Essential Skills For Immigrants
5 Ways To Better Adapt And Thrive In New Cultures
To thrive in a new culture, immigrants must choose the advice they get carefully, proactivelly reach out to the right people, ask for help when needed, be their own best advocate, and be open to negative feedback.
Immigrating to a new country can be overwhelming, lonely, and stressful. That is why it is essential to get the right people to support you, to be adaptable, and take command over your experience.
I interviewed Henri Nkuepo, international lawyer and author of “New Immigrant Playbook — Strategies for Success in Your New Country” about how immigrants can find success faster and with less hardship.
Here are my favorite quotes from my interview with Henri Nkuepo.
1. Choose your advice carefully
By following some of the advice that I received, I signed up for programs that I didn’t need, and I ended up spending money that I didn’t have.
I needed to be more assertive, and to say, “I know what I want. I don’t need your advice right now. But thank you.” And move on.
You want to be able to say, “Is that good information for me?”
You have to be able to triage the information that comes and to communicate that to them and say “thank you for your advice, but I don’t really want it right now, I already have my plans.”
After I realized that not everyone had my best interests in mind, I decided to look for people that I could trust for mentors.
2. Proactively reach out
I reach out to mentors. I reach out to people that I respect, that are in my domain, in my area of expertise to be my mentor.
Each day when my mentor who was a professor would go to school, I would tag along. I would just go with him. I’d walk around the campus. And I found out where the law faculty was. And then I saw some of the community centers that were there. And then I started to volunteer. That’s how I met more and more people. And I got advisors.
Volunteering and introducing yourself are a good way not only to meet people, but to serve and also to get things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.
Through volunteering I met many people who wrote my recommendation letters.
3. Ask for help when you need help
In any country where you are new, you need to understand the culture, you need to see and to get close to the people. To see who they are. And to show them who you are. Because they want to be able to help you.
Open up, share what you know and what you don’t know. And get help when you need help.
If you need help on how to communicate better, they have help for that, they will provide it. If you need help on how to negotiate, there are trainings that you could do.
I’m not suggesting that you should just go out and beg. I’m just saying that when you have a difficulty, you should ask.
If you share a difficulty to someone and they don’t want to help you, what do you lose? Generally it is nothing.
4. Be your best advocate
I always say that I’m my best advocate. Nobody else would do it for me if I don’t do it. So I always go and ask for what I think will be helpful for me, in my career or in my life.
If you don’t speak up, nobody’s going to speak for you. And people are going to assume things that in fact, are not there.
You have to step up to advocate for yourself or to be assertive.
One mistake I made was not negotiating my salary. And that was a big mistake.
People in corporate are there to get things done. And they want you to be able to contribute and to not be shy.
You have to be honest. You have to be yourself. And you just have to show them who you really are. And that you care about what you are there for.
You have to be respectful and recognize that whatever you’re doing, there’s always someone watching.
5. Be open to negative feedback
You have to be open to receiving feedback as well. Because nobody knows you well. You want to know things that you’re doing best. And the things that you need some help on.
Negative feedback is negative because it’s not what you expect. It’s what your colleague is seeing.
I always look at feedback as an opportunity to learn.
My manager gave me feedback that changed my career completely. It was my first time receiving true feedback. And after that, I did a U-turn.
You have to understand that people are out there trying to help you.
Nobody is out to get you. It’s just feedback about something that you could improve on. You still have control over that.
If someone is willing to give you feedback, it’s because the person sees potential in you and they think that you could do better. That’s what has made me be able to be where I am today.
If I had been in the mindset of “who are you to tell me this” then things would have gotten bad.
It takes a lot of courage to tell somebody that something is wrong. The person that does tell you something is off, they really like you, because they are willing to help you change.
Sometimes feedback is really about perspectives.
Listen to those who are willing to tell you, “This is how we do things around here.”
Learn more about Henri Nkuepo by clicking here. Get his book “New Immigrant Playbook — Strategies for Success in Your New Country” by clicking here.
Get free resources to help you be more assertive and advocate for yourself, which includes skills like managing negative feedback and asking for what you want and need in a thoughtful way, and a reach out challenge here.
Hey, Henri, great to have you here today.
Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
For the audience out there, Henry is the author of a book that I think can help a lot of people. It’s called the new immigrant playbook Strategies for Success in your new country. Do you have it there to show them what you book looks like?
I definitely recommend that book especially if you are immigrating to a new country, and there’s so much going on. I’ve been an immigrant in many places. And sometimes we get overwhelmed. So from his experience, he shares a lot of tips.
And we’re going to be talking a little bit about that today, in the context of communication skills, as well. Henry is in the USA right now. And he is originally from Cameroon. He’s a lawyer right now. And it was a massive experience for you to come from Cameroon. It’s just a totally different culture, way of being, and such a challenge in so many levels, and he is now a fraud and compliance expert. Is that it?
I’m the risk management professional. And the area of risk management I focus on is compliance. I am a certified fraud examiner. And also a certified anti-money laundering specialist.
Perfect. And yes, and you work for Wells Fargo, as Assistant Vice President. So, I want to kick off just asking you a little bit more, because you have this whole profession and you got your family got lots going on. And you’re like, “I’m going to write a book to help immigrants.” You have so much going on your life. So what gave you (the motivation) because you needed a lot of motivation probably just to embark on that journey. So what brought you and what inspired you to start writing this book?
That is interesting because the idea originally was to write down about my history, something like a memoir, because like you mentioned, I grew up in a small village, I was born there, and left Cameroon in 2009 to go study English in South Africa. And after that, I had to go back to school to continue with my Master’s in law. So, I wanted to write a chronology of that story, because I thought to myself, it was challenging. And I thought that people could also learn from that.
But the idea of writing the new immigrant playbook was not the first thing that came to mind. Because I wanted to just write it and put it out there, I said to myself that it’s good to write something short, that people are going to be able to read easily and then to learn from the lessons. That’s how I started putting down the different titles of each of the chapters.
Like what do you do when you arrive in the country in the first month or the first 90 days? What do you do? And what did I do? I go through that and I tell my story, and some of the challenges that I faced. And then I say, if I were to go back, I wouldn’t have done this, I wouldn’t done that.
I would have talked to these people more versus talking to these other people. I was thinking that by having a book like that out there, some people are going to be able to start from a place where I did not start. The information that I share is not very original, in terms of it comes from nothing. This information is something that is applicable to me or is applicable to you. It could be the same thing.
But nobody had it written some way that you could just say, Okay, I have this book, the new immigrant playbook. If I’m in the United States, where do I get a credit card? Why do I need a credit card? Where do I get my education evaluated? Why do I need it evaluated? And if I’m going to be looking for a job, what do I need to do? Who do I need to talk to? Why is that important?
There are a lot of things like starting with a resume. Should I call it a resume or curriculum vitae? So those are the basic information that I use the book to share with others.
It reminds me of books on the first 100 days on your job or, when you get to a new company, and here’s a playbook for when you get a new job, but you’ve created a playbook for when you immigrate to a new country. And people often feel alone and confused and scared and all those things and then definitely, if they the book at least it’s one person was there with them. Sharing the path and making it easier because it’s definitely very challenging.
Yes, it is very challenging because when you arrive, it’s overwhelming. There’s so much information. And everyone, for some reason, wants to be able to advise you, to tell you to follow their own advice, and this is why you should follow them. I’ve been here for more than 10 years, I have a chapter actually called the 10 years plus immigrants.
These are people who will be telling you that they’ve been here for more than 10 years. And this is what is and how it’s done. And I am like, you don’t even have a job and you are trying to tell me how it is done? I have a degree. And for example, in law from Cameroon, people are telling me “ignore that degree, it is not going to be recognized here. And even if it is recognized, at the end, you get a degree from the University, and won’t be able to find a job because you are a foreigner.”
You hear things like that from people and you want to be able to say, “hey, is that good information for me?”
You have to be able to triage the information that comes and to be able to go back to communication, to communicate that to them and say “thank you for your advice, but I don’t really want it right now, I already have my plans, I want to follow my dream.” Because if I had done that myself, I would have saved a little bit of money.
Because by following some of the advice that I received, I signed up for programs that I didn’t need, and I ended up spending money that I didn’t have. So I needed to be more assertive, and to say, I know what I want. I don’t need your advice right now. But thank you. And move on.
So that that brings a very good point. Because often you come to new country, you’re confused, you’re overwhelmed. You don’t know what to do. And people are offering advice. How do you filter? How do you know what to go with? And what and when to say no? Like? How do you decide which information to follow?
What I tried to do, and I always like to share my own story. What I tried to do, or what I decided to do after I realized that not everyone had my best interests in mind, I decided to say my plan is to do this and to look for people that I can trust for mentors. In my case, I was lucky to see people who had succeeded, and who had gone through the same type of situation, hearing advice from here and there. And then them telling me that I don’t have to follow their advice, and to do what you want to do.
So you have a plan. When you left your country you probably spent a lot of money doing that What were your plans, were your plans to get here and go back to school or not? If your plan is to arrive in the country where you are and go to school, do that. And then if you are going to do that, you have to start looking for “what is it that I need?” I need to get my education evaluated. I need to study English or French, depending on the country where you are. And I need to do these other extra things so that I get ready and I can get to school.
In most cases, when you have that in mind, and you have a plan, that’s what you need to do. When somebody tells you can’t, you thank them for the advice, and you just tell them that you want to stick to your plan. If your plan doesn’t work, maybe you can reconsider what they’re telling you. Respectfully say, I don’t need the advice right now.
And so you said so you would look for mentors, people that had gone through it, maybe were in a similar situation, had a degree as well or something like that, and were successful. How did you find these mentors? Were they the ones who approached you? Or did you approach them?
Currently, I reach out to mentors. I reach out to people that I respect, that are in my domain, in my area of expertise to be my mentor. I’ll reach out to them and say: Hey, this is who I am. And this is what I do. I’ve seen what you do. And I would like you to help guide me. How do you communicate as a leader? To learn about communicating as a leader, listening skills, and other leadership skills that they provide. I do that now.
But at the time, it just happened to be someone that I was referred to. The mentor, the first person I met, who actually gave me that advice. He was a university professor. I was referred to him by his friend. When I started talking to him, that’s when he started telling me what happened. Because he was a Cameroonian and he had left Cameroon in early 90s. And when he got to South Africa he was in Johannesburg. And people who had been there 10 years plus were telling him what he could or could not do. He reminded me of that.
And I was lucky, because each day when he would go to school, I will tag along, I would just go with him. But instead of staying where he was working, I’ll be walking around the campus at the University of the Western Cape.
And I found out where the law faculty was. And then I saw some of the community centers that were there. And then I started to volunteer with the Community Law center. That’s how I met more and more people, mostly lawyers. And I got more advice.
Interesting. Wow. So initially it was a referral, but then you expanded on it, you explored, you started walking around physically and volunteering for things and meeting people. And I’ve actually heard that volunteering is a wonderful way to meet exceptional people that otherwise you would not have access to.
It is. And that’s how I met many people who wrote my recommendation letters.
When I was studying English in Port Elizabeth, there was across the street the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offender. But I would go to them after class and ask, “what do you do?” since I had a legal background.
I asked if I could volunteer for free. They would say yes, you can do that. So they allowed me to be there with them, helping out, going to court to see what they were doing. And it allowed me to spend some time with people, lawyers, and people speaking English as well. And when I got to Cape Town, I continued doing that. In Port Elizabeth I was also volunteering to the South African Red Cross Society.
When I was leaving, I asked for a recommendation letter there and I got two. So, I had two recommendation letters from there. Then when I got to Cape Town when I was applying, I also got a recommendation letter from one of the professors that was volunteering for. He recommended me for the master’s program.
So yes, the volunteering allows you to do a lot of that. In Iowa, when I got to the University of Iowa as a visiting scholar, I volunteered as well with the Law School’s Nonprofit Resource Center. And the university ended up giving me an opportunity to get paid through that volunteering. And then I got another recommendation letter from there.
It’s about volunteering and introducing yourself. I come and introduce myself, I’m interested in what they do. And I continue to volunteer even today. I’m on the board of organizations. It’s a good way, not only to meet people, but to serve, and also to get things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.
Well. So you are always volunteering, you’re writing your book and helping immigrants, and you have your normal job and your family to look after. That’s pretty amazing. And when you got these recommendations, through these folks that you met throughout volunteering, were you asking for their recommendations, or were they just offering it after you just chatted and talked about your objectives? How did that work?
I always say that I’m my best advocate. Nobody else would do it for me, if I don’t do it. So I always go and ask for what I think will be helpful for me, in my career, or in my life.
I will reach out and say, I know you’re busy. And this and that. But can you please take a minute to do this for me. You have to go and ask for the recommendation so that they can recommend you for the degree.
You generally don’t need to have known them for a very long time. You’ve worked with them, maybe on one or two projects, one or two tasks. And you can say, based on the activities that we have worked on together, would you feel comfortable writing a recommendation for me? Generally, they will say yes. And when they do, I just thank them and I get the letter.
Yes, it doesn’t really take that long to establish trust and get to know people if you’re working with them on something. So yes, you’re right, then they would be at a point where they would know if they’re ready or not to give you a recommendation.
Yes, you have to be honest. You have to be yourself. And you just have to show them who you really are. And that you care about what you are there for. Because if you volunteer you have to care about what you’re there for first. And if there is an opportunity that comes up like getting a recommendation letter, and that’s something that came up after you had established a relationship. But before that, you have to come as your true self. And you have to be respectful and recognize that whatever you’re doing, there’s always someone watching. And at the end of the day, you want to leave with a reputation. To leave a reputation behind. That is what you would like to hear in the future.
I think it also helps the fact that you are serving and helping in doing things to help others through different ways. And so when you do ask, you may be asking here, but you’re also helping out in many other ways. It balances out. That’s a great example. And in your book, you have a whole chapter on “do not be afraid to share your difficulties.” Why is that? Why do you think immigrants find it hard to seek help and talk about their difficulties and ask for it for support?
Because many come from countries where they are very community oriented. You get help from your family, friends, and you know, people that you don’t know. But when they arrive in another country, it’s always very difficult. I say I don’t know, because I’m not in people’s head.
But what I have come to realize is that it might be a form of insecurity and fear. Being afraid of being judged. And then you don’t want people to just label you all the time as immigrants. Or maybe some days they just don’t want to be out there asking for help. Some people choose to just try to do things by themselves, and not get the advice or help from other people.
So the chapter about “don’t be afraid to share your difficulties” is because in a country like the United States, or any other country where you come and you’re new, you need to understand the culture and you need to see and to get close to the people and to see who they are. And to show them who you are. Because they want to be able to help. Many of them want to help.
You have to know that, to have that in your head first, and then you open up, you go to them if you have a difficulty you share. If you share a difficulty to someone and they don’t want to help you, what do you lose? Generally its nothing. Right?
And of course, I’m not asking or I’m not suggesting that people should just go out and beg. I’m just saying that when you have a difficulty, if you don’t know where to get your degree evaluated, you should ask. If you don’t know where to send things, like where the post office is, you should ask people in the street, they will show you. Those are just the basics.
But if you don’t have the money to pay for your application fees at the university, you can ask for a waiver of that. If you don’t have the TOEFL, and your English is good, you don’t have the money to go and do that TOEFL, you can ask the university, “can you waive the TOEFL requirement from an application.” So those are just the basic things that I want people to understand.
And it’s a form of negotiation too. You want to be able to negotiate these small things and get help. When I got to Iowa in 2011, in Iowa City, there was a group of African students. I reached out to them, they helped me a lot. If I had not done that I wouldn’t have been able to come out of some of the challenges that I faced when I moved there. It’s about opening up and sharing what you know, and what you don’t know. And getting help when you need help.
Yes, and I think that’s an important point that you mentioned, not assuming that things are set in stone. And because it’s written that this is the process, you have to pay this fee, and you have to do it now, that there’s no way around that and that people are not going to be willing to help you out. Knowing that maybe your situation is a difficult situation, or it’s not a situation where you can’t actually do that.
I think what you’re also saying is assume that people have that positive intention to help you as long as you are a little bit vulnerable to show “Hey, I’m struggling a little bit here” and ask for help or negotiation essentially as well as asking for a different possibility for a different way of doing things.
It happens at work, too. You want to be able to share if your manager tells you something, and they want you to do something there. And you want to be able to ask them whether they can give you more time.
If you could say, thank you, I want to be able to do this. But I was also working on this other thing you asked me to do yesterday. Which one do you want me to do first? Because it will be difficult for you to meet that deadline both at the same time,. You want to be able to share, so your manager understands that. Maybe he or she is asking too much at this time. And you could be asked to focus on one versus doing both.
You have to speak up. It’s just about that. If you don’t speak up, nobody’s going to speak for you. And people are going to assume things that in fact, are not there.
yes, because like you said, you are your best advocate.
You’re your best advocate.
What was your experience coming into corporate culture in the US? Obviously, corporate America is very different than some other places, at least it is from Brazil, where I’m from. What was your experience and what helped you adapt to it?
It was different. And I must say first that I did not work in Cameroon. I did not work in the corporate sector there. My first job in an office was in Cape Town where I was interning with the South African Human Rights Commission.
One mistake I made was not negotiating my salary. And that was a big mistake. I should have done that. In the corporate US you have to do things a certain way. People expect you to feel like part of the team.
Everyone respects one another. And people are there to get things done. And they want you to be able to contribute to that and to not be shy. They welcome cultures, different cultures, different languages. So whatever experience you can bring to share, they are always welcoming that.
And you have to be open to receiving feedback as well. Because nobody knows you well. You want to know things that you’re doing best. And the things that you need some help on. If you need help on how to communicate better, they have help for that, they will provide it. If you need help on how to negotiate, there are trainings that you could do.
I always look at feedback as an opportunity to learn. Because my manager at the World Bank gave me feedback that changed my career completely. It was my first time receiving true feedback. And after that, I did a U-turn and had a change of mindset. And it’s been very helpful because you have to understand that people are out there trying to help.
If someone is willing to give you feedback, it’s because the person sees potential in you, and they think that you could do better. And yes, that’s what has made me be able to be where I am today.
Could you elaborate? I’m really curious now about the feedback that changed your life.
It was my first time receiving negative feedback, what people call negative feedback. I say negative because it’s not what you expect. It’s what your colleague is seeing.
In this case it was me providing a comment on the report. Crossing a lot of stuff. They didn’t like the fact that I was using a lot of track changes, or that I was putting a lot of comments. And they were right. They were my superiors. And people want you to do things differently. And you want to be able to do that respectfully. And that was good feedback. And I haven’t made same mistakes since then.
Because after that what I had to do was to make sure that when I’m providing someone feedback on the work that they’ve done, I need to be mindful of the fact that they put a lot of effort into that and that what they get as feedback could impact on how they feel about the whole thing. So, you have to be very, very careful how you are when you review someone’s work.
But sometimes it’s just how do you say that to somebody. And then when you do hear it (negative feedback), how do you respond. Not taking it personally. And just knowing that all you’re trying to do is interact and understand how to improve the overall working environment and in relationships. It’s never generally an attack. It’s just people trying to say something about their preferences.
That’s true, it’s just when they say it, it can take you aback. You just have to be mindful that other people don’t see it like that. And as soon as you realize that, you understand that nobody’s out to get you. It’s just a feedback about something that you could improve on. That you have control over that.
Yes. And like you said, sometimes that feedback is really about perspectives, right? I’ve had a boss who really liked presentations in a certain way. And then some people have reported to more than one person at the same time. And it can be really challenging because each person has a different preference. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just preferences, and you’re trying to manage that as best as you can. We shouldn’t take it personally, these things.
I got a feedback when I was in South Africa, in Cameroon. I used to only use perfume. That’s what I was using. But when it comes to deodorant, I was not using that in Cameroon. But it’s very important. Those are things that you know, people use on a daily basis. And may think your B.O. is not necessarily bad to you. But someone else may say that it’s not good.
But someone told me that and asked me if I used deodorant. I was like, “what is that? That is crazy. I have perfume.” They said “no, that’s not it, this one is different.” And I bought it when they took me to the store. I got the deodorant, and I used it, and it’s good. There was nothing wrong about it.
But if I had been in the mindset of “who are you to tell me this” then things would have gotten different. But also you want to be able to make people comfortable. And one way of doing that is using things like the deodorant.
Yes. And you want to also make people around you comfortable to say things to you, that are actually good for you. It takes a lot of courage to tell somebody that something is wrong, and that their zippers out or their food is not good. Or some things that probably other people might perceive negatively and are not going to tell you. The person that does tell you, they really like you.
Yes, they do. They do, because they are willing to help you change. They see something that many other people have seen, and they haven’t said anything about it. But here is someone who is willing to tell you, “hey, this is how we do things around here.”
And you may want to do it if you don’t want to be seen as an outsider. That’s another way of putting it. When you arrive to a new country, you adapt the culture. When you adapt to the culture, to the way people do things, you try to do it that way. You follow the right things that people do. Not saying that you should be doing the wrong things. You follow the things that people do, and that are part of that culture, like the American ways of doing things. What is it, and you do that.
Yes, absolutely. I know we’re getting close to the end of our planned time here. I was wondering if you wanted to share something or even how you dealt with your medical challenge perhaps, because I think that was a big one.
Yes, a medical challenge like going to the doctor. And the doctor telling you, you have to pay this or that you didn’t know we were going to pay for. Why am I being asked to pay for this? The example I like to use this example when I’m going for my annual checkup. I do that every year. And in Washington DC, I would go to the same doctor. You know, they will ask me all the questions that they had. And then I’d answer.
That day I was taking a medication. She asked me if I’m taking any medication, if it’s helping, when I’m stopping it, and if I needed a refill. At the end, they send me two bills. But they sent the bill to the insurance and the insurance didn’t pay for part of it because my insurance was supposed to be 100% of my annual checkup.
But in this case, they didn’t pay part of it. And they said that it was different. And then the hospital sent it to me and said the insurance paid for your visit and didn’t pay for this. What the insurance said is that this was supposed to be covered 100%. So, I had to call them.
You have to step up to advocate for yourself or to be assertive. I called them and I asked why am I getting this bill? They said the insurance didn’t pay for it. And I said that the insurance was supposed to pay 100% of my visit that day. They said you shouldn’t have answered this question. The doctor asked you a question and you answered. That’s why you’re getting this. I’m like, really? So those are just a few examples.
And then the examples of when you are going for a surgery. If you’re going to be injected. Like put under anesthesia. And then you want to be able to tell them, that when I’m under anesthesia, please don’t allow someone who’s not in my network to touch me. Because people out of network would not be covered by insurance, or you have to pay too much money after that.
Those are just small things that I tried to share. In my case, I didn’t have a surgery. But I see many people coming out of surgery with a lot of debt because the insurance didn’t cover some of the expenses during that procedure.
And it’s often very confusing to navigate the rules. Up to this day, I never know if a bill is going to show up or not and how much it’s going to be. It’s so confusing. When you go to the doctor, you don’t know and they don’t tell you if it’s going to be charged or not to you personally. And it can be really confusing. And if we don’t ask and even like you said ask somebody that you know, what their experience was, so that you know what questions to ask when you are with the doctor, so that you won’t get negative surprises later.
That’s how many people end up with large bills. And then file for bankruptcy, because there are things that they didn’t anticipate. And now they have to pay for it.
And it’s a huge stress to get when you’re already going through something else, physical. This is lovely. Is was there. These examples are all amazing. I think anybody can relate to them? Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Thank you so much for having me. And I appreciate that you’re giving me a platform to talk about the book, and to share my experiences. I’m always happy to respond to questions when people reach out. I get a lot of young immigrants reaching out to me on LinkedIn to ask question about their CV.
I’m always available to answer when I can, if I can. But if I cannot, I will also try to share some resources that they may find helpful. I’m glad that you reached out to have this conversation and to talk about my book.
Where can the book be found? And where can the contact you?
What I’ve learned from this conversation, is that you are a great example of someone who is assertive and generous and kind at the same time. There is a living example people, that you can be generous and kind being assertive at the same time.
That’s true. Thanks again. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you very much.