Friday, September 10, 2010

International Student Retreat 2010

In the craziness of the past few weeks I have woefully neglected my little blog.  But I have accumulated many great stories to share in the process.
Here's a snapshot from my mom's and my trip to Nashville, where she helped me move into my new dorm and, more importantly, enjoyed her first outing to Pancake Pantry, Nashville's all time favorite breakfast joint.

Munching away with my cousin Kelsey and her roommates.
Another of the highlights of the past few weeks was Belmont's International Student Retreat that I helped out with last weekend.  We drove down to White Bluff, TN -- about an hour south of Nashville -- and spent a day and a half at a "camp."  It's not proper camping, by my standards, since we sleep in cabins and eat every meal in a mess hall....but there was a low ropes course, volleyball nets, a pool -- plenty of fun opportunities for teambuilding and getting to know all the new exchange students.

We have five German girls this year: Senta, Svea, Cindy, Yana, and Elisabeth; three French students: Arthur, Laure, and Chlo√©; two from Hong Kong: Jimmy and Cherry; an adorable girl from Japan: Nozomi; a guy from Denmark: Ali; a girl Sydney from Canada; another guy named Jimmy, from London, and four other students from Moldova and Brasil that are in their second, third, or fourth years at Belmont.  The international student community at Belmont is small, but tight-knit.  I love having the opportunity to learn so much about different places and cultures through my foreign friends, and reciprocating in showing them America - our many cultures, traditions, and values.  I know exactly what it's like to enter a new school or country knowing nobody and barely knowing a few phrases in the local dialect.  Most of the foreign students who come to Belmont speak English quite well, but I know quite well the implications of the lost, dazed look on a few of their faces.  So reaching out and befriending them - especially those that are struggling with the language barrier - is a huge goal of mine.  Since coming back from the retreat last weekend, I don't think I've eaten a meal in the caf without at least one of them in tow :)

Belmont International Student Retreat 2010
Sometimes, in life, you meet a person who shares the same enthusiasm and passion that you have for a particular topic, goal, or hobby.  I've learned over the past few years to really treasure my time with these people, because you never know when a change in circumstances might see them drift right out of your daily life.  I recently met one of these people - Jimmy, from London.  We must have spent over 20 hours talking this past weekend on the retreat.  We've discussed traveling, religion, politics, philosophy, history, languages, cultures....the list goes on and on.  Our beliefs certainly differ in many ways, but I think it's our shared enthusiasm for learning and exploring, as well as a genuine respect and eagerness to understand each other's beliefs and values, that makes our friendship work.

It was really hard for me to make friends during my first semester at Belmont, back in 2008. The last few years of my life I had spent overseas, and during that specific period -- age 16 to 18 -- is when you really start to solidify who you are.  Thus, your experiences during that time become wholly integrated into your personality and the way you understand the world.  So, naturally, every new experience is going to be judged or compared to a recent similar experience you've had.  For me, the new experiences I was having in Nashville all related back to people, places, and events I had encountered during my time overseas.

Americans don't have as many opportunities to travel internationally as many citizens of other countries, so our slightly isolationist attitude can't be judged too harshly.  But with this lack of travel and exposure to other cultures comes a sort of fascination mixed with jealousy of people who do travel often.  I've found that this reaction is especially pervasive among young Americans.  And so by simply trying to find common ground and share my life experiences in the process of making friends, I found that some students here at Belmont were a little put off by my lack of "American-ness."  I felt that some were jealous that I had gotten to travel, and others were tired of hearing about my life experiences in other places and cultures.  It was just difficult.  I had become so much a different person than I was when I had left Oregon at age 16, so it's not like I could just try to remember and pull out some experiences from back home that would aptly describe my interests or personality.  My character is a conglomeration of all these different places and cultures; it's not a fad - it's just me.

So, with that in mind, imagine how I felt when I met Jimmy, whose first words to me were, "Wait, so you're from Oregon.  So why are you on the International Student Retreat?"  Of course I had to explain, and of course we discovered in about ten minutes that between the two of us we had covered every continent and most of the countries on them.  He had even more exotic stories than I did...I think I was listening to one about monkeys coming down out of the Amazon trees and drinking his beer when I decided that we were going to be very good friends.  It was like I was free again to be myself, to share the stories that are a little too "out there" for most American students.  All in all I had so much fun that weekend, and my days are now full of fun new facts that I learn from my foreign friends!


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