October 17, 2012
My Fork in the Road
There is one moment that changed the direction of my life entirely. In the eighth grade, a representative from the Center for Global Studies magnet school program came to my middle school. As soon as I heard him say that we would be able to visit the countries where other languages were spoken, my jaw dropped to the floor. I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I would be a fool to turn it down. Yet, I still hesitated. At the tender age of thirteen, I had never made such a big decision before. If I decided to enroll in this program I would be taking a train to Norwalk from Milford every morning and going to a school where I didn’t know anybody. It turns out that had I not taken that chance, I would have missed out on the greatest opportunity of my life. Enrolling in the Center for Global Studies opened the door to foreign worlds for me, broke down a lot of stereotypes, and gave me the confidence to deal with uncertainty.
The Center for Global Studies (CGS) is a magnet school connected to Brien McMahon High School, located in Norwalk, Connecticut. Newly enrolled students choose to learn Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic. By the time I graduated, I was learning all three. In freshman year, after a year of Japanese, I went to Japan for two weeks. While there, I was able to roam Tokyo on my own with a couple other students. We were able to see the city for what it was, free to explore without a tour guide. In Tokyo, my friends and I tried to go to hole in the wall restaurants where we could tell from the smells wafting through their doors that the food was good. We had to struggle through ordering our food with one year of Japanese but we had the independence to do so. Sophomore and junior year, I was also enrolled in Chinese, while still studying in the Japanese program. Despite feeling more than inadequate in my grasp of the language, I was armed enough to get by. I was able to go into a store that I knew was owned by a Chinese person. Because of my classes on Chinese culture, I was able to haggle with her in Chinese which I saw surprised her. Once again, I saw that my education gave me power.
In my senior year, I took Arabic up along with my other two languages. Even with my basic knowledge, I was able to use some of it to my advantage. There is a Middle Eastern restaurant that I enjoy going to, owned by an older Syrian man. Just saying basic greetings like As-salamu Al-‘aikum would bring a big wide grin across his face. He would sit me down and ask me about my studies and give me tips on my pronunciation. It showed me that even the most basic knowledge will give me a boost in connecting with people. Because I went to the CGS, and had these experiences, I can now go all over the world. I can go to these countries and truly enjoy what they have to offer. I don’t have to worry about tour guides or following a preplanned itinerary. I’ve been given power and independence to go and do things on my own, no matter where it is. This program has made me a citizen of the world.
Because the CGS has a host program, it allowed me to also have a more intimate relationship with the people of these countries. I grew up with an obsession with Japanese and Chinese cultures. Before going to Japan, I thought that all Japanese people were humble, hardworking, and basically idealized. When I finally did go to Japan, I got quite a wakeup call. Although humility and hard work were inherent in their culture, I was quite surprised when I realized how similar teenagers from Japan and teenagers from the U.S. were. While in Japan, I stayed with a host family for two weeks. During one of my host brother’s English classes, I noticed that my host brother, Kashioka, was cheating off of my paper. I didn’t really care so I let him. Then when he went up to the board, he showed that he copied it wrong. The entire class was in uproar, and for the rest of the day he was ribbed about not even being able to cheat correctly. I had always learned about Japanese people taking their honor seriously and to see Kashioka taking the jokes in stride and even making jokes about himself was really eye-opening. I saw that both American and Japanese students make jokes about each other and about themselves, and that we can both do it good-naturedly. It wasn’t a situation like I expected where Kashioka would feel shame for the rest of the day and try to not bring it up.
I was similarly surprised when I had a Chinese student stay at my house. Having heard the horror story of fourteen hour school days in China, I expected the students I met to be worn out and stressed. On the contrary, they were all very good humored, and some were downright kooky. A few of them even did a standup comedy routine for us at the school. They had dressed up like the three stooges and reenacted their gags, eye poking, face slapping and all. Again, I found that teenagers from both countries were almost exactly the same in regards to their interests and humor.
Learning about Egypt from an Egyptian perspective, versus my preconceived notions of the country, was just as eye opening. The country is much more “Western” than I had previously believed and I began to find many more similarities between Egyptian and American culture. It isn’t all burqas and mosques as many would have you believe. We watched music videos from their big pop stars and movies from their most lauded comedians. It was full of the same stuff you would find here in American entertainment, including love, sex, and drugs. If there’s one thing that I learned from going to the CGS, more than the languages or nuances of these foreign cultures, it is that we are all human. Being human, we all have the same fears and motivations. Our cultures may seem unique and varied, but they all boil down to the same ingredients. I learned that we separate ourselves too much and lose sight of our common ground.
Interestingly enough, my life was most changed by going to the CGS not because of the foreign languages and experiences of going to the countries, but by the confidence and independence those experiences gave me. Before going to the CGS, I never had the confidence to ask a girl out. When I first saw Heather, my now fiancée, I knew that I needed to try. I figured that I had taken the plunge and gone to a school almost an hour away from home, why wouldn’t I take the plunge and ask this girl out. Once again, I’m glad I did. She said yes and became the best part of my life. When my parents got divorced and I fell into deep depression, she dealt with my mood swings. When I couldn’t afford to feed myself and my sister, she kept me from turning to drugs for money by feeding me every day. On the days that I wanted to give up and drop out of school, she gave me a reason to persevere. Had I never gone to the Center for Global Studies at Brien McMahon High School, I never would have met her. Without her, I don’t know where I’d be.
Going to the CGS taught me to get uncomfortable and see where it takes me. Every time I have, everything worked out for the best. In this way, the CGS has changed my life forever. I am forever thankful that I chose to go to the CGS. Learning firsthand about other countries and cultures has taught me that we are all human. Although our languages and clothes are different, we all have similar drives. Because of my decision, I took the road less traveled and ended up with a fiancée that has stuck with me through my highest highs and lowest lows.