SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2005 Personal Memory Ethnographies
First Day of School
My first class of the first day of school in the United States is one of my most memorable experiences. It was an ESL English class. It wasn’t just a regular first day of school. It was so different for me because I had arrived in the U.S. just two weeks prior to enrolling in school. I was born in Croatia and that is where I grew up and went to school for most of my life. The only race that I was familiar with was my own, white. I knew almost nothing about people of different races and cultures because I was never in contact with them. All I knew was what I read in school textbooks, but that was not enough. I felt that in order to understand or learn about different races and cultures I would have to become part of a multicultural society. Although I could never have imagined it, that is exactly what happened. I ended up in a multicultural society, the United States, or even more specifically my new school located in the north Phoenix. My school was one of few high schools in the area that had a program for students to learn English as a second language.
As I walked into the classroom the first thing I noticed were the faces of all the students of different races and cultures. I was surprised to see that only four or five students were of the same race as I, and I later found out that they were from my country too. The largest number of students was Hispanic, but there were also six black students from Ethiopia and Sudan, and four students were from Taiwan. I felt more different than ever before, especially when I realized that everyone was looking at me as I walked to my seat. What made it even stranger was that none of us really spoke any English and all I heard were different languages being whispered throughout the classroom. Right away it was clear to me that everyone was sitting next or close to someone of the same culture that spoke the same language. The room was almost divided into ethnic groups. This was understandable because everyone, including me, felt more comfortable within a group of people of somewhat familiar culture, to whom they could relate in some way. We were, after all, new to this kind of surrounding where everyone looked different and perhaps felt different toward one another in one way or another. I wasn’t exactly sure how to act toward the others because I didn’t know what they really thought about me. At the same time I was anxious to meet the others and learn more about them.
The classroom seemed really quiet until the teacher encouraged us to introduce ourselves to each other, in English, of course. The ice was broken as we all continued to try to know each other better. The language, obviously, was the major barrier, which everyone equally was trying to overcome. Among others, I met a student from Taiwan. His name was Chi-Wei Lee, whom I still see from time to time. We instantly became really good friends in and outside the classroom.
When Lee and I recently met, we took a few minutes to reflect back to the time of that unforgettable first day of school. He talked about how he was so afraid that, for some reason he wouldn’t be able to find his place in such an unfamiliar setting. “As I walked through the school I always felt as if I stood out from the crowd. At least you are white and it is easier for you to blend in the crowd,” Lee joked. “It was so hard at first, not knowing English and all, we are lucky those days are over”, Lee said as we parted our ways. Lee’s words made me wonder how hard it had been for him in those first days in the United States. The conversation with Lee made me realize that a person’s skin color and physical look play a huge role in the way that person is perceived by the others.
Most students from our class became even closer friends outside the classroom. At first we did not even hang around the American kids because somehow we felt different. This changed after some time as the language barrier started to disappear. As the years went by, more and more I felt that my friends and I had the sense of belonging. We finally felt that we were not excluded any more, and through the process of acculturation we were becoming equal to everyone else.
From this experience I have learned that language is the major part of one’s identity. It represents who the person is and where he or she comes from. In my case, my first language was Serbo-Croatian, which I still speak and want to be able to speak forever. This way I will always be reminded of my origins and my culture. At the same time I feel that it is important that I have learned English. Knowing English has helped me become a part of the society in which I live and participate.
Being a migrant in a new country, and experiencing the process of acculturation, has proven to be challenging tasks especially at the beginning. Ironically, I had come to America to find myself in a classroom with people from all over the globe. It has served as an eye-opener which showed me how diverse and different the world really is.
When I go back and think of my incident, which happened over seven years ago, I can clearly understand why it has stuck in my memory for such a long time. After my first encounter with a new and unfamiliar society made up of people of different races, cultures, and religions, my greatest fear was the process of acculturation. When I first walked into that classroom and heard all the different languages, and saw different faces, I was not completely convinced that I would be able to make it and succeed in what was then an unfamiliar society. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to become a member of that multicultural society.
After my incident I was determined to learn about different people and their cultures. The experience showed me how important it is to know what other people are like, what they feel and how they think. It has led me to believe that it is important for a member of a multicultural society to learn to appreciate others and their cultures.
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