Points In Between: Episode 8
Here and There
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 8: Here And There
Let’s begin with this:
XuHui: I've… surprisingly find that the people here seems to be more happy about their job. I mean, yeah even the bus driver are happy about their jobs. I mean, I don't think that's the situation in China. In… basically in China we never say thank you [laughs] after we get off the bus, but here I heard some other people say that. And…yeah, it's really a good way to show appreciation and show respect to everyone who has served you. No matter what you are, who you are, and no matter who he is. This kind of a relationship shows a spirit of equal[ity].
That was XuHui, an exchange student from China. I asked the people I spoke with about cultural differences they saw when they came here and also what they missed from home.
In this episode of Points In Between you’ll hear about the little, and sometimes, big things people notice as they settle into a new place. They’ll talk about what they learned and what they adapted to. You’ll also hear about nostalgia – for their previous home, or at least some of the ways things used to be.
These accounts are interesting for more than their sentimental value, though of course that does matter. The people who spoke with me are also members of a unique global community that stretches back far into human history.
In the year 1271, two men and a boy set off from Venice en route to China. Or maybe boy isn’t quite the right word. By modern US standards, he was the right age to be a junior or a senior in high school – 17. So, how about I say: the young man, with his father and his uncle, sailed across the Mediterranean. They made landfall at a city that’s on the border between modern-day Israel and Lebanon. The trio then walked across all of Asia to the coast of China, which was then under the rule of Khubilai Khan. They stayed in China for the next 17 years.
You’ve probably heard of the young man. It’s Marco Polo.
Polo is always referred to as a Venetian and it’s true that by the end of his life he had lived somewhere between 35 and 45 of his 70 years in Venice – we don’t know how much of his childhood was spent in Constantinople.
But it’s also true that in 1292, when Polo was 38, he had lived more of his life in China than in any other single place. He was “not from” China, but he knew things about it. And his account of his time in another culture, for whatever inaccuracies it contained, significantly changed European ideas about the non-European world.
The practice of bringing, or sending, young people into other cultures is old. Millions of young people have moved for economic opportunity, or been forced to moved as slaves. There is also a long history of intentionally, or unintentionally, turning young people into a sort of cultural translator by sending them abroad.
The podcast 15-Minute History has a really interesting episode about 17th and 18th century French kids sent off to the Ottoman Empire, India, and Southeast Asia for this purpose. But there are lots of examples: children of West African leaders sent to Europe in the 18th century, Chinese and Japanese students sent to Europe and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries, and let’s not forget: young women throughout all of history, married off to leaders or merchants in different lands.
It’s fascinating, in part, because the accounts sound so modern. The experiences are immediately recognizable. Child-emissaries faced conflict with the people who sent them – who sometimes objected to the ways they changed to fit in, and also with their hosts, against whom they had to defend their original identities. They made comparative observations about both where they came from and where they went to. In the process, they were transformed into people who could no longer really existed in the context of a single society. They occupied that sliver of a Venn diagram where two circles overlap. They became, as the title of this show says, Points In Between.
So as you listen, pay attention to how it feels to learn and adjust to a new community, but also think about the speakers as part of the special community of people who knit human societies together throughout all of history.
That’s a lot, but we’ll begin with something light.
I asked Juliana, from Brazil, about spending time with American friends during her college exchange.
Juliana: They had like these planners, you know? [laughs] And I was like, “What?!” [laughs] You know you have… of course, in Brazil if you're like a professor you also have a planner. But we don't …we're not very used to doing this, you know having our lives like every single hour we have planned. At least, at least not me. I don't usually do that so when people tell me, “Oh, okay so you want to go on Saturday at 7:00 and I'm going to put my planner!” I was like, “OK, good for you [laughs] All right.” And then people would ask me, “Oh, don't you have a planner? Don't you use google calendar?” I was like, “Why would I need that? I can just have it in my head.” Of course for midterms, finals, I would definitely put some type of calendar or something like that, but not you know to hang out with friends. I don't know. [laughs] It's just …just weird for me.”
It’s not that Juliana refuses to plan, it’s that in her experience in Brazil, calendars are for work. It’s just unsettling, from that point of view, to see your invitation to a friend treated the way you would treat an exam. It doesn’t stop her from having friends. And, you can tell from her voice, she’s bemused, not upset. But still, it’s a little thing to adjust to.
If you listened to the introductory episode, you’ll recognize a part of this clip. Selena, moved from Bosnia to the US when she was 12.
Selena: The first thing that I thought was weird is the desks, because the desks are connected to the chair and you have to get into it. I thought, “This is this doesn't seem right” because, I was like “Aren't some people larger and some are smaller?” And then the other thing was like seeing like presentations on a projector overhead. Super weird. I was like, “What is this magic?” I was like, “There’s like a TV, on the ceiling.” [laughs]
I didn't even know, like, what a water fountain was or how to use one and no one told me. I just kind of like hung out in the hallway when I was thirsty and tried to like watch other kids and which button they pushed…Even just the seating arrangements and the way that some people would run their classrooms. You know, we would have like group activities and we were really encouraged to participate and expose our individuality. But in Bosnia it's not like that. It's kind of like, “I'm teaching you this material. This is what you need to know.” Like there was no like, “You talk to your partner about this” or “You're going to work in a group.” You know, have an activity. Plus we weren't really like - we were so poor that the resources were low. I don't think they even had the resources to do that if they wanted to…And then the other thing was like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before, yeah, in the morning before everything started. I didn't know it and my first teacher kind of like looked down on me because he didn't realize that like I didn't know what the heck was going on. So his whole impression of me that I was like rebellious [laughs] and I didn't want to do this and I was sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance. Because I don't know what it is.
Arguably, many of the things Selena describes were good. Certainly water fountains and projectors were an improvement over the material conditions of her school in Bosnia. But they were still puzzles to be solved. The other things - understanding why her teacher was upset with her or how to negotiate group work - were bigger tasks that involved hundreds of invisible rules about social interactions.
Ruth, who moved to California from Mexico when she was 16, had to learn new ways to interact with people, too:
Ruth: That was a big difference between my life in Mexico in a small town and my life in the US was that we could stay out for - walking or, you know, stay out till late and… Here in the USA was like either you had a car and you depended on somebody or, you know, you didn't really go out that much. That was very depressing for me. It's not as school related but it is very related to how you socialize and there was a lot of intergenerational socializing in Mexico partly because you could just either take a pesero [mini-bus] into town or walk into town and people were hanging out. And it wasn't…there was a place to gather that wasn't necessarily someone's house. It was a public space.
Ruth’s description of a cultural difference, you can hear, also contains a touch of nostalgia. It wasn’t just a difference she noted. It was something she missed about Mexico.
Let’s move into deeper waters. Here’s Roya, who came from Afghanistan when she was 14. Keep in mind: she had been taught to treat her teachers with extraordinary respect.
Roya: One thing that I found really was difficult in high school coming from an Asian culture and Afghanistan and stuff…So when you talk to the teachers over there, out of respect you put your head down, you look down and then you listen to teachers. So at one point it's class and something happened, the teacher was trying to talk to me. So out of respect, not looking her eye-in-eye directly, I put my head down. And she was getting more fierce and stressed out and she was thinking I was disrespecting her. So every time I would try to look [at] her back and put [my head] down, but then she would get more furious, she got so upset that she actually wrote a letter [laughs] a note to my family that I disrespected her. [laughs] I was like...”What is she talking about?” It was just, I had to get adjusted because it was… in the beginning it was so hard because every teacher was like, “Look at me!" and I'd be like....”Okay [laughs].” So I thought that was like interesting. It’s the culture differences when you communicate with your teachers and they don't know your background and how you react. And then they get… they don't understand why you're not looking them in the eye. [laughs]
That moment of realization is disconcerting, when you learn that the way you’re supposed to act in one place is mystifyingly, arbitrarily, wrong in another. Thousands of moments like this one between Roya and her teacher teach a person how to code-switch, to shift back and forth between behaviors that fit two cultures. It’s a long process that involves a lot of mis-steps.
Ra’ouf’s experience transformed, not just his behaviors, but his beliefs.
Ra’ouf: You know when I came to college I was closed-minded. And you know when I go back and recall those memories, I just feel so ashamed.
At 16 Ra’ouf was living on a farm in rural Yemen. Two and a half years later he lived in a college dorm with roommates, in California. And per usual, rooming together involved a lot of conversations.
Ra’ouf: And one of the debates that we had is about drawing the Prophet Muhammad…the three roommates were arguing against me. What I was saying is that people should be aware of the consequences and therefore, you know, with freedom comes responsibility. But they were just saying, “No. Why is it only for Islam? Like why is Islam so special and exceptional?” I mean I can go today and draw Jesus, you know, and no one would be offended, but the moment you draw Mohammed the whole Muslim world go crazy and outraged. And I honestly I was just arguing emotionally at that time. I was thinking that they were attacking my identity.
Those discussions and debates led to serious introspection about what it meant to be both Yemeni and Muslim. The Ra’ouf who emerged from this experience had – at the same time - a deeper understanding of Yemeni culture, but also a greater distance from it.
Lingerr had two entirely separate experiences of navigating new cultures – first when she moved from the Gambia to England for high school and then when she came to the Midwestern US for college.
Her English classmates asked questions about where she was from. At times, Lingerr felt unequipped to respond.
Lingerr: And then we move into the territory of stupid. So, “Do you see lions every day?” was like a classic when I was around 15 and I was …I mean I didn't even really know what to say. I was like, “No, I do not.” I was asked if my family lived in trees which, now I look back I’m like, “Wow, that's also extraordinarily racist, not just ignorant.” But at the time, I mean, you're 15 and you want to fit in so you don't really put up that much of a fuss especially because I was so culturally different.
There’s a weird mental dislocation that happens when your own understanding of your self bumps up against who you are in other people’s imaginations.
One time, for work, I went to a fundraiser. I was looking for a particular person in the room, to pass along a message. The hostess brought me to where she was standing and at a break in the conversation began to introduce me. I held out my hand to say hello and the woman I was hoping to meet handed me her plate. I wasn’t wearing any sort of uniform, but I’m black and I was in a room full of mostly wealthy, white people in the United States. We stood there awkwardly, me holding the plate between us. Suddenly, in that moment, I was seeing myself from the outside, as if through her eyes, but the me I saw wasn’t me. It was a flat, distorted image, lacking all the nuance and history I feel on the inside. It’s jarring.
I didn’t like it, obviously, but for me as an adult the situation fit clearly into a set of racial stereotypes with which I was already familiar. But Lingerr was young and new to the country. It was not immediately apparent to her why anyone would look at her and think she had grown up in a tree. And if they got the idea from all those pop culture depiction of Africans as, basically, animals – what else might they believe? It’s really not easy to figure out the contours of someone else’s fantasy about you.
Then immediately on the heels of this surreal moment comes the question: Is this person trying to insult me? I had a split second of wondering if the plate was an intentional comment about my appropriate place in the room.
Lingerr, 15, in a new school, had to figure out where on the continuum the question fell. Was it completely ignorant? Or was it someone’s idea of good-natured teasing? Was it meant to be cruel? And even if it was meant to be cruel, how did people in this new culture respond to direct insults?
Lingerr also noticed differences in the benign day-to-day interactions between people in the Gambia, England, and different part of the US.
Lingerr: So in Gambia, which is actually called the smiling coast of West Africa, everyone is so friendly… so friendly in a real way, like they want to get to know you, they want to, you know, have you over the house, this is all amazing! And then I move to England where everyone treats you exactly the way it is appropriate to treat you, given your relationship. So your friends are friendly to you and no one else is. Your acquaintances are very… I mean, it feels cold but they’re just very like straightforward… they are not acting like you're their friend because you are not their friend. And strangers are just, like… will not engage at all.
And I was raised me really respect especially to my elders. So I remember very vividly walking down streets in England when I first got there and like seeing like an older person and being like, “Good afternoon!” [laughs] They would give me a very strange face and look mildly terrified. And then I moved to the United States where people are… infamously very friendly in a way that is often disingenuous. I would say that I noticed a difference then between Midwest-friendly - which is actually a lot more like Gambia, like people were like… really seemed to be very genuine and they want to make you, like, tater tots hot dish, all these different Midwestern things - and like other Americans who were very friendly, but also you weren't really friends with them. And it became like…It messed with my head a little bit sometimes because I'd be walking by someone and they’d be like, “How are you?” And like I'd stop like, “Well, I…. oh.” They're gone. You know what I mean? Just the way you casually interact felt a little bit different. So I think at first I was a little taken aback and couldn't exactly figure out who my friends were.
This type of knowledge about how to behave in a social network was part of what made child-emissaries valuable. This is the skill-set that opened doors for merchants and smoothed the way for diplomatic negotiations across history.
Making sense of a new social order is hard. It’s more than mastering a set of behaviors. Siobhan arrived from Wales for college in Wisconsin with one understanding of social organization. She gradually learned that her classmates saw the world very differently.
Siobhan: I assumed that the graduate students would be a mixture of different classes of people. And it turned out they were all like upper middle class. And that was shocking to me. And I didn't realize it at first. I grew to realize it over a period of a year. And I found out that so many of them had been to private schools and that that was a shock. I was not expecting that.
What it was that started to make it difficult was the conversations around diversity. Wisconsin, like a lot of other universities, was trying to have a very active conversation around diversity, or the lack thereof, on campus and particularly graduate students who were responsible for teaching these classes. And we were required to go to workshops about how to be sensitive to difference in the classroom and I found those workshops very, very difficult because the only kinds of diversity that were talked about was racial diversity even though in Wisconsin, in particular, you have a lot of working class kids and they have a lot of first generation kids. And being a first generation kid I know how difficult that also is. But these, kind of, white upper-middle class graduate students, firstly couldn't see it and secondly didn't want to talk about it. But they were very happy and comfortable to talk about racial difference and yet had a complete blind spot when it came to class as though that didn't affect in any way somebody's experience of college. And so that became very difficult and frustrating for me.
Shane: Did you engage in any conversations specifically with people about it?
Siobhan: No, I didn't. I would now [laughs] but I didn't back then because I was still, though I was frustrated, I was also very confused about it.
Shane: Do you feel like there is shame around class? Like, why do you think Americans don't talk about it?
Siobhan: I don't know if it's …maybe it's shame. But I …my guess is that because there's this idea that in this country you can do whatever you want if you work hard enough, I don't think people really want to believe that that's not actually true. Because that gets right at the heart of what America is supposed to be. And I think they don't want to face up to the fact that there is potentially increasingly for some groups - it's not much of a change for others - less and less mobility and that it looks like - for white people in particular - like perhaps class is solidifying a lot of white people can't move anymore. But they don't want to face up to that. On the flip side people are pretty happy to talk about race even though they won't necessarily be super honest about it. So there's something about being happy to talk about that category of difference and not liking the other category of difference because that a difference complicates the former one.
Shane: Is aspiring to have upward class mobility not … like is it fine to stay in the same class that you are?
Siobhan: Yeah. A lot more so than here. There's actually pride in your class, but there's particularly pride in the working class in Britain and particularly in Wales because we don't really have much of a middle class. And so people aren't tending to try to fight for upward mobility too much. And there’s… can sometimes be a sense of cool around the working class. Yeah, it’s not something people try to hide. It is also much easier to identify somebodies class in the U.K. from their accent, from… maybe from their clothes, from their mannerisms ,from the way that they talk, their dialect. So it sort of sticks to your skin a lot more. And so in some ways even if you do manage upward mobility people will still read you as of the working class. They'll read you as New Rich and maybe a bit tacky. It never can really…you can never really get rid of it unless you perform differently.
Siobhan’s position enabled her to reflect on both Wales and her school community in the US.
Let’s focus again, though, on the people having these experiences. It’s possible to find a place both interesting and exhausting, or to see the value of it while desperately missing where you came from. Just like other members of their community across time, the people I spoke with found this process of learning a new culture difficult. Tiring. They missed familiar places and people and language. They missed home, even when home was complicated.
Juan came from El Salvador to the US when he was 16.
Juan: I was very homesick mainly for my friends so I talked to the school back there and they were …the school year, you know, was ending when I came to the U.S. so …and the school year starts about like mid-late late January. So the green card, you know, once they take fingerprints and everything here at the airport it takes about three months. So I talked to the school and they told me, you know, that if I… by the time I got a green card they could still take me in even if the school has started for a couple of weeks, two or three weeks. I was just going to have to work extra hard and I was like, “OK, I'll do it.” So my sister - older sister and brother - they were of course … They were staying back there at the time. So I told my parents I can just live with my sister. You know she’s …because my brother was living in a different city because he's a lot older than me. But my sister was still in the house that we were living at, so I was like “I’m just going to stay with her, you know, for the last year of my school year and then I'll come back.” They were like, “OK, we'll think about it.” But that never happened. They were like, “No.” At the end, they were like, “You’re 16, your sister…” My sister was her mid-20s at the time. So, and my brother was pretty much living his own life already and there were like, “Nah.” So that was frustrating.
Unlike Juan, who still saw a possibility of returning to his friends and his old community, Shiraj knew there was no going back to his boarding school in India. But that didn’t stop him from missing it.
Shiraj: It's really hard to think about it. When I moved here I used to emotionally break down the first two months, even for the first three months. I used to think about things and think of all the people, think of my friends and then I used to just break down. It's hard to not think about it and then I just had to stop thinking about it.
Shane: Have you talked to any of your teachers about where you went to school before and what that transition was like, or do you just sort of like talk about class and that's it?
Shiraj: I've talked to one teacher about that. My French teacher. She's really nice because one day during… after tutorial or something we just got started talking and then I told them about my school and I also… it's also because I felt proud of going to that school. I felt nice telling her about it but I told everybody and then I also forward to her a video, which is about in my school. It’s about 15 minutes long. So it’s everything about my school. My last year's history teacher also kind of knows but not as much in depth …not as much as you know right now. Most teachers are just like, “Oh, he moved from India. He’s new here. That's how everyone is. But only one or two teachers know that my experience is different from the other people who move from India.”
There are so many layers to this nostalgia. It’s not just about wanting to do the same things he used to do or be with the same people he used to be. It’s about missing a feeling - the feeling of being intimately known by a community who shared his history, of being seen for who he is. The irony is that even if he moves back to India after high school and college here in the US, there will then, again, be a different part of him – an American experience - that isn’t knowable by many of the people in his community.
This part of my conversation with Yesica began with her describing cultural differences she saw as a kid between her neighborhood in Chicago and where she lived in Mexico City.
Yesica: In Mexico like you will know who your neighbor is, who that kid got married to, you will know all the gossip. So I think that's interesting. Even the children like over there, like they're more engaged because they go out and play on the street. Because we don't really have parks over there so you go out and play on the street and then you will know, like, okay 4 kids come out of this house, 8 kids come out of this house, so you really get to know everybody…
It segued into a reflection on returning to Mexico.
Yesica: I don't think I would want to go back now because I don't really know the place, but I remember the first couple years when I was here and I was just struggling in school, I was like, "Why am I here? I don't want to be here." I felt like I had everything that we needed over there. Because we were not as bad off, as bad as like other people that come here are. I mean my parents did have their own home. They had their own business, at least. They were able to keep bringing income to the house without us struggling too much.
But the reason why they wanted to come here was just like violence was getting pretty bad in our neighborhood. Before we moved here they actually broke into our house and they stole all my parents' things, you know, like all the valuable things they had. And it was like in plain sight, mid-day, and my aunt lived across the street, and she didn't call the cops!
As I listened, I could picture 12-year-old Yesica, struggling to make friends in school and learn English, second-guessing her parent’s decision to come to America.
Yesica: One of the things that you can do over there is you can own your own transportation. And that's what my dad did for business. Like, he owned a microbus and then you can keep your own fares and that's the way you make your own money. In order for you to even drive your route you had to give people money now because otherwise they would be shooting at you through your route. Or like, at the end of your route, of your day…they know your route. Like you go through the same thing all over again, so if you pass the bad neighborhood, they would know that like at 10 o'clock this guy is loaded because he's been working all day and then we'll take everything. And they did that to my dad a couple of times and he just got tired.
And one time - we were actually in there with him - I think I was around… I want to say 7. And then they stopped us and they actually held a gun to his head and they were like, "Give me everything that you have," and they also went into the back and stole everything from the passengers. My mom was scared because like so then she just put a towel over us because she didn't want us to see like, you know, my dad has a gun to his head. She didn't want us to have that sight, but … They ended up taking all his money, even his shoes. I'm just like, “Man, that's just crazy,” even those little things even they will take that.
Talking with me, Yesica remembered a rich world of kids playing on her neighborhood streets together but also the robbery of her house in broad daylight. She knew her parents were comparatively better off than they could have been, but her dad was robbed at gunpoint multiple times while earning that livelihood.
I interviewed Yesica after I spoke with Juan. I asked her if, like him, she had ever made a concrete attempt to return.
Yesica: I think I had a plan maybe when I was around high school and I was trying to find a college because I knew then, like, I'm not going to afford college so I had to start getting a plan...because I was undocumented then. A lot of people give up, just once they hit senior year, they're like, “Okay, well, this is silly.” Either you go to community college because you can afford that or you just do something else completely. Get a job. And so I didn't want to do that. I did want to continue to go to school and if I couldn't go here, I was actually planning on going back to Mexico. So that was actually one of my plans that I was thinking about...just returning to go to school. But then I was able to get in school here so...I guess that changed the whole ordeal.
So in the end, Yesica’s real thoughts about returning to Mexico weren’t driven by homesickness. The community she was once a part of had continued on without her and she, too, had changed to fit her new home.
Omar went to high school in Aleppo in the midst of the current Syrian war. He and his family left because of the extreme difficulty and danger of living in a warzone. I asked Omar what he missed.
Omar: I think one of the things that I missed the most and I still do, and it might not be …it's I think the danger you have in your life and the fact that our lives were more interesting, I would call it. There is always this… waiting for something to happen. And most of the times it was bad but still there would be something happening, there would be always something new happening. It definitely impacted people negatively and even me, of course. But still it has I think a positive side, which is bringing this life to your life, by taking it away. I don't know how to describe it.
When you're living in a city where tens and hundreds of people are dying every single day there, you start…like every day you question yourself in the morning whether you're going to make it to a bed again in the night or not. And I think that's a really interesting process that happens because it's creates lots of reflection within your mind, on your own actions, on your own sayings, and on the whole length of your life and what have you done in it. Because you start thinking, “Oh this string might end soon so I better do something productive or impactful in it.”
Even in those worst situations and, I don't know, the most dangerous cities in the world, there is always life, and there's always something going on, and there's always people that are going to be just ignoring all of that and being like, “Here I am. I want to do what I want to be doing.”
This is also nostalgia, not for war itself, but for the feeling of a certain existential weight to day-to-day decisions. Also, Omar does miss home.
Omar: One of the – also - the things I really miss and remember is the people, the city as a whole and when I say that I want to go back home, people always ask me, “Oh, do you still have family there?” But I'm like, “No. Actually, my…the actual family that I have, they are in Germany, that also most of my friends left.” And they all reply with, like, “Oh then why'd you want to go?” And that's the thing that I don't understand because for me Aleppo is not just that those couple of friends that I had or family. It's way more than that. It's like …a city. It's a city that had life. It's a city that had activities and people and streets and I had memories in it. I had experiences in it. I had lots of like spheres that I would be present in that city. And that's what makes me miss it. It's not only the fact that, “Oh I have family, that's why I need to go.” And I don't need to go there. I want to go there. It's just the connection that I have with this past of mine that I had there.
In this episode you heard accounts that fit into a long history of young people moving across borders and becoming literate in multiple cultures. Hopefully, also, you heard the emotions involved in that process.
Episode 9 of Points In Between is about putting down new roots. You’ll hear about making friends and negotiations with parents as students adapt to life in an American school.
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.