Category Archives: Fall 2018 Issue XIII: First Impressions

First Impressions by Eva Amann-Brockhaus, Am.S.Dipl. ’69

It was one of those coincidences which in retrospect prove decisive: During a visit to the United States in the summer of 1967, I came to know about Smith College and applied successfully for a scholarship to take part in the Diploma Program in American Studies the following year.

After ten days of crossing the stormy Atlantic on board the “Aurelia,” I spent four weeks in Connecticut with my host family, the Caneys, getting used to life in the US. On September 15th, 1968, Mrs Josephine Caney, a former Smithie herself, drove me to Northampton. It was a glorious day, sunny and warm, and the mountains of Massachusetts around Northampton were ablaze with red maples and yellow birch trees, an amazing sight. At 8 Bedford Terrace, my future home, Mrs Coughlan, a stern woman in her fifties with no motherly features, gave us a frosty welcome, then took us all the way up to the top floor and showed us to a very small room at the end of the corridor. It was rather dark, as a huge elm tree did not allow much light to come through its only window. Maybe she sensed my disappointment: “It is good for studying, you won’t be bothered by the other students,” she pointed out, then left us.

The room looked spartan, but Mrs Caney had brought along a small carpet, a reading lamp and, most importantly, a piece of green burlap; you were not supposed to pin anything to the walls, but I could attach postcards or other mementoes to it. Then I noticed a bowl of sweets on the dresser, accompanied by a note:

‘Dear Eva Maria! Welcome to Smith! This small gift may give you quick energy for the busy days ahead. My husband and I look forward to meeting you soon. He is a member of the Geology Department. We hope you will feel at home at Smith. As soon as the rush of opening school activities has passed we plan to have you visit our house. I spent one of my college years studying history at Munich, and I look forward to hearing German again. If we can answer any questions or help you in any way, please let us know. Our tel. number is…

Sincerely, Mrs Richard Brambach.”

How kind! I felt welcomed from the very first moment.

That evening, in the first letter to my parents from Smith, I wrote: “At 7:00 p.m. a gong called us down to dinner, but only the foreign students were present, among them an English girl called Maria, who had been on the ‘Aurelia’ too, and a Chinese student from Hong Kong called Helena. We decided to go for a walk across campus and talked a mile a minute, relating all of the new experiences we had each encountered. We felt like shipwrecked passengers who had managed to reach an unknown but promising island, or as Maria put it: ‘We are all in the same boat’, then changed the title of the English classic to ‘Three Girls in a Boat’. In Helena’s room I admired the bouquet of rust–coloured asters on her desk whereupon she gave me three stems and I put them in an empty milk bottle in lieu of a vase.”

Thus ended my first day at Smith.

Eva Amann-Brockhaus received a Diploma in American Studies from Smith College in 1969.
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These People Eat Together

like really together

the wine from their glasses all of the same jar

binding each person as if by blood –

and suddenly I’m there too.

The cool summer breeze wafts the scent of fragrant fields

across the space

I’m carried in a whirlwind of sounds

of smells and flavors

of life

lifted clean off my feet and transported into this other world

this place where people eat together.


The fragrant damp of the river at night embraces me,

and nestled within the folds of the Umbrian foothills

I am shaded

by the ancient spirit of this place of awe.

Clitumnus invites me to partake of his delights –

the fresh springs sustaining the purest sacrifices of old

the olive trees standing gnarled in all their wisdom

the geraniums in every window sill.

I hide myself behind the curtain of the willow tree

that grows on the side of the mountain

I kiss the leaves

and ask the Universe how I could be so blessed

to see such a place as this.


I see history through the cracks in the walls

of Lombard sanctuaries and Gothic churches,

these testaments to the power of place

to inspire awe

to transport minds

to draw together all these people

these people who truly eat together.

Samantha Grossman is a first-year student at Smith College.
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“No Address, No Good!”

I will never forget my very first day in the town I would come to fall in love with. Geneva is a beautiful place, full of history, rich culture and a compelling social scene. However, the people in Geneva can be a bit too straight forward when they are not happy. They definitely know how to express themselves strongly when they disagree with something, which can be tricky to deal with when you are used to the way that people in the U.S. “politely” or “gently” express unhappiness. Please don’t get me wrong — people in Geneva are extremely polite. I would say even more than in the States, but they are transparent too. You will know when something you did that did not please them in some way. It happened to me right upon my arrival in Geneva.

As I walked with another Smithie out of the airport to take a taxi to our residences, I courageously decided to say, “Good morning Sir. We would like to go to Home St. Pierre and CUP one please.” The only problem was that I decided to say it in French. You can guess what happened next.

The driver, who seemed to be calmly driving us to our destinations, stopped the car at a totally different place from where we had intended to go. We were on the other side of Geneva, another 20 minutes from our residences. He misunderstood my French as I struggled to tell him that this was not the place, and my friend could not communicate with him either. He began to say things that I understood to be complaints about us giving him the wrong address, making him waste his time. Then the unforgettable phrase came out, well-articulated, in a language that I understood well: “No address, no good!”

He was right. No address, no good. I should have printed out the address and put it in my wallet so that I could hand it to the driver at the airport and avoid all the confusion, loss of time and money.

After looking for it on my phone, I was able to find it and show to him. What a relief. He knew where both of our residences were. He dropped off my friend first, and then drove me to my residence. While driving me to my destination, he began to talk a bit more softly, saying, “You know, no address, no good. You understand?”

I tried to answer in French even though he spoke to me in English: “Yes sir. I understand. You were right.”

After that, although he did most of the talking, we ended up having a rather pleasant conversation. I explained to him that I did not speak French well, and that I was there to learn. He definitely got that part because he said,“Practice, practice and practice.” He was also an immigrant who had had to learn French after moving to Geneva. While my first impressions of Geneva had not been completely positive, the thought dissipated when the driver kindly explained that not having an address made his job difficult, especially if the customer did not speak the language.

At the end, my taxi driver was really a gentleman. He even helped me with my luggage into the residence, which he was not supposed to do. He wished me “bonne chance” with my French and waved good-bye.

From this experience, I learned that people are truly lovely in Geneva, but even if they love you, they will not pretend that everything is okay. I learned to be at the top of my game, otherwise I will end up somewhere I did not intend to be. That is a lesson for life. I also learned to print out my destination whenever I am going someplace for the first time, especially if I am going to a foreign country where I do not speak the language fluently. Lesson learned. “No address, no good!”

Ingrid Magalhaes is a senior at Smith College.
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Learning the Word for Hurricane – Claire McCoy ‘20

There was a funeral in the village on that grey Saturday, when the humidity had finally broken into rain and the cyclone warning had been issued. As the procession passed outside our house, the high voices of the choir drifted in through window louvres and the Church bell clanked distantly. Relatives from my family’s clan who had come for the funeral sat cross-legged on the bamboo mats of our living room floor. They filled the space in a horseshoe, four rows deep, with a bowl of kava at the center of the room. A few men passed out the drink in polished half-coconut shell bowls to one guest at a time.

I occupied a space in the back row with the other women, leaning against the cool cement wall and peeling green oranges as chasers for the earthy taste of kava. When my foot began to fall asleep from sitting cross-legged, they would give me discreet permission to stretch out a leg. We sat for hours, chatting softly and pondering the coming storm in an English peppered with words from my limited Fijian vocabulary. I learned that cakilaba, pronounced “thangilamba,” means hurricane.

As the afternoon wore on, the rain came down harder and relatives drifted out. I said goodbye to the woman who’d sat next to me, instructing me to call her Nei for Aunt and passing me more than my fair share of green orange slices. I thought of the text message I’d received from my volunteer coordinator the day before – stock up on canned food and have your emergency backpack ready. A large tropical cyclone has materialized to the South and Fiji is in its path. It may fizzle out before reaching us, but keep your radios tuned to the news.

We kept our radio on until the power went out. Remembering what I’d been told about cyclone preparedness during a brief volunteer training just two weeks ago, I slipped away to my room and began tucking essentials into a bag in case we would need to evacuate. My room, this house and my host family did not yet feel entirely familiar, but I was shaken by the thought of what little sense of home I did feel being reduced to the contents of a backpack. I packed to the unsettling banging of my Tou (host father) and eldest brother Hove, who were hammering sheets of corrugated tin over our louvered windows. When they had finished, the house was as dark as the dusk falling outside. Rain pounded ever louder on the metal of the roof.

I would remember the intensity of that night’s rain, evoked in later downpours after days of sweltering humidity. Those rains would eventually tamp down the dusty paths of the village, the air damp and green-smelling on my walk home from school. Those rains, drumming on the roof while I took my afternoon bucket shower, would cleanse and exhilarate. But tonight I couldn’t hear myself think. Tonight my host sister Sisi stayed in my bed, sleeping fitfully, knees and elbows akimbo, twelve years old but suddenly younger. I, too, felt vulnerable and couldn’t find sleep for the deafening rain and the howl of the wind, punctuated every time I came close to drifting off by the heart-stopping crash of a breadfruit falling onto the roof from a nearby tree.

The morning dawned in silence, making me wonder whether the night’s turmoil was a dream. But when I looked outside, the village was strewn with breadfruit and fallen banana trees. My Tou said “Luvengu, let’s go for a walk”, and he showed me where our television antenna had landed on a bush and the section of tin that had flown off the kitchen roof. Avoiding downed power lines and tree branches, we made our way to a hilltop at the edge of the village where we could see the river. Normally clear and slow enough for children to play in after school, the river had swollen to twice its size overnight. It rushed along slick and smooth-surfaced, branches and debris swirling in the muddy brown current.

Cell service and running water were restored within a few days, and the winding dirt road connecting our mountain village to the nearest town soon became passable. But we remained without electricity, which kept school closed for the week. It was only after someone brought a newspaper back from town that I understood how lucky we’d been. Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston was the not only the most powerful to have ever hit Fiji, but the strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. Winds had reached up to 185 mph where the Category 5 storm’s impact had been strongest, in the outer islands and along the main island’s Northeastern coast. Entire villages had been flattened and thousands of people were displaced from their homes. A 30-day state of emergency was declared. The school I was volunteering in went unscathed, and I looked at its sturdy blue buildings with new appreciation when classes resumed the next week. The easily repairable damages to my village seemed suddenly trivial, simply a mess to be cleaned up, compared to the unimaginable devastation in so much of the country.

My experience of the storm was unforgettably loud and jarring, but ultimately harmless. After nearly two weeks without power, we’d gotten used to eating dinner by candle light. There was something peaceful about saying grace and sharing our meal in the dim orange flicker, although washing the dishes afterward proved less romantic. One night after dinner, the kitchen was lit up for an instant by a flash I assumed to be lightning. But it returned, sustained this time a moment too long, accompanied by an electric buzzing. Then the village went up in cheers. At first in fits then all at once, our whole house was illuminated. Shouts of “Emeni!” (Amen!) and scattered applause carried through the night as all our neighbors’ windows flickered then glowed.

Claire McCoy is a junior at Smith College.
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The Bad Handshake: My Experience with Cultural Passing

The first time I talked to my college advisor, I wasn’t nervous. At least, not at first.

“Hey there!” she beamed, extending a hand, “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Prof. Smith.”

It took me a few seconds to realize that I was supposed to shake it. Grabbing her hand, I hoped she wouldn’t notice my slightly sweaty palms.

By the time I had settled into that movement, I noticed that everyone around me was staring at me, their friendly smiles frozen on their faces. What were they waiting for…?

“Oh! Sorry. I’m Xiaoxiao,” I said, chuckling nervously.

Everyone looked away again, relieved, but it was too late. I was already staring into the ground, my face flushing hotter than the humid New England summer.

I was freaking out–and not for the reasons I thought I would be.

Here’s the thing. When people meet me, they generally assume that I’m American. I speak without an accent, and I present as your average ABC (American Born Chinese) kid.

What they’re usually surprised to learn is that I’ve lived most of my life overseas in China. I moved with my family when I was nine. Unlike many kids who move abroad, I attended a local school for the first four years I was there and ended up absorbing the culture and language alike. So while I pass as American in America, I also pass as Chinese in China.

When I returned to America for the first time in ten years, I thought that attending college in America wouldn’t be a challenge for me at all. For all my cultural complications, I was still American enough. Plus, people here were supposed to be accepting and tolerant toward other cultures… weren’t they?

In a way, I was right. People seemed to read me as American, and they were very pleasant. But as I kept walking away from fumbled social interactions, shaking my head at myself, I realized that something wasn’t quite right.

That was the first time I realized the cultural differences at work between my two countries of origin. It was the first step in a long journey toward coming to terms with being at the crossroads between two cultures, one that will probably never end.

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Raw Almonds

I had been in my host mother’s apartment for less than a week. We were getting along well, and I was careful to listen attentively to her directions about using the utilities. It was a well-practiced spiel, as she had been hosting American students for five years, and knew our penchant for reckless resource consumption. In Spain, electricity and water are very expensive. But I was adapting quickly, and congratulating myself on my newfound eco-conscious habits.

Then I went out grocery shopping and bought the wrong kind of almonds. I meant to buy roasted almonds, but I bought raw ones instead. No problem, I thought, I’ll just roast them in the oven. I hadn’t done it before, but it didn’t seem difficult. I looked up a recipe online. It said to roast them at a very low temperature for at least four hours.

So, I went to my host mom with my bag of raw almonds, and asked if I could use her oven. Of course, she said, for what? I explained.

I will never forget the look of horror on her face. Four hours? We were standing in her miniscule kitchen, barely big enough for two people to sidle past each other, and my host mother’s voice filled the space, bouncing off the colorful tile.

Four hours? She was aghast. By now, of course, I knew what her answer would be. She spelled it out anyway, in no uncertain terms: my request was not possible. No, no puede ser. She apologized vehemently. It was the kind of apology you might make if someone asked you to cut off your own foot.

I knew then that I had made a terrible mistake. I also realized that however I may try to adopt Spanish customs and abide by their norms, there were values that I fundamentally lacked as an American. There was something I was missing, a bit of perspective maybe, standing in this tiny apartment kitchen holding a bag of raw almonds.

That was the moment I first caught a glimpse of a cultural blind spot, one of many that would plague me in the coming months. When I took my almonds back to my room and threw them away, out of the shame inside me emerged something like relief.

Claire Baumgardner is a senior at Smith College.
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A Japanese Welcome in Northern India

My fellow “Tibetan Studies in India” program participants and I had been exploring the Northern Indian town of Sarnath for the first time. As we walked along the side of a dusty dirt road, we came across two brightly-painted stores. Tired from traveling, and overwhelmed by a host of new and unfamiliar experiences, I was suddenly struck with excitement.

On one of the stores read the following hand-painted sign: “おみやげ” or “gifts” in Japanese. Despite having read this word countless times before — both in class and during my travels in Japan — I had never before been so struck by this commonplace phrase. As we got closer to the store that accommodated this unexpected touch of familiarity, I heard a voice call out to me.


Now, as an Asian-American woman who’s experienced her fair share of cringeworthy pick-up lines, I was immediately inclined to grimace and move on, but something about this greeting sparked my intrigue. “Irasshaimase,” repeated the stranger, and in that moment I felt enthusiastically at ease. Loosely translated as “welcome,” this phrase was said to me in near-perfect Japanese by a man who I would have otherwise assumed to be entirely Indian. As I continued to approach the store, the man — again, in Japanese — asked me how I was doing, and in Japanese I began to answer.

Much to my fascination, the man began to explain the story behind his fluency: he worked at this eye-catching store selling Buddhist ritual items to tourists and visiting monks — many of who are from Japan. His boss’s wife had moved to Sarnath from Tokyo, and together they had three children who visited the store often. He recognized from my chocolate-brown hair and almond-shaped eyes that I, too, was a person of mixed Japanese heritage.

Amazed by his talent for everyday language apprehension, and touched by our ability to connect interculturally as a result, I began to cultivate a friendship with this man throughout the course of my month-long program. The man’s name was Ramesh, and each time my friends and I visited his shop, he and I would discuss everything from the products he sold to the lives we lived in India, the United States, and — of course — Japan.

As we spoke in what felt like our own secret tongue, I began to feel pride in my language abilities, an appreciation for our cultural differences, and — eventually, despite being so obviously out-of-place — a sincere sense of belonging.

Aiko Dzikowski is a student at Smith College.
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Rancho Valmora

A carved iron sign hangs along the dry desert road. Rancho Valmora it reads. Evening sun filters through the carved letters every night, bright blue sky reflected during the day. The desert air is dry, the ground a constellation of sand and sharp plants, all strange to my East Coast eyes.

My friend Elise and I are here in the tiny ranch community of Watrous, New Mexico for the month to help rebuild Rancho Valmora, abandoned ten years earlier. Our teacher from high school has hired us and we are part of an eccentric group of individuals all here to heal the land, bring people back and make this once abandoned school in the middle of a working ranch into a farm and retreat center,.Our teacher wants the land to nourish the life that crosses this valley’s threshold. We gather information from what surrounds us in order to transform the land for new purpose.

My days are spent exploring this new dry home, working to transform the space. These buildings were left to creak with the wind, left for the animals to explore and claim, left for rain to travel in rivulets along rooflines, making its way into these strong structures. We brush ten years worth of dust from desks and chairs, beds and countertops. Notice paper and pencils left behind, hear our own voices echo in tall ceilinged buildings once used for meals, work and play.

We tear down old fences, being careful of rattlesnakes and cockroaches. We catalogue native plants, paint, clean, organize, try hundreds of keys in locks that have sat for years. At night we listen to the rafters above us creak, the wind whispering against our windows, the coyotes above us in the hills, our breath in abandoned space. Our mentor tells us what we can hope to return to. We are the first gardens and animals and people. Buildings with life brought back to them, pools of water, a kitchen bursting with food from this land. Land nourishing people, nourishing animals, nourishing land, an unbroken cycle.

Around our home, the mountains breathe. In, quietly in the morning as elk leave footprints in the sand and mist rises from our valley. Out, as the sun touches the edges of the cliffs. In again slowly as midday heat steeps the land in a sagebrush haze, out as late afternoon showers roll in quickly from across the plains. My own footsteps pad gently next to those left behind by deer, jackrabbits, the soft trails of snakes. Every day the sun moves across the sky, buzzards trace wind drafts in the air, lizards dart under rocks. For years this land stood still in time, reclaimed by the wildness of the environment. Silence peppered with the natural world overtaking what humans had built. We step gingerly into this world that wildness has overtaken. We dig into sandy soil and taste its forgotten minerals. We crawl up into the caves carved into cliffs, look for water, watch the sun move across the sky in order to understand the daily rhythms of this space. We have come not to overtake the land, but to look for what nature has to offer and turn it into a coexistence with humans. There is space on this land to grow, space to sit still.

This time is sacred. Our work is hard and rewarding, the tasks never-ending. Each day we rise with the sun and gather as a group before we begin the days work. We are noticing what the land has grown into over the years, and following its lead, bring it to life again. I am learning from the land around me, asking questions of its quiet stillness, noticing my own humanness amidst this desert-scape. This is what I want to bring to the world, what I want to carry with me through classrooms and lecture halls; the steady knowledge of place and learning, the hopeful feeling of something new. I breathe with the land, slowly in in the morning light, and with the afternoon’s wind and rain, a steady breath, a desert calm.

Elsbeth Pendleton Wheeler is a senior at Smith College.
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Capetown – My Walden

Even though I knew the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere, I still expected warmer weather before I arrived in Cape Town. After all, it is “Africa.” I had a lot of illusions about my new life in Africa. But living in Africa is just like living anywhere else in the world. Life is bittersweet and that will not change based on your geographic location.

Wearing little clothes, I felt cold and nervous when I was waiting to be picked up at the Cape Town international airport. People started talking to me in English, a language that is so familiar to me, but with a special accent. Just like everything here to me: brand new, but each of them seemed a little bit familiar too.

I had a déjà vu experience when I arrived in Langa township. Most of the houses were not that well-equipped. No WIFI, shower or air conditioner. Children were all playing games on the public ground instead of on their phones. It reminded me of my pastoral childhood back in rural Taiwan. At that time, we did not have smart phones or laptops. I spent most of my time enjoying a simple life in the tea plantation with my siblings: basking in the sunlight and listening to stories told by Grandpa.

My host family mama welcomed me with her big hug and a full plate of foods. It was a new home but full of warmth. Langa was experiencing a serious drought, so the tap water was not drinkable. I had an attack of diarrhea on the first day. But when I was about to leave for school this morning, I found a cup of boiled water on the table. I was in a hurry but the water was at the right temperature. Clearly mama had gotten up earlier to boil the water for me. The warmth reminded me that during the winter time, my mom always quietly turned on the heat when I took a shower. This place was gradually becoming my new home.

But living in Africa was just like living anywhere else in the world. Life was bittersweet. I almost got robbed on the second day in Cape Town, but thanks to two kind ladies who kept yelling at me “be careful,” I was safe and sound. Every place can be dangerous if we are not paying enough attention to safety issues.

When people ask about the reasons I decided to study abroad in South Africa, I often tell them: because I am biased. I am biased because I heard a lot of stories since I was little. Part of them may be true, part of them are not or just incomplete. I have always been so curious about people’s life on the other side of the planet. People, politics, plants… they were all new to me, yet not. I carried countless illusions and cannot wait to experience things by myself, then break all the stereotypes.

Also, I was here to find myself. I was told that people can focus more on themselves when they are in a brand new place. I tried to close the distance between me and myself by meditating every night in Langa, where there was no Wifi or electrical devices. Before I came, I spent most of my nighttime on social media. But in Langa, I wished to live deliberately, with only the essential facts of life. “I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan – like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Cape Town is my Walden.

Yawen Tsao is a senior at Smith College.

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Más Vale Tarde que Nunca

The first day of classes at a new school is always a little nerve-wracking and definitely awkward. I’ve found that despite the number of times I’ve had to go through this process, it never gets any easier. Finding the correct building, double checking whether I have the right room and sometimes still ending up in the wrong place are simply part of acclimating to a new environment.

Then, there’s having to decide where to sit — whether you want to be branded as a “know-it-all” for sitting at the very front, or as a total slacker for choosing in the back. Figuring out where you’ll be able to pay attention, but still feel comfortable and maybe manage to make a few friends, is always a tough decision to make in a matter of seconds. Not to mention finding your way around the numerous buildings and getting to class on time without seeming flustered.

You’d think by the time you made it to junior year of college, this would be a breeze. Right? Wrong. Well, for me at least.

It was my first day of school as a foreign exchange student at a university in Quito, Ecuador. I didn’t know anyone in my classes and I was concerned about arriving to class on time. I got up early that morning and headed off to school almost an hour before class actually started. With these concerns on my mind and the worst scenarios running through my head, I set out to find the classroom. Easy enough! I found it quickly and decided to grab a coffee. As I calmly made my way back to class with three minutes to spare, I was surprised to find it empty.

I frantically took my laptop out of my bag and checked my new school email. At this point my heart began to race, and I could feel the palms of my hands getting sweaty as I tried to think of what to do next. I pulled up BannerWeb to check for class announcement, but was met with a blank page.

After what felt like an eternity of anxiously sitting in my chair (though it was likely no more than two minutes) someone walked in. I planned to ask them if I was in the right place, but they made no eye contact and continued straight past me to a seat at the very back of the classroom. I decided I would wait five minutes to see if others showed up.

A couple of minutes after the class was supposed to have started, people began trickling in and the professor finally made an appearance. I still didn’t understand what had just happened. It was only when the professor finally announced the name of the course that a sense of relief rushed through my body and I was able to sit back and relax.

Still stuck in a state of confusion after that morning, I turned to my Ecuadorian friends for answers. I recounted the events over lunch, but to my surprise, I was met with grins and chuckles. “If you’re on time here,” started my friend, “it probably means you’re early!” This response seemed strange to me. Regardless, I took it with a grain of salt and decided to still arrive at my next class on time.

However, as the year continued, I found my friend’s statement to be all too true, and I began to understand the “logic” behind it. In Quito, making personal connections was simply more important than arriving on time. If you ran into a friend, you stoped to chat, even if it meant being late to wherever you were going. This is not to say that there weren’t certain situations where punctuality was important, but as a general rule, if you’re a foreigner in Ecuador, you had better get used to waiting.

Madeleine Foster is a senior at Smith College.
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“Bless you” As A Way To Start

When I first heard people say “bless you” after one sneezed, I experienced “culture shock,” but just a little, and it was subtle.  After I heard “bless you” millions of times, I realized that I tended to ignore it and say nothing to sneezes in my home country.

Being in a brand new country and environment for me is challenging yet interesting. During the first couple of days when I was here in the United States, I often compared things I observed and experienced to things I had experienced back in my country. The breakfast is cold here; I had hot wonton soup (dumplings in English) during high school. I used to complain about the very fact that every morning, in the same breakfast restaurant, I would eat the same breakfast. Now, I just want it one more time. I want to see the green, fresh cilantro and the white, round wonton dough mixed with pinky filling.  When you take a small bite, you feel the most satisfaction you could ever imagine.

This is the fourth time I’m here in the United States, and recently I broke my record for longest stay, a month. Being outside of my home and inside a foreign country — even though I am no longer the five-year-old me who was afraid of things unknown — still triggers that string that deeply dwells in my heart, the string of anxiety mixed with anticipation.

It was different from the nervousness I had when I first presented my little craft in front of the classroom when I was little.

It was different from the anticipation I had about meeting new people on my first day of high school.

Instead, it was a mix of emotions, and the only thing I feared was the “fact” that I don’t belong to this place, a place where I hardly found any similarity to my hometown, and a place that reminds me of my hometown every time I breathe. The diverse environment creates a temporary shelter for me to find similarity within all the differences. However, it was still weird when I started to think about the very fact that I was and am prepared for this.

I spent my last high school summer vacation as a tutor and teaching English (TOEFL) to students that were three years younger than me. Often, they asked me about a particular vocabulary word; with the smile of “finally got you,” they questioned my vocabulary knowledge. Their smiles disappeared when they found out I actually knew the words, and they would say that I was awesome and amazing. Even though I replied that they would someday be like me or even better, they still didn’t believe it.

However, the truth is that I was thinking about the same issue years before, when I was sitting in the classroom waiting for the foreign teacher and reciting the vocabulary list that took ages for me to remember. The truth is that I remember preparing for study abroad in a foreign country years ago, rushing through the buildings to find the interviewer at my international high school, waiting for the result.

Every day, I wake up and stare at the ceiling for an ephemeral second, questioning the place where I am. Everything is surreal. It took me 16 hours to get here, and I spent 18 years — 18 years to become qualified to understand this language.

Yet 18 years failed to teach me “bless you.” However, the bilingual, diverse environment I’m savoring right now is what I pursued in the past. People with different colors say hi to each other, share ideas while listening to various perspectives, and become friends.

Besides the culture shocks I’ve experienced from the past three times I was here, the sun, the sky, and the night are the same back in my home. In the end, when my roommate says how much she misses home when her home is just a 2-hours drive, I  smile slightly, not because she is homesick, but for the fact that we are the same.

I first said “Bless you!” to a stranger in one of my classes. I was nervous but kept telling myself that it’s culturally normal in America and my pronunciation is clear. A couple of seconds later, I thought I saw the warmest smile that I’ve ever received in this foreign place. “Thank you!” She is not a really pretty girl, but I thought she was so beautiful in that moment. Maybe it was because of the sunshine piercing through her blond hair that reminded me of my happy times with my high school friends, and that it was the same sunshine I saw on my friends, and the only thing I saw was the yellow and golden lights, so warm and shiny.

Taylor Zhang is a first year student at Smith College.



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