I grew up in California, not far from the diversity and vibrancy of San Francisco. At 15, I loved world history and geography in school. I had never travelled outside of the US, and I didn’t have a passport. Still, I thought I was aware of the world beyond the borders of our country.
That summer, our neighbor was working with a cultural exchange program, and he asked my family to host a student from Japan for two weeks. The student would arrive in just a few days, and share a room with me. I started to imagine what Japan was like; what the girl would be like – proper, shy, reserved, formally dressed, tea drinking, sushi eating – completely different from me? Would we have anything in common? Japan was such an old country, Japanese people so traditional.
That experience, those two weeks, meeting, living with, getting to know Eiko, changed my life. Yes, she was from Japan, and I was from the US, but as two 15 year old girls sitting together, chatting about boys, clothes, learning to drive, shopping, hanging out with friends, and school – we were the same. We were just teenage girls. Sure, she had brought a Kimono with her, for a special performance, and she ate Miso soup and sushi, and still we were the same. Two teenage girls, two people, getting to know each other.
I remember it as such a wonderful time, such a fun summer. This was before social media and email, so we said goodbye, and vowed to write to each other, but eventually we lost touch. The memories of our time together, however, have stayed with me always. Now, looking back 20+ years, I am beyond grateful for that experience. It changed my life in more ways than my family could have ever predicted. It paved the way for my career, my family, my passions, and my children.
My interest in other cultures became an obsession, my focus in life. My family went on to host more exchange students, I ran a society for international students at my high school, I studied international relations at a university on the other side of the world, and I married a Brit. I built a career working with international students, families, expats, and new immigrants. It’s my job, but it never feels like work – it is my passion, and it all started with the intriguing surprise that all my assumptions about a girl from Japan had been so wrong. I became obsessed with meeting people from all around the globe.
In the US I was taught what other cultures were like, usually old, traditional, different than the US (usually implying they were wrong, or less than) but what were they really like? What similarities did we share? How were we different? Traditions, holidays, food, clothing, philosophies – there were so many things to learn about. So many different ways to live. Were they better than the ‘american way’? Worse? I now feel that the answer is neither, just different. Everyone I came to meet lived in some kind of house, ate food, learned, worked, and loved. And that was it. We all have different ways to do things; even within a single country. We are not monolithic, we are individuals. We are different and our differences make life oh so wonderful and special. But at our core, we are all the same. All human. All with the same basic needs. All with the desire to love and be loved.
You don’t have to live an international life, travel extensively, or marry a foreigner, however I do encourage you to have a chat with a person who looks different to you, shops at a different supermarket, or speaks in a different language. How many differences can you find? How many similarities can you uncover?
About the author: Michelle Laker
A California native; I spent 10 years living, studying, working, (and falling in love) in the United Kingdom. I returned to the Bay Area in 2011, with my British husband in tow. I am re-adjusting to life in the bay, feeling more like an expat than a local. I have spent my career working with international student & families. I love learning about other cultures, languages, and traditions.
My desire to welcome newcomers, and help you make the most of your new life in the Bay Area comes from the unforgettable memories (and mistakes) I made during my time in the United Kingdom. If you’ve just arrived, and don’t know where to start, email me (michelle-at-lifeinthebay.org). I am happy to help!