Newcomer's Handbook Review: USA

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I am very excited to share today's Book Review of the Week - the Newcomer's Handbook® for Moving to and Living in the USA, 1st Ed. - from our newest Travel Guides Partner, Newcomer's Handbooks.  The Newcomer's Handbooks are incredibly detailed guides for newcomers and immigrants relocating to the United States. Designed to help newcomers explore and adjust to this vast and complex country, the book includes an overview of regions and states, plus chapters on measurement; money; getting settled; working; consumer basics; communicating; navigating health care, legal, and educational systems; finding a place to live; understanding US holidays, religious observances, sports, and customs; and much more.


We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Mike Livingston, the author of the the Newcomer's Handbook for Moving to and Living in the USA, 1st Ed., as well as the Newcomer's Handbook for Moving to and Living in Washington, DC, 4th Ed..   As we've written here before, Mike has extensive writing experience - he's a freelance writer and editor, and member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, but only part-time; his day job is in emergency communications at Children's National Medical Center. He's an EMT, CPR instructor and Child Passenger Safety Technician. He combines both jobs ably, and has done a lot of ghostwriting and coaching authors, and had op-eds, book reviews and columns published in the Washington Post, Legal Times and Washington Business Journal.

Here's what Mike had to say about his book...

WE:  Please tell us about your book, the Newcomer's Handbook® for Moving to
and Living in USA, 1st Edition...

ML: First let me tell you what it’s not. It’s not a tourist guide for visitors, it’s not a guide to the immigration process – First Books already has one of those – and it’s not mainly a book about the United States as a place. It’s a cultural guide to American society, an overview of the customs and resources and civic structures that will help the newcomer make sense of everyday life in the United States. You might already speak fluent English, but be unfamiliar with miles and pounds and Fahrenheit, with state quarters and Lewis & Clark nickels, with 401(k) plans and 1040s and deductibles and copays. You might not know what’s expected when your child is invited to another child’s birthday party or when the neighbors’ maked children ring your doorbell on October 31. And you might not understand the different powers and responsibilities of the national, state and local governments. These are the kinds of things you need to consider as a permanent newcomer or long-term visitor to the USA.

WE:  What led to your interest in writing this book?

ML: I was actually recruited by the publisher to write it. The Newcomer’s Handbook series of city guides was already very popular with large employers, companies that have employee relocation programs. Some of the publisher’s biggest wholesale customers – businesses and institutions with an international workforce – were asking for a similar book to help new immigrants get their bearings. Jeremy Solomon was pleased with my work on the 2002 edition of the D.C. book, and when he approached me about the USA book, I thought it was a great idea and it sounded like it would be fun to write. And it was.

We have, in this country, a complex kind of patriotism. Most of us are critical of the government, we complain a lot, we hold our chosen leaders in low regard; at the same time, most of us firmly believe our system of government is the best in the world and it’s certainly the most stable, so we must be doing something right. We all consider ourselves patriotic even as we disagree with other patriots. It’s an interesting challenge to explain this to international newcomers.

WE:  Who is the audience for your book? How did you put yourself in a newcomer's place and figure out what they might need?

ML: My assignment was to focus on middle-class newcomers – educated professionals, perhaps being transferred by an international employer to a major U.S. city. I tried to make the book somewhat useful to a more diverse immigrant audience, but again, the biggest channel for distribution is corporate relocation programs. We’re assuming the reader is comfortable reading workplace-level English.

Living in Washington, D.C., I’ve always seen the influence of an international community – not just tourists, but international newcomers from everywhere. Even just among friends and neighbors and coworkers, I had plenty of people to interview with a wide range of perspectives from every stage in the immigration process. I tried to get a sense of the expectations they had before the came here, the difficulties they faced, the guidance they wish they’d been given. I also interviewed Americans who had lived abroad and I looked at guidebooks to other countries for U.S. audiences to get a better sense of the cultural minutiae. Even to a native English speaker from, say, Ireland or New Zealand, there are countless little differences in vocabulary, etiquette, law, even kitchen measurements on a carton of oatmeal. And we weren’t trying to make newcomers conform to American habits, but to be aware of them and not be confused or surprised.

WE:  This isn't a typical guidebook, with restaurant, hotel, and activity listings. Was it fun to research the whole country?

ML: There’s no way a single book can be a comprehensive guide to the entire country. Our goal was to provide an overview of the different kinds of places to live in the United States – the cultural character of different regions, the differences between urban and rural America, the variations in climate and terrain, an impression of the size and scope of this huge country. Even more important, we wanted to provide a cultural guide to help people get along, find local information and make sense of the resources at their disposal. It’s more of a “how-to” guide for finding your own way in America.

The fun part of this project was stepping back and looking at the big picture of U.S. culture and society, trying to picture it as it might appear to an international observer – a modern-day Tocqueville. What do we talk about at the proverbial water cooler? What do we debate, what do we all agree on? What do we love about our country? What do we complain about? Where do we shop? What do we own? What do we do for fun? Do our social lives arise from our jobs, our neighborhoods, our hobbies or other institutions? If my child wants to be an engineer, why does she have to study art and music? At what age is it OK for my child to go out on a date? Do I have to stop at an intersection even if there are no other cars coming? What do you mean, “this has to be notarized”? It was fun to tune into our cultural background noise and try to anticipate the needs of someone hearing it all for the first time.

WE:  Intercultural learning is a large part of adjusting to a new country. How do you address cross-cultural differences to a newcomer in the U.S.?

ML: As I was told by the manager of a toy store in an affluent, culturally diverse suburb of Washington, the first things that should be explained to a recent immigrant with a work visa are the meaning of the nonverbal sounds “uh-huh” and “nunh-unh” and of nodding the head up and down or shaking it from side to side. Nobody born and raised here ever needs to have these gestures explained, but they may be quite puzzling even to native speakers of English from other countries. Hand gestures, body language, phone etiquette, occasions for sending cards or flowers – there’s a lot to learn about fitting in and communicating effectively. Again, I don’t mean to imply that newcomers should try to act like Americans, but they should be well enough informed to understand the expressions and customs they will encounter in the workplace and the community. There’s also a lot to explain about annual observances – actual holidays and other unofficial special occasions like Super Bowl Sunday or Oscars night – and sports. It can be hard to function in a U.S. workplace without some basic understanding of American football, baseball and basketball, because sports metaphors are so pervasive in business communications – and in politics, too. Yet have you ever tried to explain baseball from scratch to someone who doesn’t know anything about it at all? It’s an interesting exercise.

WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

ML: A neighbor told me he had enjoyed this book and thought it would be helpful to a lot of young adult Americans who had never learned how to keep a bank account or arrange for utility services or lease property. I do think it would make interesting reading for a social studies class or for future anthropologists. Mostly, though, I hope it’s a coherent snapshot of the American character – acknowledging the differences between our ideals and our actual behavior, and at the same time, showing how we do live up to most of our national ideals most of the time. I thought it was important to include some of our founding texts and some quotes that speak volumes about coming to America along with all of the practical information we compiled. Newcomers who have read this book will still have a lot to discover, but they will have a few pointers to get them started on that journey.

WE: Thank you, Mike, for this excellent interview! I have to say, I learned a lot about my own country, by reading this book. This is an excellent resource for people relocating to the US, as well as many others!