Someone once said that to open our minds, we must expose ourselves to many cultures, but this is not as easy as it sounds. I was born in Chile, a long, narrow country squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. It is a place where the boiling weather welcomes the celebration of the nativity of Christ, and Thanksgiving is unknown. Raised among people who believed that our nation was the center of the world, I could not do anything but become one of them.
Although I believed myself a dictator of truth whose words were the only righteous ones, my curiosity and hunger for knowledge were strong parts of my personality. I wanted to know what was outside my homeland. By my eleventh birthday, I was addicted to the Travel Channel and National Geographic magazine. After watching marvelous places and utterly interesting cultures on television, I was stunned but not satisfied. I wanted to see them with my own eyes. It was irritating to think that such dreams might never come true. But they did.
On a Sunday in March, following my family’s traditional feast, I discovered that my desire for adventure ran in my family. My parents announced to my sister and me that we would emigrate to the motherland of capitalism and Mickey Mouse. This was going to be the journey of my life, my chance to come into contact with people with different roots and viewpoints.
I knew that New York was the capital of the world; I had seen it on the Travel Channel. What I was not aware of was that Long Island, where we would stay, was not exactly the center of this fascinating multicultural performance. It was beautiful and safe, but I loathed it. I felt trapped in a place where cars were necessary to go anywhere, and when I did reach my destination, the language stopped me. Although I was a top student in my English class in Chile, I could barely communicate with people here.
My situation did not improve when school started. Even though there were a few Spanish-speaking students, I could not relate to most of them. My social life was reduced to my parents and my sister. Even after six months, when the language barrier had been overcome, I was still unable to make friends. I thought I had nothing to share with anyone, or worse, that no one was interested in talking to me.
My ESL teacher was one of the few who paid attention. She once asked why we had come here, and that question made me realize that this experience was exactly what I had asked for. I had the opportunity to interact with people from another culture, yet I was wasting it.
The complexity of Americans, as well as every individual in the world, did not have to be understood but accepted. Deciding to stop being so dogmatic, I armed myself with a new mentality and a handful of tolerance, and discovered interesting features that define this culture.
It is not important that some like McDonald’s more than their mother’s food, that many like to drink soda instead of fruit juice, or that most would rather drive than walk. I was amazed; I had missed so much because of my stubbornness. Neither the Travel Channel nor National Geographic had taught me that. It was after I moved to the United States that I learned we must be opento receive everyone in our lives. We are all human beings, and maybe some day the entire world, even my beloved Chile, will become as diverse as New York.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.