She’s just thirteen and until last week had never left her country, barely left her city (which, in the scope of cities is small and comfy). With a bravura that matched her enthusiasm, she made the journey here so that she might spend a month and a half experiencing our vida loca, her prized visa in order, stamped and sealed.
In anticipation we made a list of experiences to spread before her like happy-meal toys—a bucket list of activities we ourselves rarely do but which we’ve deemed to be bastions of American culture. Many of these, of course, have little or nothing to do with American culture at all.
Our criteria? Things she’d never before done, like watching a movie on a big screen (or even in 3D, with a monster bin of popcorn!), wobbling on ice skates, eating sushi or mozzarella-gooey pizza, lying in the grass and watching the flashing trails of fireworks or running her fingers over the skyline of the city that never sleeps. We visited the penguins in the zoo, spent a cold day at the Joisey shore (fortunately that show has not yet hit her radar) and took her for a hot stone massage and a mani-pedi (just saying that feels so odd and foreign to me) at the local Korean nail salon.
Whenever she has a chance she hops on Facebook to message her friends, her profile bearing a generic American name and the picture of a girl who could pass as Taylor Swift’s younger sister, all blond hair and flashing white teeth who is pretty in a plastic-y way, but who looks nothing like the dark-haired girl before me.
How courageous she is, arriving with smiles as big as her innocence. She loves High School Musical and the shows on Teen nick which my own teens have never watched. She is all openness and naive enthusiasm. “This is a big dream,” she said today, and I know that it is.
“Are you coming back?” her friends asked.
“Yes, of course,” she replied.
“Why? What are you going to do here!” they asked, baffled.
I laughed when she told me this, but at the same time I know how these few weeks will affect the rest of her life, how even small moments will inevitably change her. Travel does that, almost always, but at thirteen it molds and transforms with a glorious ferocity that cannot be matched once life leaves its scars and latches.
Starting next week she will spend three days a week at the local middle school. The teacher with whom she’ll be spending most of her time dropped by today to go over the plan. She explained how her eighth graders don’t really seem to care about anything right now, it being the end of the year, so done they are with middle school, but how the seventh graders are primed to learn and will no doubt be excited to meet her and know about her.
“My students will be so very excited to hear about your culture, about the music you listen to,” she said, “Do you think you can find some videos online of your favorite groups?” She said this wincingly, in the way one does when they know the possibilities are slim.
“Yes!” she replied excitedly. Big smile from thirteen-year-old as she thought of Usher, and Enrique Iglesias, of Rihanna and her most favorite of all, the group One Direction, a boy-band whose members look dreamily down at her from the posters she hangs over her bed. Slight disappointment from the teacher whose expectations were for something far more exotic.
From skinny jeans to flip flops, there is little exotic about this girl at all, at least on the surface. Her English is remarkably good, in part because she is a diligent student but mostly because of television, and movies, and music. Her speech is peppered with slang she picked up via satellite tv, awesomes and reallys and cools.
No doubt if we rewound to her mother’s life at thirteen, we’d see a woman with little knowledge of other cultures but an intimate knowledge of her own.
The teacher, a woman who treasures diversity and difference, shared with us the tale of her Grandfather who came from Russia but who left it all behind the moment he set foot on American soil. As a child she would sit on his lap and beg him to tell her stories of Russia, to speak to her in his native tongue. He stubbornly refused, which at the time made her very sad, and now even more so, her own history and culture lost forever.
It’s a new world, and there’s no going back. The reach of technology has forever changed the way a thirteen-year-old views her world, whether she lives in Bali or Toulouse, in Detroit or Timbuktu.
Culture is not only shared, but twists itself into a knot of different colored yarns making it impossible to discern where one ends and the other begins. Borders are fluid and often invisible. That which distinguishes us becomes less about trappings and more about what is inside. That which unites us reaches to the farthest points of the earth, drawing us together in a way that has little to do with where you come from and everything to do with who you want to be.
She wants to be a lawyer, and says she will have to work very hard.
Rollercoaster. That’s on the bucket list too. At least on ours. She has enough knowledge without having ever been here before to compose her own. Curiouser and curiouser. Here we thought we had so much to show her, but in the end she is showing us far more about the world we share than we might ever have imagined.