“A World in Harmony, That Is My Dream” – Oana Popa

Oana Popa, an American born in Romania, came to the U.S.A. in 2001, when she was 19. She has a Masters in Business from Indiana University and today she lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a business-owner and entrepreneur of fair trade handmade earrings. As an immigrant, she shared with Karibu News her long way to realizing her dreams in America.

Oana Popa: My parents were physicist engineers, and my grandparents, professors and lawyers. I left Romania at the age of 19. I was young and naive, with huge optimism, which helped me move-on and keep going when times were tough. My American Dream was to “be somebody” and now, at an older age, I believe that “somebody” is not defined from inside-out, but on the contrary. My mom died battling cancer, when I was 17, and I believe her greatest fear was that I will not be able to take care of myself, once she would be gone. I think I inherited that fear and I was a go-getter. I am very thankful to my father for inspiring me to study and giving me a great ramp, from where I could rise up; I was completely independent at the age of 19, and was earning my academic scholarship as an Honor Student, while working 2-3 jobs in the weekends, or evenings. Sleep was totally optional and whenever it fit in my schedule, it was my favorite “spare-time” activity, as I had really no spare time.

Karibu News: What were the hard moments related to your new life in America as an immigrant?

OP: The hardest moments were when I was in my first years of my Business degree (Bachelor). I was new to the States, my English was still in progress, and I remember trying to write my class notes in Romanian, then translating in English, to speak in class; everything took so much longer. One day, I just started speaking and thinking only in English, I am not sure how that switch in my head happened. I even dreamed in English, and that’s when I realized I fully transitioned to the life here. Other hard moments: I worked all kinds of jobs in snow and cold, selling parking tickets for football games, or selling apparel at the mall, or being the administrator of a real estate company. My first salary was $5.25/hr, that was the minimum wage back-then, in my times. I remember days when I arrived home, so frozen and cold, I could not even tighten my fists … but, I never missed a day of work.

KN: What are you thankful for to the American people, their culture, to your new life here in America?

OP: I am thankful for the great chance to get a world-class education. Also, for mentors who corrected my English grammar, composition and pronunciation. I am thankful that I was encouraged and supported, that I felt the focus was on the individual and his/her potential, regardless of all other demographics. All I thought is all about what one can bring as personal contribution; and I felt that empowerment from my first bosses here, to professors, to my mentors, and close-friends.

Popa in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Oana Popa.

KN: What do you think are the biggest challenges to a new-comer in the USA?

OP:I think new-comers face a lot of challenges, mainly adapting to a new culture, financial burdens, the language (even for those who speak English before arriving here; American English is a lot more different than the British English we learnt in Romania). The culture shock is definitely huge, setting-up very high expectations, and a sense of loneliness that sets in, and is realized much later. For example, I was a bit of Borat: I could not understand why I cannot just stop on the highway and walk-up to a house and ask directions! In Romania we could easily ask someone on the side of the road, but here, depending of the town, people just don’t stop and ask others, especially walking on others’ property. Another thing is, I used to tell people the whole story of how is my day, when at the supermarket the cashier asked me “Hi, how are you today?” for me, it was an occasion to vent.

“One day, I just started speaking and thinking only in English, I am not sure how that switch in my head happened. I even dreamed in English, and that’s when I realized I fully transitioned to the life here.”

KN: How did you overcome those challenges?

OP: I made few but great friends, as soon as I arrived: some Americans, and some internationals. Relating to American friends has helped my English improve much faster, and I learnt idioms and slang that I would normally not learn, or have someone give honest feedback about my pronunciation or choice of words, that might have been not necessarily incorrect but definitely a strange combination.

KN: How can you help other immigrants to realize their dreams?

OP: I like to get involved in community events and support artists and entrepreneurs: I teach a belly-dance workshop on Saturdays, and a micro-finance class for women refugees, and mentor people who want to start their own business. I started my own project with fair trade hand-made earrings, called World in Harmony Rwanda. After traveling to Rwanda, where I met some amazingly creative women entrepreneurs, I decided to support them and let more people see their beautiful art, by increasing their market in North America. From that, I met many other artists from other countries, and it became World in Harmony International, which is exactly my intention for the whole world: to be all in harmony and realize that we are one.

I admire the way Americans are willing to try new things, are receptive to a new idea, and would at least give it a try, before deciding if it would work well. Here, change happens a lot quicker, and people are easily willing to learn from another.

KN: As a woman, do you think that women in USA have more chance or possibilities than women stayed in your country? Can you illustrate your opinion?

OP: It is a difficult question, because overall, right after arriving here in the States, I felt that women are more respected and work is more professional in the USA. But after graduating with my Master’s in Business and having several higher responsibility (and higher-politics) jobs, I came to know that the glass-ceiling is still there, especially in certain organizations, depending on the overall culture and environment. The U.S. is very diverse and huge as a country, so often there are mentality differences from one town to another. It really depends on the culture, environment, city, level of education, many factors. As I said in the beginning, being young and naive was a huge advantage, I saw “la vie en rose” in every aspect of life, that now I see in different nuances.

KN: If you had to go back and live in your country what will you miss from the USA, and what will you share with your people there?

OP: I love that the U.S.A. college-towns are a great depiction of the whole world: there are many nationalities, backgrounds, religions, races. I felt that the whole world was displayed before my eyes, and I was happy to have such a diverse group of classmates. I first ate broccoli in USA, I tried sushi for the first time (and absolutely love it, ever since), I tried Indian and Pakistani food and fell in love with the spices and art of mixing them. I even brought my exotic spices to Romania and cooked “daal” (lentil sauce) for my family. I admire the way Americans are willing to try new things, are receptive to a new idea, and would at least give it a try, before deciding if it would work well. Here, change happens a lot quicker, and people are easily willing to learn from another.

KN: If you had to remake the world, what can you start by?

OP: I would make sure everyone understands that different is not a threat, that by having someone being different in your team, you are actually a multi-talented and multi-functional team. I would make sure that the world understands there is ENOUGH and plenty for all of us, that we cannot consume in this lifetime.

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