Cultural differences require understanding and respect

Catherine - New Rochelle, New York
Entered on December 12, 2007
Age Group: 18 - 30

I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From kindergarten to sixth grade I was in a Spanish Immersion class with the same twenty-five kids every year. Day in and day out I was surrounded by people who looked and acted like me. We were all white, middle-class, sheltered children, products of our suburban upbringing. I was comfortable in my environment with its straight lines, clearly drawn boundaries, and folks I understood. I enjoyed my routines and disliked the smallest changes: getting accustomed to a new teacher, buying a fresh pair of tennis shoes, or moving my bed to the opposite corner of my room.

On April 18, 2001, I moved to New York. Two days after arriving, my older sister and I were thrown into a private, all-girls Catholic school. I will never forget the time I first realized the extent of how different my new hometown was. We were switching classes when the movement of traffic stopped and our attention was directed to a girl in my grade whom I played soccer with. She stood with her right hand on her hip, her left hand gesturing as she spoke to a woman whose arms were crossed against her chest with one toe of her high heels tapping the tiles. The girl’s fresh white Reeboks were planted firmly on the ground, her eyebrows were raised and you could only see a small slit of her eyes. Her voice was growing louder and faster as time passed and as her words got squished together into high stoccato notes, her Bronx accent became thicker. Then, in a matter of seconds it was over and she was into a nearby office.

This was my first impression of Lizzy and with time her bluntness and ease with speaking her mind, behavior codified by her Bronx Italian upbringing, only became clearer. Cultural background is important here, more important than I ever would’ve guessed it to be. Declaring your ancestry was analogous to choosing sides in a fight. Upon further orientation with my new surroundings I also learned, that it wasn’t simply taking pride in your own background and beliefs, it was about understanding and respecting others’ as well. Culture dictated social interactions: who you spent time with, how you treated family and authority figures, and how you spent your free time. The school helped because it forced us to be conscientious of each other’s beliefs. Girls were celebrating Ramadan, Black History Month, and Yom Kippur, holidays I had never heard of before and all were invited to participate and learn something new about a different culture’s celebration. It may take some time, but getting accustomed to life dictated by culture brings new, enjoyable experiences every day, this I believe.