I bill myself in part as an “Accidental Emigrant”. That’s because we left the Netherlands when I was a child, with the stated intention of being expatriates in Mexico for a few years, then “somewhere else interesting” for a few years, and then we would go back to “normal” in the Netherlands. At the age of six, I was fairly certain that I knew what “normal” was, and I compared everything I encountered to that standard.
The next “somewhere interesting” after Mexico turned out the be the United States. In 1969, Dad had several places in mind for the next adventure – the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. He received a job offer from the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) for a job as a metallurgical engineer for a fabulous salary of $15,000 annually, plus permanent residency for his entire family. At that time, engineers were a prime commodity. I don’t know if he had any other offers, but the USA was intriguing enough that he went with that one. So our entire family packed into the old green square-back VW station wagon and we drove North from Mexico City. We entered the USA in the port of Laredo, TX. I suppose that makes us technically Mexican immigrants. Since my parents are now dead and all the siblings have become citizens, I don’t feel too much fear in admitting this fact. But I don’t envy today’s Mexican immigrants in having to deal with the attitudes that are prevalent at this time. I do remember driving through Texas looking at the dry tumbleweeds and bleached skulls in the desert and wondering what my parents had gotten us into. But gradually the landscape got greener, hillier, and more interesting.
In time we arrived in Maryville, the sister city of ALCOA, Tennessee, nestled in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, where the Aluminum Company of America had a large plant. We moved into a nice white house with a mansard roof and a big screened-in porch perched at the top of a steep hill on a quiet tree-lined street. Down the hill was a park. Up the hill on the other side of the park was Maryville Junior High School. So, when I started Junior High 4 years later, I literally walked uphill both ways to school!
Mom thought it was a good idea to integrate us kids into the new neighborhood before school started. So she signed me and my brother up for softball camp over the summer (our sister was too young). Here’s a warning to new American residents: softball and baseball are NOT a great introduction to other children! For the indoctrinated, the sport is fine. But a newly arrived immigrant cannot make sense of the sport. The object is to hit the ball with the bat, which in itself is a minor miracle. But once you’ve hit the ball, you only run if it looks like nobody is going to catch it. And you don’t run just because someone says you should, because the opposing team will tell you to run in the hopes that you will fall for it. Which I did. To the ridicule of every other kid in the neighborhood, even the much younger ones. I still can’t stand baseball.
Then there was the measurement system. I spent the first few years of my life using the metric system. That was easy, and any American who can figure out a change for 10 dollars knows it. But transitioning to the American system? Here was my introduction, when trying to grasp it from a new friend, Tammy. Me: “So, 10 inches equals a foot?” Tammy: “No, 12 inches equals a foot.” Me: “Um, okay. So then 12 feet equals a yard?” Tammy: “No, that’s 3 feet.” Me: “Uh, then three yards equals a mile?” Tammy: “No, that’s 5,280 feet.” Me: shaking my head in utter confusion. And that was just distance. I finally learned that the trick was not to try to convert anything, but just memorize each of the different measurement systems.
As the years passed, we gradually adjusted to life in the United States. Dad was inventing recycling furnaces and being granted patents. Mom earned her Ph.D. in psychology and started a private practice. Both of them were engaged in making endless improvements to the old house they bought when we moved to Pittsburgh, and Mom had her barn with two horses. We kids made friends and got involved in school activities. We still went back home to visit the grandparents and cousins in the Netherlands most summers. But over time the discussions about when we would return home got fewer and further between. That’s how we accidentally transitioned from expatriates to emigrants.
There were other interesting accidents. When we initially moved to Mexico, I had just started to learn how to write. Mom dropped me off at school on my first day of first grade. “How do you say ‘Yes’?” I asked Mom in Dutch. “Si”, was the answer. “How do you say ‘No’?” “No.” “Okay,” and I was out the door and into the classroom. Initially I sat in the classroom without understanding a word, just listening to the other kids speaking and waiting for the opportunity to use “Si” or “No” appropriately. Eventually I started to participate and by the end of the school year I was fluent enough to be correcting my parents’ use of Mexican grammar. During that year, I wanted to write letters to my grandmother (“Oma“) back home. I didn’t know that I couldn’t write Dutch. So I started writing, periodically asking Mom how to spell words, and before long I had accidentally taught myself how to write in Dutch. If anyone had told me that I didn’t know how to write Dutch, I might never have tried it.
In the US, as high school graduation neared, I considered where to go to college or university. I was fairly certain that I would go to medical school, and Mom and Dad were fairly certain they would still be in Pittsburgh when I graduated. I looked into school in both Europe and the USA, and settled on the USA, not only because I would be near my parents, but also because of the direction of transfer of medical expertise. US doctors could fairly easily practice in Europe, but European doctors could not easily practice in the US. So a US education appeared to be a better choice. Further accidental decisions followed: required to declare a major and having exhausted all previously tried subjects, I declared computer science so that I could qualify for the introductory course over the summer between my sophomore and junior years, at the last possible moment before graduation would be delayed. It turned out that I really liked the subject so didn’t have to resort to my backup plan, which was basically, “If I don’t like it, I can always change it.” The following summer, at the time I was taking my final medical school prerequisite classes, I was offered an internship in computer science out of the blue. I had filled in a form for the Society of Women Engineers during one of my classes, and they had assembled the collected forms into a booklet sent around to local companies, and those companies selected interns from that booklet to increase their diversity. It was the precursor of today’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiatives. So, without intending to, I landed a job that financed my last year of college, but had to drop the courses that had me on track to go to medical school. And the job taught me that I preferred computer work to medicine too.
Accidents continued to change the course of my life. Meeting my future husband before finishing school, getting married, getting pregnant, discovering cancer during my pregnancy, and the loss of our first child, all were major events for which nobody could plan. My best friend’s mom was hit by a car as she crossed the street on a bright, sunny day, and never regained consciousness. I learned that life could change forever in an instant. My mom died from colon cancer at a young age, denying me the chance to have her around as my companion as I had always expected because my parents were so young.
More recently, I’ve had these happy accidents: I met someone who could teach me to row right after I had a short assignment downtown that involved walking across a bridge enviously watching from above as crews serenely rowed below; had a job offer arrive on the morning of the day I got fired; found my dream house due to a post on Facebook that got me started following a trail of related posts; discovered a way to rent a floating home in Sausalito, CA, on a last-minute tour I booked while on business there; learned valuable lessons that changed the course of my life in magazine articles I just happened to read or seminars I was forced to take by my employer; accepted a Groupon offer that put me in contact with a mentor half-way around the world who put me on course to publish my first book. It seems like every worthwhile thing that has happened in my life has come as a result of some happy accident. Even the fact that I’m able to be sitting here typing this with my eyes closed is a result of a moment when I had to fill one last course in high school and the only thing available was business typing.
It seems to me that, while it’s a fabulous idea to have a plan and a vision for how you want your life to go, you need the flexibility to recognize when an event occurs that will enable you to set a course to achieve that vision. Plans are great, but accidents are the events that life puts in your path to nudge you to the next phase of your life – if you recognize what’s being presented and grab the opportunity.