Summer 2016, Issue VII: Transitions
Transitions between languages and cultures, the theme of our current issue, can occur any where and at any time; we can plan for them and they can take us unawares. The essays below highlight personal transitions of gender identity; transitions that negotiate between several cultural identities; linguistic transitions to reclaim a mother tongue, a heritage culture, or to develop an identity in a new language and culture; transitions through translation; and cosmic transitions whose recurrences create the rhythm of the traditions that ground us.
We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed compiling it.
We invite you to submit a short personal essay on the theme Notes from the Field for our next issue. We welcome reflections on the intercultural observations you may have had coming into contact with other cultures or languages through your studies, internships or work experiences while studying away or on campus. We are accepting submissions through Monday, October 3rd. See our submission page for details.
– The Editors
It has been only five months since I began this brand new chapter of life in college, in a new home, in a new town, in a new country, continent and hemisphere. In that (relatively) short time I have discovered that human nature, unlike food, remains unchanged across continents. I have discovered that eternal sunshine and seasonal weather changes both have their own versions of bitter-sweet. And I have discovered that culture is the single most colorful global variable.
“Idia, pele, how are you?” My mother says, and I want to tell her that I am tired, and stressed, and that my brain hurts, but I don’t. “Hi Mommy. I’m fine. Are you busy?” “No o. Ibo lo wa?” She says, becoming worried, because she senses the tension in my voice. It’s funny how she always seems to know how I am feeling without my having to say a word.
I think of my friend Iriza. She is half Burundian and half Rwandese and grew up in Italy but now lives in France, and she attended high school with me in Singapore. This is my scant attempt at scraping the top of her identity; she is a fine example of the pots we talk about, the ones in which all cultures melt…
When you live in Florida, you don’t need to look very far to find Spanish speakers. For three years in high school, I attended the annual Florida State Spanish Conference (Conferencia) in Orlando, Florida and I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of Florida’s vibrant Latino culture. As a member of a 16-person competition team, I practiced impromptu speeches and rehearsed a play called “La Casa de Huéspedes” (“The Guest House”). For four days, Spanish was the only language that I spoke and heard, and I found myself quite literally front and center of it all as narrator of the play….
I tend to be a little nervous when I’m meeting a native Spanish speaker. I get flustered and stutter over my Spanish—even with the words I’ve said so many times that they’re second nature to me. Depending on the evening or my amount of carefree disregard, complete thoughts and sentences unfurl with the ease of my English fluency. It’s a feeling I want more of in my life, and theoretically I know how to achieve it.
During the fall semester of my year abroad in Hamburg, I took a class on the poetry of French Renaissance writer Louise Labé which involved readings in French and class time conducted in German. This made me nervous because I found it difficult to speak the two languages at once, but I hoped it would help me become more comfortable moving from one language to another. To be more confident switching between French and German, I would have to participate in class discussions in which both languages were spoken over the course of a single sentence.
I remember the exact moment I realised that I wasn’t cisgender. It was on my way back home in Germany, a couple of weeks before I was going to leave for Smith. I was just getting off the train and as I climbed up the stairs from the platform, I thought, “I am not a woman.”
There is a photo in which I look absolutely terrified. This photo was taken at the National Yiddish Book Center, during my first week of Yiddish classes, in the middle of what the employees of the book center fondly call “the stacks.” Behind the camera, rows upon piles upon boxes of books written in Yiddish stare me down. In front of the camera, fear radiates from all of my pores.
My sensei, which means teacher or mentor in Japanese, has known me since I was four years old. While he understands English, he always writes to me in Japanese, in his exceptional calligraphy, difficult for me to read because it is a style I am not familiar with. When I was younger I delayed returning his letters because I was insecure and shy about my language ability. As I grew older I found it even harder to express myself and my ideas because I was not in full control of the language. This motivated me to develop my Japanese language skills when I entered college and began my linguistic transition.
Kaitlin Hodge ’12
On the top floor of a passing hotel in Mbarara, Uganda, you will find one last set of steps, about five of them in total, leading to a metal door with an unbolted lock. Crawl through this door to the roof – a small, square platform surrounded by tin, with billowing white sheets drying in the sunlight. Stand there, and your eyes will see for miles…
“You really feel you’re a part of something. You really feel like you’re important.” This is how Gaétane Krebs replied when I asked how she felt about attending an American university. Raised in the French area around Geneva, Switzerland, Gaétane came to the American Studies Diploma program at Smith as the second participant from her family. Gaétane’s sister attended six years ago, and helped encourage her to spend a year in America.
Marisa Hopwood and Samantha Bergman
In 1917, at the age of forty, Smith alumna Madeleine Z. Doty, ’00 traveled to Russia as a correspondent for the New York Tribune and Good Housekeeping. This was not Doty’s first venture abroad. She had already been in Germany the previous year in 1916, from where she had reported for the New York Tribune about the effects of the war on Germany’s poor. Now, she would turn her keen observations onto the upheavals in Russia and provide an eye witness account for the American public at home.