What It Feels Like To Be International

By Elisa Pokorny // As Told to Rachel Beckman

We lived a happy life among the hilly landscapes of a traditional Austrian city. An average day consisted of my going to school, coming home on public transportation and eating lunch. After our large midday meal, I did my homework and played outside with my siblings. Our family shared this lifestyle with our grandparents, who lived on the floor just above us, making our family one that was tight-knit. It was a repeated cycle of normal life that I never would have imagined such a drastic change from at the age of nine.

I didn’t believe it at first. As my parents periodically mentioned the move, I didn’t think it was true or that they were being serious. Oh, right. Like that’s going to happen, was my main thought. It wasn’t a life I was destined to pursue, but this new change that was discussed around the dinner table soon became reality. I remember the official announcement. All of us siblings were called into the main room for a “family meeting” with our parents. They told us to close our eyes, and so we did. When the long moments of darkened confusion passed, I opened my eyes to see my father spinning the globe. As Earth was being spun on its little pedestal in the living room of our historic Austrian home, my eyes focused in on the daunting country of America that my father pointed to. My parents affirmed the move that day and I accepted it in uncertainty.

And then suddenly, weeks flew by and we started packing away our life. Amidst the busy atmosphere at home, we arranged family meetings each week to prepare ourselves as best as we could for life in America. As if meetings could make me feel better about uprooting my life; we learned basic English vocabulary, proper etiquette and the still confusing metric system. I mean really, what is with measuring in feet (as I looked down at my feet)?

I kissed goodbye the sweet memories of my childhood and prepared to face a new life I knew nothing about. I ran up to my grandparents’ floor for the last time to steal their delicious homemade pastries stowed on the shelf. I said goodbye to my school and the friends I made while growing up there for the first half of my childhood. As our family of six left for our next stop along the journey of life, I didn’t know how much of an impact this change would have, until it truly happened.

I thought I knew what to expect. But as I sat on the uncomfortable, ten hour airplane ride to the US, I was scared. The flight was not only tedious, but it was taking me to a foreign place where I knew no one, or even how to communicate. Despite my fears and hopes that it wasn’t actually happening, the plane did not crash and we landed safely in Pennsylvania.

My family and I were no longer in our typical European city. What was once a short drive to Vienna turned into Pittsburgh, and what used to be a relaxed routine of life turned into one that was filled with uneasiness. Everything was all new, and we began to restart our lives in this unknown place. We saw new things, ate different food and attempted to integrate into this confusing society. With this came public school, which I eventually attended regardless of my many restless nights of anxiety and worry.

I walked into the modernized school and feared for my life. I didn’t know how to speak one word of English and a student was assigned to take me around and try to show me what to do. I was uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed as kids would come up to me and say things I couldn’t respond to. The teacher always needed to remind them that I was new, a bit scared and came from a different country with a different language. In the end, fourth grade was hard. Really hard. I had to learn to adapt to this new culture, make friends with Americans and learn a new language. I was granted the open kindness and welcoming hands of children who could care less if I was international or not. They just wanted to be my friend.

The changing lifestyle didn’t end there. When I was in middle school, I walked into another unexpected family meeting. While the globe took its second spin in my life, my head whirled along with it and I was overcome with the daunting thought of starting over again. Only this time, my father’s hand closed in on Eastern Europe. It may seem like traveling to another country would restart everything I had learned so far, but I was excited to go back to a region closer to where I grew up. I guess it was something about the familiarity and comfort of this country that made it emotionally appealing to turn to. My family and I then made our next stop in Poland.

I got used to the Polish atmosphere and wanted to stay. I was able to attend an international middle school, which was a lot more comfortable as I was surrounded by others facing similar situations to mine. But my family moved yet again, this time to England, where I faced the worst year of school. I hit high school and it was difficult to move when I was just starting to take life, friends and academics seriously. I came to the conclusion that I never had a permanent home; a sanctuary of reassurance and supportive comfort to turn to after my lowly and grueling days at school. Following a stressful year of a strict classroom setting, unfriendly community and demeaning area, I was grateful when I received news of our return to America. As I bid farewell to England, I welcomed back the stable environment of acceptance I once received years ago.

Coming back to the United States, this time to Illinois, was both stressful and relieving. Yes, people acted differently around me. Yes, they gave me special treatment. But the stable atmosphere of friendliness in America helped me as I discovered who I really am. People oftentimes think I lived a fantasy life off in Europe and that moving to America was nothing but a disappointment. I disagree with this because for me, it has been so much better than the previous places I had to endure.

Although they were hard at the time, the experiences I had while being an international student influenced my childhood and helped me appreciate different countries, cultures and communities for what they are. I guess I’m different. I’ve lived a life abnormal to those around me. I can speak almost three languages fluently without a problem. But I take pride in being international and am grateful for the way travel has changed my outlook on life.