Adventures of an American Fly on the Wall

I’ve come to the realization that Americans get a bad rep abroad.

Something that I have noticed, especially here in Florence, is the massive ‘tourist culture’. Most people have a ‘vacation mentality’ when traveling, often because they are on exactly that – a vacation. Yet, something that seems to fly over the heads those who turn off the processing of reactions don’t realize that behavior that fits in one location, doesn’t ‘fit in’ in all locations. 

There is a thin line between meager cultural differences and more obnoxious and offensive behavior. 

Not going to lie, I feel an irritation towards people who have a similar accent to myself. Haven even muttered the word “Americans” under my breath, tasting the sourness in my exhale as if I was personally offended by their loud laughs, casual conversation, and basketball shorts. Sometimes I seem to forget my own distinctive ‘American’ laugh, constant asking for directions, and – nope, I don’t own basketball shorts so you don’t have me there. 

Are we offended by these different cultures when abroad because we don’t like the uniqueness that is associated with being different? Is there a push towards mono-culture because then everyone is the same, has the same interests, thus there is less friction and conflict between people? 

Why then, however, are humans across cultures desperate to ‘fit in’ yet want to be considered unique at the same time? Accepted but also held in higher regard? Maybe part of human nature, we are desperate to be included in the community by see the ones that are slightly different more powerful. 

I must admit, I have the tendency to want to blend into the locations and places that I visit. Politeness, respectability, and observant eyes were the tools I used in this process of learning or trying to learn how to blend into different environments with ease. To be a sore thumb in a cultural location is perceived as irritating to locals and other travelers alike. I’ve become extremely aware of the hypersensitivity associated with calling attention to oneself, almost especially when abroad. Back in the States, I’ve come to realize that we don’t mind loudness, in fact, we often relish in it. However, it is considered obnoxious in many cultures to call attention to oneself and make a scene. 

Since being here in Florence, I realized the arrogance of my judgements of other travelers. I am hypocritical by offering my judgement of tourists whom are unable to blend in. Have I forgotten my roots? In the education of my school, I’ve become ‘internationally-cultured’ through the diversity of places I have lived in and the nationalities and cultures of my friends. Even my accent becoming tinged with the intonations of my Bhutanese peers, my vocabulary not distinctive of a particular region and my inner ‘valley girl’ (I am from Silicon Valley) has calmed down with the constant “likes” and the “sentences that end as a question?”. 

The ‘global issue’, in a way, of tourist culture is the lack of awareness that some people exude when abroad. It seems that there is an absence of understanding that not everyone in a location isn’t also on vacation  Cultural offensiveness is something that I experienced in all countries that I’ve traveled to, whether it be my own ignorance, the disconnect with the culture of the people there, or observing interactions with foreigners and locals. For instance, I was totally naive in Argentina about dress – still wearing the hoodies, short shorts, and vans that clothed my existence back in California. In India, I was so shocked to be so out of my comfort zone with the chaos and crowds that I eventually became hyper aware of how others were perceived. It was here I realized how culturally offensive I can be as I spoke rudely to a tuktuk driver. Realization dawned on me as I became embarrassed of how I acted and spoke. The past two years of TGS, I’ve been in mostly western-influenced countries and was surprised by how different cultures can be within the western sphere of influence. The conservatism of the Swedes totally juxtaposes the outgoing nature of the Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks or the Italians. Nevertheless, I’ve found that the American culture is the most casual of them all, having a sort of ‘anything goes’ kind of attitude to decorum, a loud politeness that appears rude to the more formal politeness of Europe. Then again, this is all just my perception of the situation 

In all honesty, my conclusion is that the best thing someone can do to avoid the ‘global issue’ of cultural insensitivity is to observe and be patient. Understanding ones place by acting as a third-party on interactions with people similar to you makes you want to adjust your actions. Trying to be a fly on the wall and viewing the situation differently changes the opinion you have of your behavior. 

The Things We Carry

We carry too many things to travel light.

Our fifty pound pounds bag are full of toothpaste, shampoo, medication, books, binders, paper, pens, moleskines, cameras, photographs, underwear, jackets, spotify playlists, kindles, books, library cards, water bottles, evil eyes, duct tape, art projects, biology notes, and BS. We don’t need half the things that we carry, but we cling to the familiarity of ‘home’ in the hotel rooms, dorm rooms, and halloween costumes as we set up camp for the umpteeth time in the past four years of our lives.

We carry youth, teenage angst, anger and love.

We carry more identities than nationalities. We carry more technology than socks. We carry more hope than Hans Rosling’s statistics do. We carry more hugs than tears. We carry the burdens and blessings of memories, lessons, and too many alfajores.

We carry too many things to travel heavy.

We carry stories. Happy stories like when we ran through the streets of Nacka with spoons as our swords and ‘The System’ as our opponent. We floated through the streets like a Jake jumps over a hopscotch – with a little too much forward momentum and the fearlessness to jump again (and again). Hard stories like when we trudged through the mountains of Monteverde screaming out against the confinement, the lack of control, and the constipation. Hilarious stories like when a Yodsel flew through the air like the bat in our bathroom at Indus, to take out a Fatima on a raft in Costa Rican whitewater.

We carry so much responsibility, our heads and hands are strong from holding ourselves together.

Our endurance to carry all of these things is so tested that our lungs feels as if they are collapsing simply from an email notification about our ToDos on spot; however, we know that our lungs are not collapsing. The only thing collapsing is our bodies as we fall onto cool, foreign, overwashed, almost-white sheets. As we breathe in the cheap detergent, we let our ugly-as hiking bags sink deep into our backs. We carry hiking boots that we never use, a flashlight that looks like a baton, and too many bug bites for the amount of bug sprays we brought.

We carry the ability to handle what is handed to us.

We carry things for the rough roads and smooth sailings. We carry snacks for when our tummies ache for its love (food), advil for (really) all the time, and floss for cleaning our mouth of the crap that comes out and into it. We carry so much love it is unknown just how much we carry – the only answerable question is what form it takes: passion, punches, lunches, laughs, photographs, pancakes, headaches, hugs, pugs, prancing, dancing.

We carry our lives traveling: through people, places, and purposes.

Homestay with the homegirls

Homestays are supposed to be uncomfortable. Sleeping in a stranger’s bed, eating strange food, speaking a strange language, and sometimes the entire experience is condensed into 6 strange meals. How would you make the most of those awkward meals? Would you act with a boldness bordering brash, able to take a stiff situation with an airy attitude or would you be someone to get caught up in the strangeness?

Strangers create moments.

Fast looks, shy smiles, handshakes, roaring laughter, quizzical brows, and the fumble of sound and movements we take meaning from; a fleeting glance through a bus window, an eye-opening conversation across a worn wooden table, or a welcoming ‘buenos dias’ in an unfamiliar kitchen.

Language.

It is both the explicit, implicit, and position of ourselves in it all; the words we speak and the motions we make. It is almost startling how quickly we communicate with a blink of an eye, an instantaneous judgement; as well as the steady and slow unravelling of the internal tape recordings of all their moments.

Sitting at the table of my host family in Costa Rica, I couldn’t help but ponder the significance of language as the mother, daughter, two of my classmates, and I engaged in a conversation of Spanish, English, German, Mandarin and French.

Quick background: my host family experience was a feminine one. The estrogen level was at level “5 girly-girls all under one roof with no males and a chubby dog.” It was a blur of rolling ‘Rs’, well-placed and mis-placed giggles, and a series of moments and lessons I will cherish for a really long time.

As a someone who has been living out of a suitcase for the past three years, I have been living in a psychedelic sea of moments; and the moments have left their vibrancy on my body.  The outlines of countless mattresses that have shaped the curve of my back, the flavors of countless meals that have stained the taste buds on my tongue, the faces of countless strangers lay ingrained in some tissue of my brain.

Maybe they are countless because I didn’t even think about counting them.

As someone who is critical of the “live in the moment” philosophy, I sure am obsessed with the idea of it. This is both the fault and the strength of the travel writer. The lust for romanticizing moments is really just making mountains out of molehills.

And I end my preface of profound moments to introduce you to my monomyth of a homestay.

 

Our group of fourteen 11th grade students came tumbling out of a bus in the city of Orosi. Our first point of contact was a building I forgot the name of. We were greeted by Sarah, a Canadian lady who moved here because the moose can’t handle her energy levels. Gosh, they must have had seizures just thinking about her. After Sarah goofing-ly lectured us about how we must be well-behaved children, we were released to our families. Tiana, Sabrina, and I were paired with a mother and daughter.

The five of us females hit it off immediately; all of our personalities opened right up like our pie-holes at dinner that night. No, we didn’t have pie, but dinner was just as delicious. And guess what? There wasn’t a lick of beans on the table! You should have seen my stomach doing dance moves. I had been avoiding beans all of Costa Rica because me plus beans equals a necessity for gas masks.

Although we all hit it off, there was a weird moment during this fun night, or at least a moment where I felt weird. It was when we were talking about ethnicity, and drifted into a conversation about “chinos.” Know, my spanish language abilities are minimal and rough around the edges to say the least. But they started talking, and my mind stopped processing sounds as meanings. They all started doing the eye thing, and I was kind of like ‘woah, what did I miss? You know I am sitting right here right. I am asian. Sabrina is asian. Why are you doing that.’ It ended up with laughing and I just decided to shake off the racism as ignorance as there isn’t many asians in this area so they only know the stereotype. Little did I know (later found out), that it actually was just the language barrier that built the wall between the communication.

Language is both the actions you make with your body, and what comes out of your mouth – if you don’t understand both, you are doomed to misinterpret what the actual message is. Instead of derogatorily talking about asian’s eyes, they were talking about how strong they think that feature is, and how they think it is beautiful; kind of the opposite of what I thought they said which was more along the lines of how small they are and how larger eyes are more attractive. Oh well, lesson learned – language is weird.

That first night, we also attended and played in a neighborhood soccer or futbol match. The name you call the sport depends on how important you think the game is. I am someone who calls it soccer in my head but futbol out of my head to avoid getting beat up by my soccer, I mean futbol, crazed peers. Our host family, the female squad, went over to the stadium, and was greeted with sweating children, the lingering smell of old sweat, fellow host families, some other locals, and Sarah-the-eccentric-lady’s family.

I swear, that this whole game was out of a Murakami novel. Sarah’s son – 10, white-blond, brace faced, spoiled – brought his cello to the soccer game. Oh my gosh. I wish that I could have stabbed myself with his bow. But noooooo. It got even better. His mom took his cello and started playing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. At that point I wanted to crush the mini cello into the pavement and say “YOU ARE A GROWN WOMAN. CONTROL YOURSELF.” But then I would of gotten sent home on a plane because apparently, Sarah thinks she has the powers to just do that. But you know, she is a nice lady, just kind of interesting.

Very interesting.

I could go on about her interesting qualities for a while.

But I won’t because that would be mean.

And slightly boring.

Anyway… After socc- eh, futbol, we walked back to our host family’s home and got into our pajamas and had a pillow fight and had virgin margaritas and watched chick flicks and painted each other’s toenails!!

Kidding. However, I would have been down for some chick flicks. What actually happened was the the five of us all parted our ways, brushed teeth, said goodnight, and went to bed. Tiana, Sabrina, and I stayed up for a little talking but then went to sleep – exhausted from our day of travelling, laughing, and cello-listening.

 

Waking up, the first thing you see is a foreign ceiling: a hybrid off grey off white color that seems to have been painted 8 or so years ago (maybe longer). Then you feel the sheets: grandma-y, flower-y, rubbed of softness, a tad pilly, a tad rough, fully loved. You can’t help but pat yourself on the back for wearing sweatpants instead of shorts, and instantly feel bad about it.

Of course, since I just woke up the morning after a night of girl talk, most of this didn’t cross my mind. I was too preoccupied with finding my phone, which was somewhere in my bed, to check the time.  Reaching around, searching for the phone that has managed to not fall off the bed, I wiped my nose. Oh crap.

Yup, that is a budding zit.

I find my phone, grab my shower things, and go to the bathroom to take the first shower at 5:55 am. I look in the mirror and feel the bump. Yup, that is an underground volcano ready to emerge and erupt.

 

After Tiana, Sabrina, and I showered, changed, had breakfast, and got all of our stuff ready for the day, our host mom Yita took us to the meeting point which was at the building we all arrived at the day before. After showing us the way there, she departed with a wave and was off on the 5 minute walk back to the house.

 

Climbing off the bus after our day of doing things I can’t even remember, I, along with the other two girls, headed towards the house.

Walking home was surreal.

The sun was low, giving a contoured look to buildings, people, roads. I kept on thinking about my swinging camera at my hip. My fingers were itching to capture the images my photographer’s eye kept on catching. I repressed the urge and instead lived in the moment.

I couldn’t help but think that after I left this town, I would never smell these smells, feel this air, hear these noises, walk these roads, hop over these sewers, see these sights again. I could not help but become in awe of a moment that I would never be able to recreate. And in that moment, my mind was clear; I wasn’t thinking about things that were going on in relationships, in school, in the future.

Our walk ended when we reached our house.

I forgot to mention that all of the houses have bars on their windows, bars on some doors, and gates separating their house from the streets. The houses are a lot nicer inside that the street makes them out to be. Its kind of like opening a present wrapped in aluminum foil, and getting a smartphone — which everyone seemed to have.

Yes, in straightforward-not-fun-swirly-description, our host family was well off. Obviously not all of the houses will of looked like this, but that is my experience. Do not take the real estate in this area at face value.

 

When we all sat down at the table, my host mom said to me, after putting some food into her mouth, “do you want me to pop your zit?”  This issues a burst of hysterical laughter from every chair at the table, and a good-natured nod from me as well.

This dinner was by far the most fun. We talked about all the things females love to talk about when it is just girls: zits, periods, boys, love stories, etc. We also talked about more widely approved topics across the genders such as languages, education, what we did that day, etc.

 

After dinner came the eruption.

What happened involved a very small and crowded bathroom, a mirror, some cotton, some rubbing alcohol, and some finger pressing.

Oh!

And my face.

So, we all crowded into the bathroom, my host mom Yita and I the center of attention. I started pressing my volcano, but nothing was really happening. So Yita took control; she took her two thumbs and pressed.

It hurt, bad.

And then, I did some pressing and then…

A cheer went through the crowd! Woohoo! The eruption was spectacular! But you thought that people would leave after? Never! We must wait until the red liquid comes out! We want blood! (Like I said, we talked about this over dinner)

Everyone continued to be infatuated with the crater in my face for a few minutes more, until it was just me holding the alcohol-soaked cotton ball to my face.

The technique worked though, I woke up that morning with barely a trace of a scar.

Thanks Yita.

 

My time with my host mom, Yita, host sister, Madelien, and my class mates, Sabrina and Tiana, I will never forget. Everytime I look in the mirror and see my upper lip, I will think of them. And I smile every time I do.

 

Experiences are what make people. What you did, what you laughed at, what you cried at, what you ran from, what you ran at, and what you worked at. Experiences are made with others. Who you met, who you laughed with, who you cried with, who you ran with, and who you worked with. You can have done all of these things, but it would be nothing if not done with others. That is what determines the quality of what you have done.


Dropping rocks in New Zealand

I think New Zealand was a learning term. The motto was “you know what self, you are going to deal with your problems.”

I became more confident, more efficient, more organized, more OCD, more hard work, and more mature. I guess it was a more kind of term. I learned some limits, learned confrontation, learned how to take notes, learned how to procrastinate more.

And believe me, I still have planets of self improvement to go.

gah. I actually can’t believe that I wrote that for the countless time. Thats what happens every time someone asks me to reflect. And for some reason, I’m always angry and on the verge of curse words pouring out of wherever I keep my frustration and onto the screen. Also, to be honest, everything that I said above happens to me every time I come back from a semester.

I guess something special I learned from my time in New Zealand was how to take responsibility. But to only sweat the important things, and sometimes the important things are the small things. New Zealand was the time where I shoved off a lot of the rocks that were weighing me down. Each rock was something I hadn’t let go yet. Things that I should have brushed off had stuck to my ego like super glue.

I made the choice, with some help from people I love, to let go of those rocks.

And so far, everything is a lot more doable than it was before.

Deja Vu

I just revisited a post that I wrote about two years ago. I’m oddly entranced with how I used to write, and noticed the evolution that I had even in that short snippit of words mumbled and jumbled.

I also had the moment where I was a tad disappointed in myself. How is it that a creative piece that I wrote as a freshman vastly surpasses what I am producing now? What happened? Where did that creativity and innovation that overwhelmed my writing as a recently turned 15 year old go? Why isn’t my 16-going-on-17 writing as deep and lyrical? Where did my spark and joy of language and playing with words hide in my mind.

I want you to come back creativity. I miss you.

I will let you know, trying to respark a spark is far harder that maintaining it; and believe me trying to maintain a spark is far harder when you, yourself keeps blowing at the hot surfaces – blowing hot breath on anything that twinkles because you are scared of starting a fire.

My fear has definitely grown. My insecurities less overwhelming but less manageable. That one rock that kept me strong has been replaced by a wind that comes in waves but only for a week or so before disappearing into the form of a text or a call. My rock used to be intelligence, now it is people.

Maybe not entirely, I’m not in the head of my 2 year younger body. I think my soul is darker that it was a few years ago.

I used to write to play with ideas, to try and focus the insane ideas that my brain spat out in hope of creating something digestiable. Mostly digestiable for myself, so I could go back in two years and spark a long timid flame inside of myself.

It has been the curse of me but also my driving force until I realized that I wasn’t going to be perfect and I never will be.

I have a habit, a significant trait of my addiction, to compare myself to others. It’s a tracking method, designed help keep pace with your “perfect” peers. But as a year has passed since I felt above, that comparison has been my demise. I compare myself to others, even though I know that we have different strengths, but see how their weaknesses are far superior to my strengths and then I cry and scream and throw my shoes at the wall. Of course, after this I compose myself, throw on a persona, drink a coffee, wash my face, and return with a hilarious one-liner that makes me inflate a bit inside when people laugh.

It’s called coping.

Empire State of Mind

“These streets will make you feel brand new”

Indeed Jay-Z, they did.

I love New York City. Seriously. Like, I’m in LOOOOVE. Then again, I really only hung out between 14th and 59th in Manhatten. I did go up to The Bronx, and walked about Columbia a little. Along with Chinatown and Little Italy. (I didn’t make it to Brooklyn) But I got hooked in the SoHo, Chesea, Times Square, and Meat Packing area. I must say, my favorite street is 5 Ave. It does sound very steriotypical but it is beautiful.

Coming to NYC, I was scared. I had this inaccurate image of New York instilled in my brain by these frightening fantisies of dark lights, back alleys, and black ho0dies. I was greated with this overwhelmingly fashionable population which was generally friendly, funny and….normal. It is crazy to think right? N-O-R-M-A-L. Normal. Looking at the word now, normal is a strange word; not quite narwal or no mall or no mal, but normal. Off topic but, honestly, I truely enjoyed New York.

It was an eye-opening experience to the wonders of a big city.

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Shop Till You Drop

Sydney and I went shopping today. Wheh, haven’t been able to say that in a while; between my workload and laziness, I haven’t paid Forever 21, H&M, and Urban Outfitters a visit in a while. Seriously, teachers need to understand that an hour on Spanish every night is not healthy for a growing 15 year old! Although, I think that the stress is not only getting to the students, but the teachers. With our school heading to New York on Saturday, then a wilderness trip the following, and one week to prepare before exams, there is a bit to stress about. I’m glad that I was able to de-stress-itize a little with the mindfully mindless activity of filtering through clothes.

On our journey, we first traveled to the land of 21 Forever. Two lone riders were then spotted and were ambushed with a hug from Sydney, my partner in crime. They were leaving the four-levelled-battleground, while we were heading into the thick of it. Gawa, a lone rider, was telling us about a necklace that she had just bought and thought that it wouldn’t match her dress. We reassured her and then headed into the shop.

We didn’t find much in Forever 21, it was a lot of outfits that we thought were cute but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We were specifically shopping for two events that we would attend in New York (both organized by the school), the Great Gatsby dinner and the Yacht night. The Great Gatsby event is themed, the “roarin’ twenties” as it is the era that The Great Gatsby took place. Finding a dress from that decade is difficult. Like seriously, I found one and it was took big (it sucked). While in the store, Sydney and I both pointed out outfits that “were so Liisa.” Liisa is our Swedish friend who is very, very, very fashionable. And we discovered there that grunge was in, along with shorts that would leave our dads pointing guns at males who come within five feet of us.

Leaving Forever 21 without anything, we made our way to a store called Fossil. Not finding much there, we went next door to Urban Outfitters. Grunge is REALLY in. Having a very similar experience to Forever 21, Syd and I scuttled under our umbrella until we came across “Second Time Around.” It is a thrift not really thrift shop. I found a cute pair of shorts for fifteen dollars and got them. But before I entered the perimeters of the shop, my green umbrella decided that it was having a mood swing and cut my finger. That gained it a timeout in the front of the store to think about what it had done. The lady, I’m not sure what her name is, was kind enough to lend me a band-aid for my wound. She told me about how she knew exactly what it feels like because it had happened to her earlier this week. While at Second Time Around, the drizze went to downpour as drops of water beat up the ground like a boxer to a bag.

Feeling the steady pitter-patter against the fabric above our heads, we made our way a few blocks down to H&M. Walking into the large clothing store, I stated, “this is where we should have come first!” Making our way up to the escalator exposed a floor that had everything from slightly formal to grunge to lingerie. I headed to the dressing room with a polka dot dress and a gray crew crop top. The blue dress wasn’t very flattering, but I liked the top. Sydney was trying on two black dresses. She showed me one where there was a strip of lace right below the bust, which spread across her upper back. It was knee-length. Sydney looked FANTASTIC. (she got it, yay!)

Realizing that we only had 10 minutes to go, I quickly grabbed some rings, paid for my shirt and headed downstairs to find Sydney by the door. We jog-walked to the residence and bust through the door at 6:29pm. It was productive and yet not productive trip as I did not get what I was hoping to get.

Whatever, I’ll go shopping again tomorrow 😉