This year the 4th of July marks a very special celebration for me. Yes, it is the 240th commemoration of the USA’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence which solemnized the creation of a new nation, no longer part of the British Empire.
I couldn’t have timed my flight from Chicago into the Lone Star State better. As I descended into Austin at almost midnight I watched 100s, maybe thousands, of fireworks out of the sky as Americans united in celebrating this day. They did what John Adams hoped for in 1776 when he so eloquently wrote….‘This day will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. It will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. The day of deliverance… solemnized with pomp and parade, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.’
But, this weekend also marks the 3rd celebration of me living the American Dream. Exactly 3 years ago I arrived in America, unbelievably excited about the biggest adventure of my life. And it turned out to be so much more rewarding, liberating and life-changing than I could have ever imagined.
THE 3 THINGS I LOVE MOST ABOUT THE AMERICAN DREAM
1. Every day is an adventure
When I was in high school I always said to myself: I JUST DON’T WANT A BORING LIFE. Life in America is an adventure. Every. Single. Day. Many days I feel like I’m on the set of a movie. In the past week i) I had a rough encounter with a strong current while paddle boarding at South Padre Island and had to be rescued; ii) had dinner with a Texan who looked me straight in the eye and said: Texas is actually a country; iii) my early morning run through sleepy Oklahoma City became a history lesson when I coincidentally passed a beautiful small park. I stopped and discovered that it is the city’s National Memorial, commemorating the deadliest domestic terrorism incident in the US history; iv) I had coffee at a suburban Chicago home where a typical American couple raised their five children. It looked just like American homes looked in the movies I watched when I grew up; v) and attended an Independence Day celebration held on the deck of the highest pool in Texas. An adventure. Every. Single. Day.
2. The spirit of Optimism and Possibility
For a long time, my plan was to move from South Africa to London. And then I took my first US inland trip and was bowled over by the visceral spirit of optimism and possibility. I was sitting on a Southwest plane en route to Las Vegas when it hit me — I want to live here where I can feel the optimism and positive energy more than anywhere else in the world. Every week I meet people who have made a great life out of nothing. People who are on their journey to conquer their dreams. And I know it — in America you can do and be anything.
3. Being embraced
I’ve never felt as welcome and as embraced in my life. Everywhere I go Americans are engaged and intrigued by me as a foreigner living in their country. They are interested in my story. They love the accent. And they make me feel welcome. I’m sure not all foreigners feel that — and to my adopted country: continue to embrace outsiders like you are embracing me.
THE 3 BIGGEST SUPRISES
1. I didn’t know everything about America
I thought I knew it all. As a radio journalist I reported on 9/11 and the war in Iraq and I had many pre-conceived ideas about this country. I also grew up with American movies, artists and authors and for many years arrogantly thought there is nothing to discover here. I didn’t know that different regions/states in America are like different countries. People from these different areas don’t only have different ways of speaking, dressing and behaving — but they think differently. Don’t only visit New York and think you’ve been to America.
2. Connection transcends what the eye can see
I grew up in a country with more than 11 cultures. But I had to move to America to learn that the soul transcends sight and sound. It just tells you when it is connecting with someone else. And these connections have nothing to do with language, culture, skin color or religious beliefs. But it has everything to do with values and depth of character.
3. Little things are the hardest
· Ask me to move States in one weekend and I’m up for it. But try walking on the right side of the road if you’ve done it on the left side for more than 30 years.
· Try and get automated telephone banking services to understand your South African ‘yes’. I can pronounce ‘yes’ any way I want, those machines still don’t understand me.
· Milk, oh milk! No, not cream. Not creamer. Not half-and-half. Just milk. I would have loved milk as an option in my coffee on the 85 flights I’ve been on this year.
THE 3 BIGGEST LESSONS LEARNED
1. You can’t grow beyond your exposure. For most of my life I had no desire to visit America because of limiting beliefs and perceptions. I went back to Europe again and again and a mere five years ago I could not understand why friends of mine wanted to move here. Coming here not only fundamentally challenged core beliefs I had, it opened new worlds and accelerated personal growth beyond what I thought possible. The take-away: expose yourself to new environments, people with different beliefs and embrace the unknown.
2. Embrace yourself. Every part of you. Growing up I was taught the importance of confidence in self. I never realized that I had a hard time fully embracing who I am as an Afrikaans-speaking, white, South African girl. It is very hard to be proud of who you are when your first language and the culture you grew up in is inextricably intertwined with something you are deeply ashamed of. Up until the time I moved to the US and local audiences started falling in love with my accent, I didn’t realize that it was hard to fully embrace an accent which was looked down upon by many. The same accent that makes faces light up, everywhere I go. The lesson? Your power is in your story. In what you’ve experienced and learned in your life. Those things you don’t necessarily like and have a hard time living with make you who you are.
3. Take risks
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that Fear should never be the driver of decisions. Or paralyze you into not making a decision. Looking back at my life I realize that the things I was the most afraid to do, turned out to be THE things that catapulted me to a next level and made me the happiest. I was scared to move to another country, not knowing a soul in my destination city. I did it anyway. One of the best decisions I made in my life. In November when I got the call that I got a great role in Texas, I didn’t feel like giving up my beautiful view of Michigan Lake and great life in Chicago — where I was very happy. But I took the jump and it was once again one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. No risk. No reward.
Independence Day does not only celebrate America’s deliverance, but it will always be one of the most memorable epochs in my life: celebrating the power of exposure, embracing self and taking risks. Here’s to America!
This piece was originally written on July 4th 2016.