September 02, 2015. I landed at 2 pm at the Detroit International airport and was welcomed by two senior swimmers on my team and two of my swim coaches. They held a sign that said "Welcome Michal"! It was so touching and exciting. I have never been to the US before and have never gone on an adventure, on my own. This was the first day of my new life.
I came to the US to become the best swimmer that I can be. That was what I cared about most. I knew I had a mission and wanted to take advantage of everything America had to give me
It was long before I arrived in the US, perhaps on my first video call with my university that I decided to go with "Michelle" as my American name. The British coach that interviewed me answered the call like that, and I liked the way he pronounced it. When I was called Michelle, I felt like the softer version of myself (which was still a lot for Americans to handle).
My name, Michal, is not something Americans can easily say. They butcher it. They say "MIHAL" or "Michael" or the worst version of it - "MICXAL". I didn't know this at the time but Americans find it disrespectful when someone mispronounces a name. They think it is disrespectful to not call someone by their name exactly how it's supposed to sound. But I honestly didn't care. I preferred being called Michelle to being butchered. And my name was butchered, SO MANY TIMES. People thought that not trying was disrespectful but since they butchered it so badly I preferred they wouldn't try.
I only packed one suitcase and one backpack. I held my Arena swim parka in hand. In the months leading to my trip to Michigan, many warned me about how cold it is. How miserably cold it is. I was under the impression that I'll be wearing my coat right as I walk outside the airport. But September in Michigan is pretty perfect.
We drove to Ypsilanti where I stayed with the two swimmers in a big yellow house that is famously known as "the big yellow house". The town looked small, with many local shops and local businesses. There were many university signs spread across town and cute old houses in different colors. My teammates were so incredibly kind. They let me sleep in their bed, eat their food, and they took me around to settle everything I needed. I opened a bank account at Chase, I got a sim card at At&T, and they also took me to a huge department store (famous Target) to buy sheets and other dorm necessities.
I was surprised at how expensive the phone service is, and I didn't get an explanation until maybe three years later - duh! It's because the size of the US is giant (especially in comparison to Israel) and accommodating service across all anchors and states comes at a price.
The first morning waking up in America was awesome. I woke up earlier than everyone and made breakfast. I have never seen food boxes packed this big. I couldn't believe it. 5-pound box of butter, 1 Gallon box of oats, huge jam jars, giant peanut butter jars, and huge pretzels. The pretzels were yummy, they were stuffed with peanut butter. I later learned many things in America are stuffed with peanut butter.
That day I had an ESL (English as a Second Language) exam. It was a very long exam that included writing, speaking, reading, and listening. 90% of the people in the exam room were Asian. I later learned that they were mostly Korean. My score was established as level four out of five in English, with level five being examed from taking an ESL course. I was so annoyed and a little frustrated with the idea of taking ESL. Time shows that it was actually a great thing for me, and definitely better than taking regular English classes with native speakers.
When taking ESL classes I noticed that my strength is speaking, but my weakness was writing, specifically Grammer. It bothered me because I was known for my writing skills, in Hebrew. And couldn't imagine reaching a point where I could write freely and beautifully in English. (If you are reading this now, you know I have.)
The Korean kids in my classes have very strong writing and grammar skills. But I couldn't understand one sentence that they were forming. Their speaking was hard for me to understand. Not all international kids have similar struggles.
Once I got my ESL classes I was taken to meet my academic advisor and he signed me up for 2 more classes that I would never expect to take in a university: acting, and social. But the most important thing was that I had plenty of time to focus on swimming. And, a lot of time to nap between morning and evening practices.
I tried American coffee and didn't like it. I felt like it was weak in taste and in flavor. I was used to making instant coffee which was looked down upon by the American people. I also felt that the cappuccino I got when ordering in the US was weak and watery. And, coffee houses had weird drinks that included syrups and weird combinations of spices. I was not used to coffee looking like a milkshake.
"Moving Day" was here and all freshmen moved into their dorms accompanied by the upper classmate teammates. I moved into a suite with 6 other freshmen swimmers. They were all 18 and were all accompanied by their parents. I didn't feel alone, but I felt jealous. My suitemates brought large suitcases with clothes, boxes with useful kitchen appliances, many shoes, coats, cosmetics, and picture frames. They had mattress toppers and big storage boxes. They were wearing "moving day" appeal that included big boat sandals, a colorful headband, and knee-high Khaki pants. I had no idea what I was walking into when thinking of "moving day", and what picture-perfect American scene this was. Parents putting together closets and furniture, with their kids hanging pictures and decorations above their bunkbeds. When they were close to done, they ordered boxes of pizza and went to get groceries.
I realized it will be challenging to fit in but I knew I was going to try to be friends while always staying myself. I did not want to become an American.