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Contest Winners #228
How has living among people from diverse cultures enriched your life?
Writing Contest Winners

1st Prize
Learning to Embrace My Culture

Bradley Tian, 16, International Academy, Novi, MI
As a child, I never really appreciated the value of culture. I wished that I could be like the rest of my classmates—light-skinned and normal. All my culture seemed to do was separate me from everyone else. I ate rice instead of burgers for dinner and spent my Sundays at Chinese school instead of at church. This cultural contrast only made it harder for me to relate to my classmates, and I was afraid of drawing attention to it. I didn’t want to be seen as different.

But I was different, and soon found that this was nothing to be ashamed of. When I moved to a new high school, there were lots of kids like me, whose parents and grandparents hadn’t come from America. Every year, the school held an International Culture Fair where students gathered and shared their culture in creative ways. Students I knew wore traditional clothes and shared exotic foods. I had no idea that the kids from my school came from such diverse and vibrant cultural backgrounds. As the Chinese proverb goes, I had been “surrounded by flowers but blind to their beauty.”

Then I saw one of my friends, whose parents are from Nigeria. She was dressed in richly colored garments covered in designs so complex that I was awestruck. She shared with me a dish that tasted like sweet potatoes covered in delicious sauces and exotic seasonings. She told me that Nigerians value social life and openness. I thought these attributes described her well. I saw that her culture defined her personality, and by extension, her identity.

I then realized that my culture was just as big a part of me as Nigerian culture was a part of her. I had been trying to hide my culture in order to fit in, but in reality something so integral to my life was impossible to conceal. More than just eating different foods and speaking different languages, culture is an entire set of beliefs and values that influences every aspect of our lives. Culture is the foundation upon which character is built.

Seeing someone so in touch with her culture made me realize that I had been ignoring mine, pretending it didn’t exist. I was afraid of my peers laughing at my mom’s Chinese food and snacks, so I bought lunch at school instead. I was afraid of being judged for the Chinese vases on our tables and Chinese paintings hanging on our walls, so I didn’t invite friends over. But after witnessing many people proudly displaying their culture and being themselves, I discovered that cultural diversity is not a burden, but a blessing. It is because of our differences that we are able to learn from and connect to one another.



2nd Prize
Homesick for My Homeland

Anonymous, 14, NC
“All I know about my culture is that the food and music is amazing,” laughed Miguel as he reached across the table, grabbing the last qatayef off my plate. I shoved him back, reclaiming the Middle Eastern dessert and cramming it into my mouth before he had a chance to react.

Miguel is of Cuban decent, and I’m an Arab. We were sitting at a potluck with two of our other close friends, Jamie and Ronan, when the subject of culture came up. Ronan had observed that we were all of different races, and the conversation had taken off immediately. “Hey, all I’m saying is that there’s a reason the stereotype for Chinese people is that we’re geniuses,” beamed Jamie. Ronan, the only Russian I’ve ever known, rolled his eyes. “Please, I got a higher score than you on our last math exam,” he teased. “Well, what about you?” Miguel piped up. “What’s so awesome about your culture?” Ronan shrugged. “I’m sort of like you, dude. I don’t know anything about my culture except the food.”

At that moment, the conversation shifted. “That’s the thing about being an American,” Jamie sighed. “Your parents constantly talk about how great ‘home’ is, but personally you don’t know anything about it.” We all grew silent. Our light banter had become much too heavy for us.

We switched gears and went back to discussing the various foods our mothers brought to the party. But it wasn’t so easy for me to disregard his heartfelt comment.

I didn’t visit the country my parents enthusiastically call my “homeland,” until I was a teen. It was far from anything I ever expected. The sights and smells captivated me. Falafel filled my nose and the sound of the athan, the Muslim call to prayer, filled my ears. I stayed in Amman, Jordan for a month, taking in every experience I could. I brushed up on my Arabic, learned how to dance, and stuffed my face with rich, carefully prepared food. America is my home, this much is true…but the feeling of being in your “homeland,” is unlike any other. I felt like a displaced sock, finally reunited with my partner.

There’s a very specific spot between my ribs where I’d always felt an eerie emptiness. I didn’t realize it was a feeling of homesickness for a place I’d never known. I certainly didn’t realize the feeling would get worse when I left. Somewhere in the most beautiful country I’d ever seen, I had left behind a piece of my soul.

Letting out an exasperated sigh, I tossed my syrup-drenched sweet aside and stood up. My friends gave me an odd look. “What’s wrong, man?” Ronan questioned. I smiled reassuringly. “Nothing, dude, I just have to use the bathroom,” I lied.

Inside, I found the cleanest looking stall and nestled in with my iPhone. I scrolled down to my contact list. The phone rang twice before she answered. I knew she couldn’t see me, but I beamed at the sound of her voice. “Hello, Grandma,” I said. “I want to come home for the summer, if that’s okay with
you.”



3rd Prize
At Home on the Other Side of the World

Lena Hu, 17, Chapel Hill, NC
The summer between sophomore and junior year, I went to live with a host family in Paris while attending an international French language school. For two weeks I would live, breathe, and speak French—I’d be totally immersed in an alien culture.

On the way to my host family’s home, I speculated about what they would be like. The only information I was given about them was that it was a single mother with two young children. Upon arriving at the 20-story high-rise building, I learned that I was to live with a devoutly Muslim, Algerian immigrant family living in a neighborhood dominated by North African people from the Maghreb region. The mother was 6’ 2” and wore bright, loose, traditional African clothing and a headscarf. Her and her children all spoke fluent French and Arabic. Being a daughter of immigrants myself, I immediately felt a connection to the family’s preservation of their culture in a new nation, and I drew parallels between their dual African/French culture and my Asian/American one.

Throughout the weeks that I stayed with this family, I grew to embrace their beliefs and culture. My host mother, Madame Nadji, was a chef for an African restaurant, and during my stay she was celebrating Ramadan, a period of daytime fasting that commemorates Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran. Each night, she would prepare delicious meals for me and the two other exchange students staying with her, and then at around 2 a.m. she’d start cooking another huge meal of traditional African food.

One by one, family members, friends, and neighbors filtered into the apartment, and from my room I could hear the lively celebration: the laughter, the hybrid French and Arabic conversations, and the music. I couldn’t help compare this with the Asian block parties my parents threw in my community, and I soon realized that even though my family and Madame Nadji’s families were different ethnically, religiously, and geographically, we were also the same. I learned that familial and community oneness transcends superficial divisions and can be expressed in the same way in different settings. And because of this, even though I was halfway around the world, I felt like I was right at home.



Runner Up
A New Lesson

Nancy Contreras, 15, Chicago, IL
“Walk away!” my aunt yanked my arm, pulling me along with her. “Those are dangerous people!” I looked back, seeing no reason to be threatened by a little girl who was only about 3’ 6” tall, with pink pigtail holders and dress; a girl who just wanted someone to play ball with. The only noticeable difference between the two of us was the color of her skin, which was much darker than mine.

Growing up in one of the most segregated cities of the United States, I lived in a world comprised mainly of Hispanics. I was taught to fear any other race. This changed when I was 10 years old.

While racing through the neighborhood against my two other sisters in our newly-bought roller skates, my eldest sister took a serious fall. We watched the blood trickle from a wound on her head. Without a phone to call an ambulance, my sister and I ran helplessly down the street, asking every neighbor and friendly-looking person in sight for help. But each one was too busy to help her.

Finally, we sat down on the hot cement, pressing our T-shirts against her head, until a man walking by offered to help. This man was about the same skin tone as the small girl from the park in the pink dress. Remembering everything we were taught, neither of us wanted to accept the help until we realized it was our only hope. To our luck, this man had a first-aid kit in his book bag. He was a nurse, and knew how to handle emergency situations like these. In the blink of an eye, the blood on my sister’s head had stopped completely.

From this moment, both my sisters and I knew we were taught incorrectly about people.
After having people who were the same ethnicity as ours neglect to help our wounded sister, it was evident that not all people of the same race had the same morals. And the person who finally did decide to help was a person who we’d been taught to be scared of. From this experience, I learned that the kindness of a person’s heart can’t be determined by the darkness of his skin. I learned the importance of expanding my connections to people outside my ethnic background.


Contest #228 - Honorable Mentions
Andres Aguirre, Sanad Aziz, Madeline Bale, Deborah Bell, Emma Benner, Caitlynn Campbell, Samira Chowdhury, Taylor Cook, Marlee Day, Brittney Dinkins, Henna Emran, Aashna Farishta, Salem Fasil, Regina Fontanelli, Luna Garcia, Diana Gonzalez, Natalie Gutierrez, Madison Hollenbeck, Fiori Isayas, Ayesha Islam, Lucy Kade, Falyn Kimbrough, Farida Nalima Kone, Courtney Jade Kreisler, Alden Liang, Meredith LeBoeuf, Brianna Logan, Evan J. Malcolm, Dagny Mavilla, Jessica McElroy, Madelyn McGarrah, Samantha Lyn Milan, Ariel Nakanant, Ashley Nehez, Sabrina Oliveira, Brittney Ramos, Daniella Saul, Tameshwarie Singh, Elizabeth Smith, Brianna Spence, Alyssa White, May Xiao, Lina Zhang, Anna Zheng.

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(NYC-2015-09-18)

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