American high schoolers don’t realize how idolized they are by their European counterparts. Kids in Europe grow up watching the same shows as American kids; the difference is that they have no real-life alternative to compare it to and break the illusion. At a certain point, the golden rule became this: if you saw it on Hannah Montana, there was a good chance it was true.
That’s why, as you might imagine, reality came as a bit of a shock for me. I moved to Palo Alto from Paris when I was in fifth grade, and the first couple years felt surreal enough to be shown on a movie screen. The neighbors introduced themselves by bringing cookies, we visited Disney parks in Los Angeles and the sun was always shining, even in the winter. As seasons stopped changing, time began to feel endless too, and it felt like at any moment someone would yell, “Cut!” and come take apart the set that had become my life.
Then, like in a Hollywood film, reality hit. I recognized the staples of the American lifestyle I had seen represented on TV so many times: the lockers, the open campus, the cafeteria, but everything still felt out of place and unfamiliar. I realized I was out of touch with the environment I was in. As much as I could rely on common childhood staples to carry the conversation along, the list of cultural differences was as long as the list of similarities. I didn’t try peanut butter until I was 12 years old, and I immediately hated the taste of it. Barney the dinosaur was as unfamiliar to me as the political situation of Azerbaijan, and I simply could not fathom how people managed to eat seaweed as a snack.
As more and more time passed, however, I became accustomed and even used to the American way of life. From an outside perspective, it may have seemed that I became the typical American teen. I spent the majority of my formative years living there, and the references or knowledge I possessed came from, for the most part, school and the media. But as much as I became integrated, geographically and superficially, I realized I couldn’t fully assimilate into the cultural aspect of things. The experiences that had formed my classmates and me as children were wildly different. Our sense of humor was at times incomprehensible to one another, and as much as the community I was in felt inclusive, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider.
This feeling of alienation grew stronger as I became older. I felt caught between two ways of life, and sensed that I stuck out like a sore thumb in both of them. Whenever I went back home to Europe in the summer, my relatives and friends pointed out how “American” I had become, but in America people distinguished me by my European roots.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for the perspective living in a culture different from mine offered me, as it allowed me to experience many wonderful (and bad) things I never would have experienced if I had stayed in my comfortable little bubble. Every experience is a learning experience, but that doesn’t make difficulties any easier to bear when you’re far away from everything familiar.
As diverse and inclusive as we all may try to be, we unconsciously set ourselves apart from what we deem to be unfamiliar. We stay with the same group of friends, go to the same places, categorize ourselves into different sections and continue living our lives like we always have. And while Gunn may try to help foster new connections, no school-organized event can measure up to the feeling of first being invited to a party or being asked to sit next to someone: to being treated like a person instead of a statistic.
My goal isn’t to incriminate anyone, and American students are evidently not the only ones who do this. I’m taking advantage of the opportunity I was given to bring this issue to your attention.
When you’re coming from another country, you leave behind everything you’ve ever known and lose everything you’ve ever had all at once, and as a teen it’s not a decision you get to make. Sometimes, even a simple smile or a conversation that might feel meaningless and empty to you can feel like a beacon of light to someone starting a new life.
In a society where people constantly analyze what others can and cannot do, oftentimes we forget that all of us can do something as simple as approaching a random stranger and striking up a conversation.