literature

The World

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Nov 20, 1987 - I am born. I am born with zero expectations: no idea what color I am, what language I'm going to speak, what God I'm meant to worship. I am thrust from a world where the only thing in existence is myself, and the faded sounds of the world beyond, a soft indication of the life of the world to come. And dying to that womb brought me here. I do not remember it. But it thrust me from a primitive solipsism to a world of Other.

September 7, 1993 - I attend my first day of first grade. It is at a public school. I have never been to a public school before. Pre-school and kindergarten were in a private, Lutheran setting. I was surrounded by a few dozen little Christian children. I don't remember any of them being a color other than white. They were all affluent enough to afford the tuition.

Public school is different. I'm sure at some point before this, I had met an African American. But I don't remember it. Now there are two of them sharing the same room as me. The girl in front of me is of Korean descent. Her eyes are narrower than mine, and she has a flat nose. But she smiles like the rest of the class.

The girl behind me isn't just a different color, but she says she's "Buddhist." I don't know what that means. I'm not even sure if I called myself a Christian at this point. I'm just Michael.

That same year, my vision starts to deteriorate. I get glasses. Children can be really mean. The can call me four eyes, it turns out. Two other boys I've never met before stand up for me. I find out what it means to be ostracized, and also what it means to have friendships. I don't know the word ostracized yet.

August 29, 2000 - I go to junior high. This is not a big deal in and of itself, but this is the day I find out we have a Chinese class. My math teacher, Miss Cheng, is from Taiwan originally, and she offers an after school program for learning Chinese. I have to pay for it, but I'm carpooling with my friend Likhi.

Likhi is half-Polish, half-Chinese. His mom was raised on mainland China, born during the Cultural Revolution. She is an interesting woman for a lot of reasons, but she speaks broken English. She is perfectly understandable, and very friendly, but Likhi, who speaks no Chinese, and I, his friend, think if we could speak a little Chinese it would be a good thing. Then Ming could help us and we could help her in turn.

I also start taking Spanish this year. It's one of two languages I'll be learning for the next two years. Languages are interesting things. In Genesis, God says "Let there be light," and there's light. Basically, He speaks the entire world into being. I don't realize this connection at the time, but the same is true for people. We speak a word and that word is the spontaneous generation of an idea.

Sure, there may not be a physical unicorn in the world, but if I speak the word, that idea is generated in your mind. There's an image of a horse with the rear body of a stag and a spiral horn sprouting from between the eyes in your mind's eye. Now I'm learning languages that other people use, weird expressions that seem foreign to English. For example, did you know that the Chinese word for "cute" is "ke-ai?" Ke means "may" or "can" and ai means "love." So literally it means "loveable."

Languages are a path to understanding culture. What people conceptualize is enocoded into words. I don't realize this until years later, but my language classes do introduce me to cultures at the same time. We celebrate el dia de los muertos (a Mexican holiday) in Spanish class. My whole Chinese group--both first and second year students--go out to dinner at the Great Wall Shopping Mall in Renton. I'm surrounded by a multitude of east Asian cultures--Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean...

I get into anime this year. It's a harmless phase that most American school students go through at some point. Anime is interesting because it shows cultural integration. I don't realize this then, but I do now.

September 11, 2001 - It is said that every generation has a defining moment in its youth. For my parent's generation, it was the Kennedy assassination. For my grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor. Before that, maybe Black Thursday or, if you go back far enough, World War I. The Challenger disaster for my older brother's generation.

For my generation, the event is unquestionably 9/11. I don't need to rehash the historic impact of this day, the cultural shift. But personally, it pushed me into a new awareness. There was conflict on a global scale. Religions fought.

This created debates about ethnic and racial profiling. It introduced me to Islam, which spurred me to study outside my religion. This same year, thankfully, I'm in a philosophy class. I learn so many esoteric thoughts, so many different approaches to life.

In his book Looking for Alaska, author John Green has a series of chapter collected into a section labeled "before" and the concluding chapters in a section known as "after." The end of the before, the beginning of the after, is a singular event. For in all generations there is a turning point.

September 10, 2001 was the before. Every moment since will forever be the after.

August 12, 2002 - I visit my friend Sam in Dallas. It is my first trip on my own. I catch a plane after getting dropped off at the airport by my parents. I land in Dallas, and it is hot. Dallas doesn't have a truly dry heat, either. I remember following the directions out of the airport.

All airports are alike. There are lots of people; they vary in ethnicity. I hear someone behind me speak a language I don't recognize. It rises and falls, eventually fading away as he disappears into the throng of people. I am alone, and I am worried, because I don't see Sam at all.

I'm not even sure if I'll recognize him; I haven't seen him in three years. My friend Sam is the first person I can remember being a non-white friend. He's Korean. He was actually born just outside Seoul and immigrated to the US in first grade. His English is okay, but his parents' is terrible.

We carpooled a little in fifth grade, on days when his mom wasn't able to pick him up. His grandmother lived with him here, before she passed away. Turns out that, unlike my anglo American family, this is normal in some cultures, a tight family unit with three or more generations sharing living space.

When he left, I didn't give him a going away present. But his family gave my family one. That seemed weird to me at the time, and I didn't know whether to be thankful or not. Now his family is hosting me for two weeks. It's like being a foreign exchange student.

I don't really know how to use chopsticks, but Sam's family has maybe two forks in the whole house. I had some practice via Chinese class and Likhi's, thankfully, but after Dallas, I am an expert. I use chopsticks like a pro.

More profoundly, I go to Sam's church. Sam's father is an associate pastor at a large Korean congregation in suburban Dallas (Richardson, to be specific). For two Sundays, two Tuesdays and two Fridays--six days total!--I am a minority. I am the only white kid in this youth group. I don't speak any Korean. I am an outsider. I try to fit in, learn what they like, but I'm going to be gone in two weeks and they all know it.

I leave Binnerri with no new friends. But I still have Sam.

August 2, 2004 - I am on an airplane. It is taking me to San Diego, where, along with 50 other teenagers and 12 adults, we will rent vans and cross the border into Mexico. It is a mission trip. I have never been outside of the country before, but I did just get my passport for this opportunity.

I don't know what to expect. I hear stories from people who have gone previously. But every year is different, new families touched, new homes built (that's what we're doing, building single family homes in the Tijuana area). At this point, I have three full school years of Spanish to my credit. I'll be interpreting.

San Diego is glitz and tinsel. It pretends to be a metropolis (it's smaller than Seattle and doesn't have nearly as diverse an economy), but it's very flat, residential and tourism-driven. There's clean roads, tall buildings. The airport has maybe 15 gates.

We get across the border. The world changes. San Diego fades away and Tijuana spreads about before me. Did you know there is poverty in this world, and it's less than three hours away? Seriously, a two-hour plane ride and a quick drive down the road and you're out of this country. Shacks made of corrugated aluminum and cardboard sit on hillsides. They spread up and away.

I have never seen anything like this. I don't think there are traffic laws in Mexico. The way people drive is so different. Turn signals; what are those? That eight-foot gap between you and the next car? Yeah, that's enough space for a car to TURN in front of you.

There's a large plant in downtown Tijuana. It's owned by Hyundai. Apparently, they make cars here. I see two men walk out of the gate at the plant. They are Korean. They are wearing fine business suits. They get into the back seat of black car, which drives them away behind tinted windows. Looking through the gates, there are a few dozen people apparently on break. They are not Korean. And they don't seem to have their own vehicles, let alone a chauffeured car waiting for them.

We are building a house. I am speaking with the local community. Some kids next door are playing American music, primarily Eminem, which is strange to hear. I was expecting Mexican music. I don't know what Mexican music is, but it's not American. A local man, Antonio, swings by and asks what we're doing. He's maybe 20. We explain that we are constructing a house for the family that owns this lot; we're missionaries from the United States.

Antonio spends the next three hours with us, helping us build the house. He is a far more skilled laborer than any of us, save my cousin Nate. But Nate has an unfair advantage: he's a general contractor for a living; all he does is build houses. Antonio doesn't ask any questions, he just does what needs to be done. He asks for nothing in return.

We never see him again. The family we were helping doesn't know him. I have witnessed a display of raw compassion. I have seen poverty, and I have seen compassion. I have interfaced with a culture radically different from my own, despite all the expectations I had built up from years of Spanish class.

Years later, I will still ponder this trip and its effect on me.

June 16, 2008 - I am on another plane. I will be landing in New Orleans shortly. Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged this city. Like several years worth of Mexico trips, I am coming to rebuild. But this is America, not Mexico. I know the language intimately; there are no barriers here.

New Orleans is a city of contradictions. I'm driving along the freeway into the city in a rented van along with the rest of my team (there are only seven of us this time around), and the first billboard I notice is for...a strip club. A quarter mile later is another billboard. This one is for a church, with the beaming smile of the head pastor (he uses the title of "bishop") welcoming you to his church, and, apparently, his city. Yeah, there's no barrier here. But like Dorothy wasn't in Kansas anymore, I'm not in Seattle. This place is radically different.

A man greets us at Wal-Mart. I'm in line at McDonald's for my first meal since breakfast the day before. I've been awake for 46 hours straight. He asks us what we're doing; my friend Tom explains. He asks we've ever been to New Orleans, when I say no he laughs. "Welcome to the zoo," he jokes. I tell him I want to visit the French Quarter, that I love jazz, that I'm intrigued by the city's vibrancy and...well, deviancy. He says he was born a pastor's son. There is no city like New Orleans. I'm starting to believe him.

New Orleans is still broken. The images faded from the television in October after Katrina leveled the area in August 2005. But that wasn't the end of the story. So many houses stand boarded up, red X's painted on indicating whether or not the dead were found here. We clean out a house before gutting it for refinishing.

People here are different. They are friendly, but they speak a different language. I mean "Heya" is technically English. But apparently it means "Hello, how are you, and how can I help you?" all at once. I feel more lost in New Orleans than I ever felt in Mexico.

I experience a culture so...American. But so...not my America. I connect with people. I see that I never had to go across the border to find poverty. Turns out, it exists even here.

October 7, 2010 - My Intro to Education class asks me to write a timeline on my cultural experiences, what I have been exposed to, how it shapes me and my thoughts. I sit and think for a moment. My parents were never the snapshot type. I don't have exciting pictures of my life at school or mission trips. I'm a writer. I use words. I think for a moment about my life.

What will I have to say? I realize, for a second, that I am sheltered. As much as I have tried to put myself into the world, there's always a home to return to: the security of my room, my bed, my computer.

I look at the name list in the class. Saucedo. That sounds Italian. Nguyen. That's Vietnamese. Tsygankova. Easter European.

I realize that I am in a class of a dozen different cultures. I realize that there's a forum with which to communicate with them digitally. And I wonder--I wonder--what it would be like if this weren't an online environment. Would their faces make a difference? Is this Internet culture so different from our face-to-face one?
This was an originally an assignment for a class I'm taking, namely introduction to education. As some of you know, I'm in school to double major in English and Theatre so I can teach high school.

This week, we were asked to create a timeline of our lives, listing 7-10 events in our life that had impacted how we had perceived and interacted with ourselves and other cultures. It was a question about diversity--economic, religious, cultural, racial. How does this affect us as educators?

This is what came out of my meandering thoughts. I had no cool power point presentation. I have no picture frame or board. Mostly because I have no pictures. But this is my thought process, my timeline.

I think it says a lot, and I like the narrative voice used throughout.
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