I was just sixteen when I embarked on an adventure, an adventure that unforgivingly threw me into a confusing culture. A “semester in the city.” A semester of foreign cultures, environments, and people. Five entire months of differentiating between my culture, a white, middle-class girl of the Midwest, and the culture of black, lower-class, teenagers of Philadelphia. A long five months of searching for a balance between American cultures.
As I left the warmth of my host home for the semester, I faced the brisk winter morning of a new day and a new adventure. A chance to familiarize myself with city-life and discover what the “real world” had to offer me. It was in leaving my comfort zone where I hoped to branch out and accept a new interpretation of life.
This new life bit back at me like the students’ stares as if to say, “Who’s that new girl, and what does she think she’s doing here with us?” Every day being a struggle in trying to find my identity among the unfamiliar that engulfed my surroundings. “Why was I here? What right did I think I had to intrude on these kids’ lives? And why did I think they should care that I’m interested in the differences that separate us and how, together, we can discover our similarities?”
It was true, I didn’t have that right. Being a white, middle-class girl from the Midwest did not entitle me to a guaranteed friendship with these city kids. Friendships weren’t a luxury, they were earned.
That was culture.
I believe that culture within America isn’t always luxurious.
Culture is not a luxury when you feel threatened by the dark as you walk through a Philly neighborhood with a friend to find something to eat late at night. Call it normal for her, terrifying for me.
Culture is not a luxury when you watch TV all night in the dark, or skip a shower because you know there won’t be money to pay the electric bills, as you well know because your phone line was already turned off.
Culture is not a luxury when you and your son are evicted from your apartment with nowhere to go.
Culture is not a luxury when you can’t afford to live.
As the semester drew on, my innovative perspective of culture became more apparent when I encountered my friend’s life-stories. Life wasn’t always handed to people as neatly wrapped Christmas presents as mine had been. Some people actually have to earn their rewards in life. Some people actually have to work hard in life to achieve their status within society.
I believe that culture within America isn’t always a luxury. Instead, it is the will to push on and succeed in life among the constant pitfalls. Culture is the struggle, but more importantly it is determination.
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