The Art of Befriending a Country
I was only seven months old when I took my first plane ride. In order to raise their first child in the best environment possible, my parents moved to Germany, where a favorable exchange rate and job opportunities for English speakers meant a better life for our family. As a result, I was submersed in a world of many languages. My English-speaking parents, my German neighbors, and my Turkish day care teacher filled my ears with a constant stream of multilingual lullabies. As my incomprehensible babbling turned into simple words, it was just as likely for me to say “Vati” as it was for me to say “Dad.” After two years, my parents had saved enough money for us to head back to the States, and along with an unhealthy appetite for German chocolate, I brought with me an insatiable curiosity about the world.
As I matured, my parents fed my desire for international adventures: At age five, I spent the summer in Scotland. Age seven meant a trip to Martin Luther’s home in Wittenberg. When I turned 10, we spent the summer hiking the Alps. The more I traveled, the more I wanted to see, but after the birth of my sisters, my parents ended our voyages.
When we moved to Michigan permanently, I felt like something was missing. Suddenly, instead of the vibrant diversity of foreign cities, I was surrounded by what seemed to be a bland replacement for the culture I had experienced abroad. At age 13, after realizing that my family wouldn’t be leaving the country anytime soon, I began applying to every international program I could find. Mission trips, exchange programs, pen pals: I became a part of anything that would connect me with people of other countries. I researched the history of every place I could think of. I spent my free time pouring over maps, I studied German vigorously, and I learned basic phrases in Spanish, French, Arabic, and Czech, hoping to some day put it all to use. Blinded by naivety, I believed that travel alone would enable me to understand the world.
Four years and 12 countries later, I finally had an epiphany: It wasn’t the physical travel that I craved (although that’s what my parents often assumed); it was the people I met that really interested me.
I was attending an international school in Berlin my junior year when I realized this. As the only American, I had an entirely different world view from my classmates. My closest friends were from Zambia, South Africa, Ecuador, and Syria. My classmates and teachers together represented 57 countries. As I got to know these people, I got to know their countries as well. As we discussed our backgrounds, I learned the difference between South African “ubuntu” and German “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung.” I learned about the difficulties of balancing Muslim tradition with European culture. And most surprisingly, I learned a great deal about my own background as an American.
Learning that I didn’t need to physically be somewhere to experience a culture, I finally realized just how valuable identity is in understanding the world. This enabled me to appreciate every aspect of a person’s background, regardless of whether it is radically different from mine. With this in mind, and my curiosity for the world stronger than ever, I’m putting my time and energy into my next big challenge: finding an enriching community here in the States that can help broaden my world view. And, maybe not surprisingly, I’m beginning to think that college might just be the perfect place to begin.