It's a Small World After All
hough I graduated a year early from Swarthmore, my connection to campus lives on in the amazing people I was fortunate enough to meet - friendships I anticipate will last forever. When I first arrived, I was pleased to find one major aspect Swat had in common with my hometown: a diverse student body ambitiously representing countries as disparate as Ecuador to South Korea. And each student I met from this pool of internationals was as intelligent, open-minded, and fascinating as the one before. (That can easily be said of all Swatties.) It was then I realized how comfortable I felt in the company of my "i20ers" - the term, taken from the immigration form all international students need to complete to enter the U.S., that we use to refer to ourselves.
Despite the "'07"s at the end of my and fellow alum Michelle Yong's names, we refused to allow graduation to interfere with meddling in the lives of innocent Swatties and invited a group of international students to visit us during October break. As two Colombians living in close proximity to each other in greater Miami, it became a terrific opportunity to see our favorite foreigners while showing them our home turf. Five friends enthusiastically accepted the proposal. The Model U.N. consisted of Janis Libeks '10 from Latvia, George "Jorge" Yin '09 from China, Rasa Petrauskaite '08 from Russia, Awo Aboagye '08 from Ghana, and Nardine Zakhary '08, originally from Egypt and now a newly-minted U.S. citizen.
Clockwise from top left, Nardine Zakhary '08, George Yin '09, Janis Libeks '10, Awo Aboagye '08, and Rasa Petrauskaite '08.
Upon arrival on Saturday, we promptly set off for the Gloria Estefan-owned Bongos' Cuban cafe and salsa club. Jorge informed us he was taking African dance this semester, while Awo, a Spanish minor, showed us her skills both on the dance floor and off as we ordered ropa vieja (literally, "old clothes," referring to shredded beef) and vaca frita ("fried cow"). The next day, Janis hand-delivered a birthday gift, straight from Riga - my favorite Latvian chocolate, Laima - only to have it followed by a shipment of melon, kiwi, and green tea-flavored Kit-Kats from Tokyo sent by my former roommate, Miwa. Thus began the first of many cross-border exchanges to transpire that week.
As Monday rolled in, we ALL piled into Michelle's 4Runner (an exercise in international cooperation in and of itself) and headed to various Miami hotspots. While in South Beach, our Eastern Europeans relished the opportunity to swim like the dolphins we would later view at the Seaquarium. (Janis: "This is cold for you? The water freezes in Riga!") Relaxing on shore, Awo read a collection of Spanish short stories while Jorge engrossed himself in State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle. Back at home, Nardine reclined on 100% Egyptian cotton sheets as she mentioned possibly researching the usage of traditional Chinese therapies in Australia next year.
Daniela says her mom asked if she "purposely set out to find this particular set of friends, or if the Admissions Office has a knack for accepting students from distinct countries, cultures, religions, and ideologies with similar underlying personality traits."
Strolling through Bayside, we completed the "G8" by meeting up with fellow Floridian/Peruvian Rosario Paz '10, currently taking Japanese with Jorge and Janis. We encountered prolific "MOS"s (Moments of Spanish) as street vendors accosted us following a bilingual sightseeing cruise. Curiously, the object of our undivided attention was not Usher's extravagant Star Island estate, but rather the interactive globe we had eyed at The Sharper Image. On the road, chauffer/DJ Michelle occasionally interrupted Shakira and Juanes by playing Russian and Latvian songs from past Eurovision contests. I recalled thinking to myself as we made our way to Key Biscayne via scenic Rickenbacker Causeway, bordered by the bay on one side and the ocean on the other, listening to my friends' conversations while the Latvian a capella group Cosmos harmonized softly in the background, it really doesn't get much better than this.
Our mutual experiences, combined with a collective understanding of each other's backgrounds, only improved as the break unfolded. No sooner had we left the airport when Awo taught us "good morning" in Twi, one of many languages spoken in Ghana. At Michelle's house, George led everyone in a memorable session of differentiating between "she is very smelly" and "she is very ugly" in Mandarin (barring the mysterious subject, who shall remain forever unknown, it is difficult for untrained ears to discriminate between tones). We learned the notoriously-challenging Latvian "narrow railway" phrase - which, for yours truly, was merely additional practice considering my masterful proficiency in the language.
Playing the bongos at - where else? - Bongos, the Gloria Estefan-owned Cuban cafe and salsa club.
At our "Mock Thanksgiving" dinner, my mom posed the hypothetical question: if you were a travel agent from your town of origin, what would you say to promote others to visit? Nardine mentioned the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; Awo discussed the traditional festivities/celebrations held in Accra; Janis shed light on the midsummer holiday named after him (and most of Latvia's male population), where denizens of Riga head to the countryside for bouts of dancing, drinking, and inevitable bonfire-jumping; George, from Taipei/Shanghai, replied, "the food!" as he went back for seconds of turkey; Rasa took us through a tour of Moscow as she listed the Bolshoi, Red Square, Kremlin, and other places of interest; and Michelle and I recalled our visits to hilltop farms and stunning beaches, respectively, as we described Colombia's remarkable topographic diversity.
True Swatties that we are, the week was not complete without a continuation of the intercultural dialogues first begun on campus. Politics was the order of the day, as Jorge's unease with carrying the PRC flag saw him opting for the Taiwanese one during a Bayside photo shoot. We contemplated the repercussions of Chinese aid given to West Africa in what appeared a trade-strengthening maneuver. Though Janis and Rasa get along well, I sense much work remains in mending strained Russo-Latvian relations. We circumvented the touchy subject of Putin in favor of discussing the newly-appointed Latvian president and Lithuanian finance minister (who attended school with Rasa's parents). Disregarding one episode where Latvia was off-handedly referred to as "dinky" - a notion hastily quashed by all witnesses - the predominant atmosphere was congenial, tolerant, and immensely receptive.
The "i20ers" at Bayside in front of Freedom Tower, a monument to Miami's Cuban community.
By the week's conclusion, I had acquired several more flags for my ever-growing repertory. Another eagerly-anticipated addition will be in the number of pins showcased on my world map, which I expect to occur sooner rather than later. My mom was astounded when our hyperactive canine (who came from Madrid three years ago but, sadly, is not yet bilingual) behaved calmly around my friends, sensing the level of peace in the household. She asked me whether I purposely set out to find this particular set of friends, or if the Admissions Office has a knack for accepting students from distinct countries, cultures, religions, and ideologies with similar underlying personality traits. I replied that her second assumption was generally correct. While we may be from all over the globe, the group's cohesiveness is true testament to Swarthmore's spirit of acceptance. Strangely enough, as a recent graduate, this October break has undoubtedly been my best one yet.
Daniela and Miami invite all internationals and friends of internationals with outstretched arms, open hearts, and, most importantly, empty stomachs (as George knows well, Floribbean cuisine can be quite filling). ¡Nos vemos!