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There simply was no solution. With tears of frustration in my eyes I went through the options for the hundredth time. I had come face to face with one of life’s many brutal truths: no one can build a sand-castle by herself. About to give up in despair, I spied something that made my heart leap. There, between the little red slide and the big-kid swings, sat another five-year old girl. It did not matter that as a native of the country I was visiting, she only spoke German.
All too soon we were casting long shadows in the fading sunlight, and I had to say goodbye to my architectural partner. I knew nothing but her name, which I have long since forgotten. After all, this was simply one of many such encounters.
By the time I realized how lucky I was to do so, I had traveled to most of Europe and some of Asia. My father’s job dragged our family from country to country. We lived for a few months in Israel one year, a few months in Switzerland the next. If I were to go back to any one of the many countries to which I have traveled, I would naturally be drawn to the famous monuments, historic landmarks, and local museums. But the memories of my international playmates are some of the most valuable souvenirs I could bring home from my travels. With their help, I learned to both respect and appreciate others’ differences.
At times this respect came with difficulty, particularly when the culture in question clashed with my own. When I was twelve my father was invited to teach a class in South Korea, and so off we went. One day we visited a small art museum, where we met the only curator, a small, hospitable woman who spoke no English. I responded politely when she welcomed us to the museum, and then not quite so politely when she started running her hands through my long, curly hair. I stood rooted to the spot by shock and horror as she neatly braided my hair. After a few minutes I was released, and with a great sigh of relief I set off to explore. I had hardly reached the door when, to my dismay, the hair-braider returned – brandishing a comb. Gathering my dignity, I suffered her ministrations. The result was a breathtaking French braid, shaming me for resenting the curator’s lack of respect for my personal space. Never again did I hold other cultures to my own standards.
In Belize, I saw that other cultures have different economic as well as personal standards. My family and I stayed in the small village of Armenia, a town built for refugees from the surrounding countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Most residents made their living as hired hands at the local grapefruit orchards or selling handmade souvenirs to the tourists. The wealthier townspeople owned horses for transportation or pack animals, but most simply walked.
At first I pitied the locals for their poverty. As I spent more time with them, I began to see that they did not consider themselves poor, nor lament their lack of luxury. The concept of wealth meant something completely different in Armenia, something that had less to do with possessions and more to do with family. While I appreciate the comfort in which I live, the Armenians make me thankful for the little things in life, the beautiful days and loyal friends that no amount of money could replace.
To this day I value diversity. Many of my friends speak imperfect English; for most it is their second language. Few are citizens of the United States. As I make the transition from high school to college, I hope to meet students from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds with whom I can share my unique experiences. Though I have traveled in four continents and met people of numerous cultures, I have not yet been to college, and sometimes the thought makes me apprehensive. That said, I know that if I approach my college years with the same open-minded curiosity I learned from my family’s wanderings, I will be amazed.
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