Moving to a new country as an immigrant can be an absolutely terrifying experience. You don’t know anyone. You can’t speak the language. And you’re thrown into the scary unknown.
But what do you do when you’re afraid of speaking the new language you’re learning? What do you do when you’re afraid of making mistakes and possibly being bullied as a result?
Hear from Anita Grabowska as she shares her incredible story of going from shy Polish immigrant to proud University graduate.
Full Transcript Below
Dee: Today in the studio, we have a fantastic woman with a pretty interesting backstory. She was born in Poland and experienced a lot of trauma in her childhood. Though she spoke zero English at first because of fear, loneliness, and more, she now works full time on her lifestyle blog. Hi Anita. Please introduce herself and tell us what your favourite food is.
Anita: Hi everyone. My name is Anita. My favourite food currently? It changes all the time the more I travel. My favourite food right now is actually sushi and I have not been to Japan, but I’m planning to go solely because of that food.
Dee: So why do you like sushi so much?
Anita: Honestly. I used to be a hater of sushi. I hated sushi. I didn’t realize how people could eat raw fish and I guess you just have to find the right place. I worked in a Japanese restaurant and that was kind of the only food that was able to eat there. And yeah, I just fell in love. I think you have to find the right type of sushi. If you have bad sushi, you’re not gonna like it
Dee: I see. That’s very interesting to hear because I’ve lived in Japan for three years and I absolutely cannot stand sushi… Well, you know what, maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s just not the right place or the right restaurant just yet. So maybe one day, one day I’ll be brave enough to try.
Anita: I hope you are. You’re in the best place to try it.
Dee: Yeah, I guess I am. So thank you so much for coming. I am so excited to interview you. Your story is one of triumph and really being an overcomer in spite of. Can you please tell us a little bit about your background, your childhood?
Anita: Sure. Of course. So I was born in Poland. As you mentioned before my mom was actually 17 when she had me. And the customs are that if you get pregnant then you have to get married. So she marries this 18-year-old guy that she’s known for not so long and she doesn’t realize how just how abusive he is.
He ends up hitting her throughout the entire pregnancy and until I was born. So she ends up leaving him when we’re five and we moved in with my grandparents and life was okay. I guess it was survivable. Poland is not a third world country, but if you don’t have money there, you don’t have an opportunity to succeed. Especially not where I was from.
I don’t know what happened, or how this happened, but she ends up meeting my stepfather. He literally comes to our house to visit and she meets him and we ended up moving to Fort Lauderdale. Now that is probably the most random place to move from Poland. You know, you’d figure New York or I dunno, like Miami, or California. No, we actually were in Pompano Beach, Florida. So it’s really random, right.
I’m this 11-year-old girl, I don’t speak any English. Zero, and I already have such a bad relationship with men in my life because it’s always been me and mom together. Now I’m moving to a whole new country with a whole new man. Keep in mind that I’ve just met him and it’s hard to accept that you’re going to have a father again.
Dee: So wait, wait, hold up. So you are an 11-year-old and you moved to another country with no clue what’s going on. What was going through your mind when your mom was saying, you know, we’re gonna move to the US? We’re gonna move to this place. What was going through your head?
Anita: Well, my mom didn’t tell me that. She tried to trick me and she was like, “Hey, we’re coming. You’re coming here for the summer and then we’ll, we’ll come back”. We never went back. I mean, we went back eventually, but it wasn’t in the beginning. She’s like, yeah, not this year. Okay. Maybe in a few months. Okay. Maybe next year until I was 14 and then I went back.
But it was horrifying. It was absolutely horrifying. I kept postponing when I want to start school. I was number one in my class in Poland. How am I going to meet that requirement here? So when I started school, I spoke no word of English, whatever English classes I took, it just completely slipped out of my head and I was just horrified.
I couldn’t make any friends. I was always the girl that was pointed it out as the girl that doesn’t speak English. I was a girl who wasn’t speaking, or I was the new girl coming from third world country, I guess you might say. To come here was hard and then there was the diversity; seeing different people, I didn’t feel like I fit in. I think I always stood out like a sore thumb because I was the girl who didn’t speak English. I couldn’t participate. I couldn’t talk. So I actually went mute for three years. I did not speak until seventh grade.
Dee: Oh. Oh wow. So how long did it take for you to actually start learning how to communicate in English so they could express yourself?
Anita: So I knew a few words here and there but given like the perfectionist that I was, I would not speak until I learned how to properly pronounce the word. I had this phobia that if I said the word wrong, people were gonna make fun of me. You know, they’re going to point. We know this happens because kids were mean.
So it took me about a year and a half to start writing, I would type as I was awesome on Facebook and in person. I just wouldn’t talk. And that was the hardest because I didn’t know how to pronounce the words. I didn’t know how to make the sounds or pronounced the different A’s. And it was just awful. So it took me about two years to actually start speaking.
Dee: So how did you actually overcome your fear of not being perfect? Because you did say that you were a perfectionist. You wanted to have things perfect, speak perfectly, pronounce things perfectly. But how did you actually get over that fear so you could start speaking?
Anita: You know, at first it was loneliness. The fact that I didn’t have friends because I wasn’t speaking. It kind of forced me to start talking. And also, my teachers were very understanding. They were also English Second Language Teachers so they made me speak. So as much as I hated it and as much as I didn’t want to, I had to in order to progress from one class to another.
I ended up finding a very close friend that was also an immigrant, except she immigrated when she was a few years younger than me. So her English wasn’t perfect. I guess I kind of saw that it was okay. You don’t have to pronounce everything perfectly. She taught me slowly to open up and to end up talking to her at least, which then opened doors to speak to other people.
Dee: This is so interesting to me because as a teacher here, I have this same issue with my students where they are so afraid to make mistakes. They are so afraid to speak and to not say it perfectly, and just like you have had to be telling them, you know what? It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to stumble over your words because guess what? You are learning and while you are learning, you are bound to make mistakes.
It’s the same thing. When I was just learning Japanese at first I was absolutely terrified. Oh my gosh, are people gonna think I’m stupid? Because I don’t say this perfectly, but even as an adult I’ve had to learn that, you know what?
It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to mess up. And it’s so interesting to me that you had a friend who, you realize through this friend, that it’s okay to mess up. And I wish that so many people listening would understand that, you know what, it’s okay to mess up when you’re learning something new. It’s okay to make mistakes.
Anita: Exactly. And it’s important that you find people that will not poke fun at you, especially at such a young age because it happens so often. I mean, bullying happens so much and I have been bullied. It’s important that you find a circle of friends that are going to correct you when you’re wrong, who would not make fun of you so that you’re continuing to learn.
Dee: Exactly. Exactly. That’s so important. Support is key in all of this. So I was actually looking, and I remember you talking to me about having the abusive father. Do you think that impacted how you kind of spoke and interacted with other people in the States?
Anita: Um, yes. In a way, it impacted me from when I was a child. I was always, thankful that it did since I was so young when that happened. I had to grow up very fast and becoming very responsible. My mom was still young. She was still struggling. I kind of had to show her that I’m okay; that she doesn’t have to worry about me. She had to worry about herself.
So every time here, even in the States especially, people always ask, “How are you?”. You don’t ever say, “Oh, I’m all right”, Or like, “I’m kind of doing bad today”. No, I always put on a brave face, even though I was struggling in school.
I was doing all of this, being bullied, being picked at. I still said, “I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m doing well.” I was always confident enough; kind of fake until you make it. That’s the advice that somebody gave me once and I took it to heart. I always fake it till I make it.
Dee: So you just fake it til you make it. So you fake the joy until eventually, you start believing; you start feeling it. Am I right?
Anita: Not so much joy because that’s very hard to fake, but I think maybe the confidence. Fake the belief in yourself. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, just fake it. It’ll come eventually. If people see you believing in yourself, they’ll start to believe in you.
Dee: That is very true. That is something I’ve definitely learned. That once you start, if you start telling yourself something, like I’m beautiful, for example, every day, even if you don’t believe it at first after a while you will. So praising or you’ll start believing that you are beautiful because once you’ve been telling yourself this for so long, it’s almost as if you have no choice but to believe the lie that you’ve been telling.
And you’ve known start seeing yourself in a whole new way than you did before. So you’re very right that faking the confidence, faking the belief will eventually build a true belief in yourself. So I completely love that. I love that. But besides, not being to speak English, what was that the biggest roadblock or obstacle you faced transitioning into life in the US?
Anita: I guess understanding that I’m not going to be perfect here on the same level as I was back home. I wasn’t top of my class anymore, which devastated me. I wasn’t the popular child anymore. I didn’t have the friends that I grew up with since I was five or four. Everyone here knew each other since elementary school, since pre-K, so I had to start brand new.
That was the biggest obstacle. Just starting over completely somewhere new where you can’t refer back to kindergarten. I didn’t have any relatable experiences, any relatable friends that I could go back to like, “Hey, remember when we were in kindergarten.” No, my friends were back home and we didn’t talk because I hadn’t a whole new life here.
Dee: Oh, okay. I see. I understand now that it’s kinda difficult for real. If you’re the new kid, you don’t have the bonds that other people would have. You don’t have the years of comradery; kind of starting from scratch and it can be hard to try to fit in somewhere where you’re bound to stick out.
Anita: Exactly. Exactly. I was always stood out because I was always a small child. I was always a reserved, shy child. So I wasn’t mingling. I wasn’t going out to make friends. If somebody didn’t talk to me, I wouldn’t have talked.
Well, here it was different than when I was back home. So I was always the lonely one and that kind of sucked coming from somebody that was on top of her class and having like a bunch of friends cause we all grew up together. Now the loneliness was probably the biggest obstacle.
Dee: Yeah. And loneliness can definitely be a hard thing to handle even as an adult. But as a child, I can only imagine what it was like to be lonely and want that sense of camaraderie but not being able to actually make it happen.
But I’m also thinking that you’ve also spoken to me about your stepfather and the accident that he had gotten into. Can you tell us a little bit more about what happened there?
Anita: Sure. So when 2008 happened, the economy here just slumped completely. He ended up losing his job and he was the only supporter of the family; the only income that we had. And a friend reached out to him and asked him if he would like to drive trucks (18 wheelers) and desperate for a job he was like, “of course, I’m gonna do it”.
Maybe a month into it, we got a call at four in the morning, which is really strange, and we ended up not answering the call at four in the morning. Cool. He waited and there was no answer. He leaves a voicemail. We could barely make it out. He stated that he got in a car accident, in a truck accident and he’s in Memphis, Tennessee, and he’s going into surgery right now.
We immediately shot up out of bed, call the hospital, and they basically told us right then and there, he had a less than 1% chance of surviving the night and we need to fly in right now. So I was 13 and that was absolutely heartbreaking. We ended up flying in there that night. By some miracle, he ended up surviving. He had about eight more surgeries that week, but he ended up surviving and that kind of taught me a lot.
My biggest regret when that happened was that last time I spoke on the phone with him, I didn’t tell him that I loved him or that I appreciated him. And that kind of taught me to always end my conversations with people I care about on a positive note; not to ever hang up in anger. Not to ever hang up and say bad words. Or if I do hang up in anger, call back, text back, let them know that you still care a lot about them because something like this could happen anytime.
Dee: Oh wow. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for you to have that whole thing that’s happened. Like you had no time to prepare. It was just like go, go, go. You had no time to really react. But what was it like, the months following the accident? What happened with your family, your finances, stuff like that?
Anita: Yeah, of course. He actually ended up being in the hospital for three months. My mom had to fly back and forth. I had to fly back and forth. I was still in school, so I’d stay.
Oftentimes I wouldn’t go with her. And when he got back eventually it was ridiculous how bad it was. He’s left disabled. He can’t work. His hands are paralyzed. He can’t move them. He doesn’t have any feelings. He had a colostomy bag. He had to go back for surgery every year, I believe. And it was really difficult.
It was difficult. We didn’t have any financial support. My mom ended up having to pick up a job once he got a nurse to come in and take care of him because for the first few months she was the nurse. She had to wake up in the morning. She had to do everything for him because he couldn’t do it. He just physically could not because his hands didn’t work well. They weren’t working and it was just really difficult. We had to rely on the help of the community and friends, and families, and just hope for the best. Eventually, he was able to get better and my mom was able to pick up a job. So she was supporting us.
Dee: So how did it affect your schooling? I mean, as a child I can’t imagine having to take care of your appearance. I can’t imagine having no financial stability, no one to kind of lean on. So how did that impact you, your schooling and your mental health?
Anita: Okay. I learned to put on a harder shell. II couldn’t go to school and talk about how bad things are. So I just kind of turned to books and that was my escape. That’s actually when I became a little bit, I don’t want to call it depressed. I was never diagnosed, but I would say, that’s the closest thing I could call it.
I would come home, lock myself in my room and just live through the world of books. There are times where I would read two or three books a day. They weren’t that long, but that’s all I would do just so I didn’t have to face reality, just so I didn’t have to see how bad things were.
I would not want to come home afterwards because I didn’t want to look at how hard my mom was working and I can’t do anything about it. I didn’t want to see my stepdad hurting. I was avoiding everything, so that’s actually when I started talking. I started to not so much act out, but I was being more rebellious. I had more attitude and it wasn’t because I was going through my teenage years. It was because of the situation at home.
Dee: I heard you said that you used books. I really like your coping method and I love books. Books are my best friend. I love reading. I love listening to them. So I was really curious as to which book did you find was the most helpful? The best book that really helped you to cope with the difficulties at home?
Anita: Yes. I actually remember my favourite series that I read and then was the Hunger Games. It was seventh grade, I was 13 and I read all of the Hunger Games books in five days or six days.
I just couldn’t stop reading them because I kind of felt that’s how my life was. I was constantly dodging these attempts to break me down, and you just have to fight it. You have to fight so you can come out on top and that’s exactly what those books are telling you.
Dee: Really? I love The Hunger Games. I really appreciate the themes that are hidden in the book. And you’re so right, in the book, there is so much placed against the main characters. So many obstacles, so many roadblocks and yet in spite of this, they still find ways to rise above and it’s so amazing that you say that.
If you felt like you were one of the characters because there are so many things that were put in your path to knock you down, to keep you down, to make you sad, yet some way, somehow you found a way to rise above that. I love that.
Anita: Thank you. Exactly. That’s exactly how I interpreted those books. That was me- Katniss.
Dee: So what are you up to these days? What do you do right now?
Anita: Okay, so I actually graduated from college and I’m working full time. I ended up going to university. I didn’t plan on going and I don’t regret it because it’s the best in the state, and number eight in the nation, just wanted to point that out because I’m very proud.
I didn’t think I would make it here. I did not. I went to college on a whim. I said I’m going to move in with my friends because I didn’t want to be in my hometown. I just wanted to getaway. A year later, I’m studying at the University of Florida, majoring in economics and I’m loving it.
And now I actually working full time. I’m living in Orlando, Florida and I’m working for the corporate world. You know, I’m just starting out, but I actually really like it and I see myself progressing. But also I’m actually writing my blog. That is what I’m focusing on the most. I want to inspire others through my writing.
Dee: That is so amazing. Who would have thought that this little immigrant girl who was shy, who went through so much with an abusive father? And then had her stepfather go through all this horrible stuff. Who would imagine that you would have graduated from university with a full scholarship, I might add, be working for a great company and also have time to write and to give back to inspire other people. I have to ask you, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment to date?
Anita: I think my greatest accomplishment is graduating from university and not giving up. When I could have given up so many times when I wasn’t being amazing student in high school, I kind of picked myself back up when I realized, you know what, I’m in charge of this. I can go wherever I want to go with life and I need to put in the work to get there.
That was my biggest accomplishment, not letting my friends distract me, not running into depression, not letting all the obstacles that were thrown my way keep me from achieving something that was important to me.
Dee: So in all that you must have been through so far, at least one person in your life or on TV or in the news that actually inspired you. So what individual in your life has been the most inspiring for you along your journey and why are they so inspiring?
Anita: There have been a few throughout the years, but the one that made the biggest impact and change in my life is actually my boyfriend of three years. When he came into my life, I wasn’t at university. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to do something with my life.
He kind of pushed me into becoming the best version of myself. He’s the one that pushed me to go into major I was majoring in because actually he majored in that. He’s the one that pushed me to go to the University of Florida. He’s the one that’s pushing me to keep writing my blog.
Even on my days when I don’t feel like writing anything, where I don’t feel like interacting he’s always supported my writing, always supporting my journey, always supporting my travel dreams and he is my biggest inspiration. When I grow up I want to be like that.
Dee: Oh wow. I love that. Do you hear that boyfriend? When she grows up she wants to be just like you. You sound like an amazing dude and boy are you blessed and so is she. I love that. I love that so, so much. What I have to ask though is how has your life been different than what you probably imagined for yourself as a little girl?
Anita: I imagined myself probably living back home in Poland where I grew up. You see about 90% of my friends are already married. That is the custom there. I’m 22 years old and most of my friends are already married and having children, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I imagined for myself.
But if I had stayed there, that probably would have been my reality. I wouldn’t have ever gone to school. I probably would have picked up a job straight out of school, straight out of high school and found a boy, got married and just kind of survived.
It would’ve never been living and that thought scared me. So I always knew that I wanted to do something to prevent that from happening.
Dee: I love the fact that you want more for yourself. So what is one thing that you really want to achieve in your life? You’re 22. You have so much life ahead of you. What is one thing that you really want to achieve in the future?
Anita: Travel is very important to me. I started to experience it the last three to four years. And I think my number one goal is to go to every country that inspires me. Every country I want to see, and there’s a lot. There’s maybe a couple of countries that I’m a bit iffy going to, but I would like to go to every continent.
The seven wonders of the world or is it eight wonders? I want to see them. I want to see the world. That is what I want to do. That’s why I want to write. I want to inspire people to travel. I want to see people, travelling, exploring, all these things; exploring cultures, exploring people, exploring foods and that, that is my number one goal in life.
Dee: You have the travel bug and in a good way. And I love that. I really hope you get to travel to every single country. Not only the ones that inspire you but the ones that even make you a little bit scared so you can see what’s going on all at once and beat that fear and go through and be fearless.
And really just go everywhere and see everything because I believe that when you travel, you open your eyes up to new cultures, you’re able to learn new things, meet new people, have new experiences, have a positive impact on people that you never would have even thought possible years ago.
But when you travel, you have that ability to make a connection. And that is awesome. And I love that. I love that. I wish you all the best with that. I know you’re gonna have an amazing time. I can see that you have a bright future ahead of you and I am so excited for you.
Anita: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
Dee: So for all the women listening to this, now or years from now, is there any wisdom you’d want to pass onto them? What would you want them to know?
Anita: Of course there’s always something. I always give people advice and my number one piece of advice is to make the first step. If there is a change that you would like to see in your life, whether it’s work, whether you’d like to start a project, start a company, just make the first step.
Don’t wait for perfection because the timing will never be perfect. The first product, the first article, the first YouTube video will never be perfect. You just have to make the first step, because, without the first step, you can’t get to your definition of perfection. You have to keep practising.
The best way you can practice is just to keep doing it. So if you have an idea, if you have something that inspires you, if you have a goal in mind, just make the first step. Don’t wait for the perfect timing.
Dee: Thank you. I love that. I hope you all are hearing that. You just have to keep trying, keep going. Just try. Make the first move and keep on practising because if you never try, you will never be able to do anything and I love that, I love that. But where can our listeners connect with you online?
Anita: Of course. So the best way is probably through my blog. I post weekly and that’s prescriptionforhappy.com and my Instagram, which is xoxo_anitaa_ and my picture is me in Bali with a rice basket on.
So you won’t miss. It is different. But yeah, those are my main two platforms. I’ve turned away from Facebook a little bit. Well, maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should pick back up.
Dee: You never know. You know what? I would love for you to get really good at those two platforms- blogging and Instagram and then you can build on Facebook. You never know, as I said, you have lots of time and lots of creativity and inspiration and I am so excited.
I’ll put all the information in the show notes so people can connect with you. You’re at prescriptionforhappiness and on your Instagram.
So thank you so much for being in the studio today. You have been such an inspiration. I love that you are so young yet you have been able to teach us some lessons that many of us would never have been able to learn otherwise. And I am excited to see what is next for you because there are so many of us who believe that we are insignificant.
We believe we don’t have what it takes to be anything; to do anything. We are too different. We can’t do things correctly. We are imperfect. But you have taught us that no matter how imperfect you think you are, no matter how insignificant you think you are, no matter how different you are, how old you are, how much you believe you can’t do something.
But if you are committed, if you try, you can do anything. You can be anything as long as you believe in yourself and you try. And I love that. I love that. So yeah…
Anita: Amen to that. That is it exactly. You put it in the perfect words. This is why you’re the host and not me.
Dee: Well, thank you so much. I’ve had lots and lots of practice doing and saying the wrong things, so I’m happy to be saying the right things now.
Anita: Because you took the first step.
Dee: Exactly. Exactly. So thank you so much again. And for all you guys listening out there, you can do anything. You can be anything you want to be, as long as you believe in yourself and try.
This is Dee and you have been listening to She Is A Mess.