appreciation by selflessly sharing our time with others regardless of how it affects us. In Western culture, time is literally money and if you’re going to manage a work schedule well, you have to think of the time you are spending at work as money being gained or lost by the organisation. There are a lot of time management apps that you can use to assist you in figuring just how much time you should spend on certain tasks. Some organisations will actually do this with you, so ask your boss to have a good idea of how to divvy up your time at work.

Become Financially Savvy

For the first 10 years living in America, I roomed with someone. I was denied an apartment the first time I tried to venture out on my own. My credit score at that time was 450. I was nobody. I didn’t have thousands of dollars in debt, I had a Discover card with a $500 limit that I had carelessly ignored. After all was said and done with that card, I had accrued over $1500 in interest fees, and when it landed in court, I owed $2000!

If you have not realized this by now, the American economy revolves around credit and the accumulation of material things. It pays an even steeper fee for convenience and those that do not know how to navigate this economy, find themselves at the bottom of the barrel, with a 450 credit score which means you will be paying twice or thrice what other people pay.

All these years later, what I can say about money and credit is – master the art of delaying gratification. If you can do this, you are halfway to financial success. The rest, get a good financial planner to help you. Just like you need a good mechanic for your car, a good doctor for your health, and an excellent dentist for your teeth, you need a brilliant money manager for your finances!

What I know For Sure…

  1. In all aspects of your life, get cheerleaders drawn from what you want to become. If one day you want to open a coffee shop, connect with a coffee shop owner you can apprentice with.
  2. Like a corporation, create your own advisory board with people from all walks of life who are invested in your success and not afraid to tell you the truth.
  3. Have a mentor inside the organisation you are working for
  4. Learn to accept constructive criticism
  5. Be thankful to everyone who impacts your life no matter how small, and last but certainly not the least:
  6. Whatever you are doing, do it to the best of your ability, have fun and connect with your community!