It all started when the flight I boarded from Morocco landed at JFK International Airport in New York. I was lost for a while; depending on the traveling experience of a man from Liberia whom I met in Casablanca—we talked about family, work, and school. Though older he was, his disposition and humility to share space and life experiences rekindled an impression about living a lowly life. I got off-board before him and waited in the arrival lobby, carefully peeking through the passengers to catch up once more. Finally, I had a sight of him and we made our way to the homeland security booth to register our entry. For a moment I marveled at the chattering of different languages while we stood in line; Spanish, Arabic, French, Chinese, Patwa, etc. After a few minutes in the queue, we completed security checks and made our way to collect our baggage. That marked the end of my acquaintance as the guy and I parted ways. I was careful to go about casually where I found myself learning the technology and culture of a new world. Indulging in try-and-errors from using censored lavatories to watching people move about the terminal, I believe I was a classical example of the Liberian adage, “JJC” (meaning, Johnny Just Come).
I observe the directions on the electronic boards and asked as many questions as I could to navigate through the airport. I asked when, where, and how to go. I engaged in endless inquiries and the lowliness of my voice made an indication that I was in dire need of help. The responses I received were awesome and embracive. My non-native accent made it a bit difficult to communicate, causing me to nearly miss my flight that was departing in an hour . With the help of security guards and airport attendants, I got to my check-in point, American Airlines, but my baggage was not paid for—a big surprise to learn. That was the start of hell breaking loose for me. I thought the airfare covered everything I brought. There, my “aha” moment pinned me in shock. The agent said, “Sir, you have to pay for your item and your check-in time expires in 15 minutes.” I reached in my pocket for some cash, a little down $100; I am not the coolest or richest kid from Africa. I walked to the ATM with this fairly aged Latina to cash my payment. The first $20 was fairly new and the only I had. Cashed the second, the machine didn’t take it; then the third and fourth, still no result. I contorted my mind on many techniques but all failed.
My temperature rose, my fascination soon went into a coma, my language changed, and sadness welled up in me. I couldn’t interpret my version of frustration as every cash came out of the machine. Like it is in Liberia, I presupposed that old banknotes didn’t mean anything for doing transactions: please don’t bring old banknotes to the US. The machine made my possession useless and at one point, almost discarded it. What a day, what a dismay. Like Olaudah Equiano said, “I now totally lost the small remains of comfort I had enjoyed,” so I was. I didn’t know anyone to talk to, seemingly, I was out of reach of forex bureau to do an exchange. I made a few calls to my brother and friends for help, but all efforts didn’t work.
Endowed with the bravery to ask other travelers to do an exchange, a few of them could barely understand my accent, stared and rejected my request. One could think of money laundering and could not entertain any conversation. Like a fish out of water: someone in an unfamiliar place, I found no solace. I missed my flight to Chicago via Charlotte. Anxiety swept over me. The fear of facing the unexpected ordeal alone loomed over my head. It was awful because a lad with no travel experience suffered the refusal of an automated machine. The flight agent, upon seeing signs of distress on my face, reached out to a co-worker in the customer care service to help. To my wish, the lady agreed to exchange my old notes with her’s. The help came on time and they rescheduled my flight to Chicago. After processing what had happened, I couldn’t blame myself. I let go of my frustration, having experienced a fallout between my expectation and yearn: my arrival in the US. I still felt a pang of dismay about the drama that unfolded when everyone was set to board a new flight. “I can’t blame myself or anyone”, I said to myself repeatedly. I ran some errands in a period of one week to get a US visa and a plane ticket. My trip was abrupt and I didn’t sign up for this experience.
Finally on board to Chicago, I sat at the rear interpreting every episode quietly—collecting the pieces of embarrassment and puzzling them into this a narrative you are now reading. Common knowledge, “No one knows what the future holds.” Sometimes it is distasteful to uncover what you tailor so well to come out wretched. From my experience in New York, culture shock introduced me to a world that bagged surprises. Don’t trust your western movies or TV shows. Real-life situations will shock you when people don’t understand your language or when they strangely stare at you. I’m not biased; they are good but not good enough to your expectation when you arrive for the first time. Manage it! You will learn about personal space, consent, privacy, self-discipline, dress code, technology use, and languages that will blow your mind. You will have to shed the old you to adjust. Do not be cynical—They are nice until you adjust, redefine the norms of your culture, conceal your pre-exposure, and let go of whatever accent you have. That’s the American dream everyone yearns. The shock continues….
Authored by Silas Gilkay
Featured Picture by WebstockReview