Change has been the one constant in my life. While staring out at the bleak Wisconsin winter, I think back to my beginnings on a warm tropical island. The biggest change was probably the first — moving from that buzzing Spanish-speaking isle to the sleepy sea-side town that was Tampa in 1978. It took me some time to realize that the other pre-schoolers could not understand my native tongue. Before long, I too was speaking their language.
Five years later I, an excited eight-year-old girl, boarded a school bus in New Jersey. The excitement quickly turned to fear as I heard rampant swearing in the back of the bus. I was truly shocked when the bus driver did nothing to stop the vulgarity. In my schools in Florida such behavior would have met with a bar of soap and a visit to the principal’s office. A year later, I had a "Jersey" accent, and had started swearing too.
After nine years my family then moved to a place called "a whole ’nother country": Texas. I discovered that everything is bigger in Texas, from the size of a glass of ice tea to the distances on the road. My mother added barbecued brisket to the regular menu of turkey and Idaho potatoes on Monday and arroz con pollo on Tuesday. The incredibly friendly Texans, wearing cowboy boots and going to high school football games on Friday nights, seemed a totally different breed from my friends in New Jersey. A slight drawl entered my speech.
In two years time, I found myself in the mountains of rural Bolivia. As part of a team of doctors and students researching hypertension on a group of African-Bolivian villagers, I quickly learned a new vocabulary that included medical and anthropological terms. The greatest test of my linguistic abilities came when a villager accused me of drinking blood samples in some kind of vampire-like witchcraft ritual. I had to bridge a vast cultural gulf to explain a DNA isolation and analysis protocol in Spanish to someone who had never heard of a gene much less a double helix.
A year later I stood in a line at a McDonalds outside Buenos Aires asking for a sorbeto with a Puerto Rican accent and receiving a blank stare in return. I did not realize that in Argentina the word for straw was papote. Working at the U.S. embassy, I could clearly see the obvious differences between the U.S. and Argentina, but being out among the people and actually experiencing the culture helped me begin to understand and appreciate the subtle differences which, when taken together, make up a people.
Each place I have lived has its differences, from the obvious distinctions of Wisconsin and Texas weather, to the regional variations of the Spanish language. I bring with me wherever I go a part of those places and the impact they have had on my life, most evident to others by the variations in my speech. Beneath all the accents, however, lies something more significant, for I believe who you are is immeasurable more important than where you were. When I was younger, I could not clearly discern between situations where I should or should not adopt the ways of those around me. With maturity however I have come to understand the crucial difference between adaptation and assimilation. I have chosen to reject the vulgarity of the New Jersey school bus; I have also adopted the Texans’ warm and friendly manner. Having experienced frequent moves to very different surroundings, I can adapt without compromising what is important to me while learning from each new setting.
A sign hung in my garage for many years that said, "Home is where you can scratch where it itches." To me this means that home is wherever you are comfortable and secure with yourself and your surroundings. I will be at home and prepared to meet new challenges wherever I am. Starting over so many times has taught me not to fear failure, but rather to embrace opportunities for change.
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