In search of my kind of group

college students sitting on grass
Photo: US Dept of State

When I first arrived in the USA, a part of me was really excited to be speaking English.

I was meeting new people, introducing myself, and looking for my kind of group.

I was thrilled about meeting other students from various parts of the world. And I was happy about being the first Burmese acquaintance to some of the people I met, helping them to locate my country on a map.

That part of me was not shy about talking to strangers. I would say, Hi, this is my first semester. I would smile and say, I haven’t met you. what’s your name? Whenever there was a friendly-looking person around, that part of me would reach out and start a conversation.

But then, there was another part of me which felt self-conscious about my accent. That part worried about being misunderstood. I remember constantly worrying: I totally mispronounced that word. And feeling nervous: Am I speaking too fast? They look confused. They are totally confused. Then doubting myself: Why would anyone eat with me if they can’t understand a word I am saying?

Because of that self-doubting part, in the beginning, there were a number of days that I ate alone, sat alone and studied alone. But I was missing my kind of group. Slowly, I started to overcome that doubt by accepting myself with more compassion and trust.

So what if I have a strong accent? I asked myself.

Sure, that can be a language barrier, but maybe that also makes me someone unique and maybe interesting. So, I reassured myself repeatedly that despite the language barriers, I could still make friends. Despite sounding and looking different from others, in fact, because of sounding and looking different, I learned to trust that I would still find people to become great friends with.

Since then, it has become easier. I laughed about feeling this way with another foreign student who shared similar difficulties and became good friends with her. Someone whose great-grandmother was Burmese reached out to me to learn Burmese and started to hang out with me. I invited a classmate in a science class to do homework one night, who studied and giggled with me throughout the semester and later became my best friend.

Eventually, I became more comfortable making new friendships.

But one experience taught me that not everyone will become a friend. I remember that day in a chemistry lab. It felt like a regular day arriving in the lab until my TA came and said to me that my lab partner had requested to move to a different group, and so I might have to work alone for the semester. I was confused. And I questioned myself: Wait, the lab partner who I had been getting along with? The one I have been doing assignments together for the last few weeks?

Without any clues or warnings, I learned that day that he wanted to work with a different group instead of working with me. I was stunned, but I told the TA that it was fine for me to work alone. After the lab, I talked to that former lab partner. I asked if everything was okay. With his usual smile and friendly gesture, he said everything was fine. Until that moment, I had, to my knowledge, never been in conflict with someone. And I had not expected to meet someone who decided that instead of sitting and working with me, they would rather join a different, already crowded table.

I almost wanted to switch to a different lab session that semester. But I didn’t. It felt important not to. He might have moved to a different group purely because he felt more comfortable working with native speakers where communication was easier. He might have left working with me for reasons that did not have anything to do with me. So it felt important not to take it personally and to continue trusting that I will find my kind of people eventually.

I think the days spent being alone made me appreciate friendships later in life.

The difficult experiences, in the beginning, showed me ways to become a better person. I have learned to be more self-assured but humble, to treat people in kinder and more accepting ways, and to understand the importance of being there for friends in their moments of loneliness and hardship.

Today, there are still some moments when I am self-conscious about my accent. There are occasionally some days when I find people who seem to ignore my presence or to simply end the conversation when I join in. But, I am less bothered by those moments because I could not ask for a better group of friends than the ones I now have. My kind of group is perfect. I have found my kind of people who prefer reading at a tea shop with me to going to a late party. I have found those who will act silly with me, sing and dance with me, and then challenge me to achieve my goals in life.

After college, I stay regularly in touch with my close friends through phone or Skype.

We still share our stories of heartaches with each other and send hugs across the miles. We exchange Christmas and Valentine’s gifts by mail. We hold each other accountable for the resolutions that we set for this year. And we continue giggling as loudly as before.

Making friends was not always easy. But the friendships I made in college are one of my greatest accomplishments. I would not trade them for the world.

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.