Congratulations to Mary, a winner of the Bob &Edie Writing Scholarship, traveling with Xperitas to Spain in the spring. Embark on a captivating journey with Mary as she reflects on the powerful influence of cultural immersion in her essay below.
Although I have never left the United States myself, that does not mean I am unaware of the effects of language and cultural immersion.
I grew up in Pacific Grove, California, a small town on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Our town also happened to be a destination for immigrants from all parts of the world. From Pakistan and Afghanistan and Venezuela, families left their home countries for a dramatic change of life in the States.
One family, in particular, moved from Afghanistan, and their son Akram was in my second-grade class. As I had recently moved to the school the previous year, our teacher thought it would be a good idea for us to spend time together during recess. Akram did not know any English and similarly, I did not speak Dari. Although we had no method of verbal communication, we enjoyed each other's company. We communicated solely through demonstrations. We spent the months following his move, jumping over cones at recess, kicking soccer balls, and trying to teach the other the ABCs in each respective language, unsurprisingly he was far more successful than I was. Summer break started and I did not see Akram until the following fall.
When I was reunited with my friend, I was shocked to see that he was almost fluent while I was still struggling to memorize the alphabet in Dari. Looking back, I understand his fast grasp of the language was not due to skill but due to necessity. He needed to learn the language. His parents relied on him to translate at parent-teacher conferences, the grocery store, and almost every location you could imagine. By being placed in a public school where the only language spoken was English, he was exposed to far more of the American culture than his parents were which allowed him to pick up the language quickly.
Although I never became fluent in Dari or was able to master the alphabet, Akram’s culture had a significant impact on my life. He was my first friend who did not speak English, who wasn’t raised on mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, and who didn’t celebrate Christmas. He showed me that people don’t need to understand each other to get along. But most importantly, he taught me, although unknowingly, that culture stays with us no matter where we travel. He brought his Afghan culture to the States while adopting elements of mine. He taught me that culture is not lost when you leave your country, rather it is added upon.
As I left Pacific Grove in the 5th grade, I have not seen Akram for over six years. But I still remember the impact he had on me and my small town.
When I moved from California to Wisconsin, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was blond. Although my move was significantly smaller and different than Akram’s, I felt scared and nervous to walk through the doors on the first day of school and I spoke the language. This reminded me of Akram's first day in a new school, without knowing the language. Akram’s ability to thrive and make friendships without speaking English gave me confidence that I would be ok.
Through my friendship with Akram, and moving, I have learned that culture is fickle, it shape shifts throughout the country and is adopting of change. Cultural immersion is about learning the differences and similarities between two people, whether it be someone from Afghanistan or Wisconsin. Learning about someone's culture is the first step to learning about them.
As Mary shares her experiences of cultural shifts, she reminds us that true understanding begins with cultural immersion. Whether it's bridging the gap between Afghanistan and the United States, her narrative underscores the universal truth that embracing differences fosters genuine connections. Her story serves as a reminder of the impact that language and cultural immersion can have, aligning with the broader mission of Xperitas—to foster connections, understanding, and a sense of belonging through transformative language and cultural experiences. Congratulations, Mary, for your well-deserved recognition, and thank you for inspiring us with your experience. May your story continue to resonate, encouraging others to embark on their own paths of linguistic and cultural exploration!