[Guest Post by Emily Livermore]
The feeling of a plane’s descent hits me one of four ways. One: I’ve just arrived at a new destination and can’t wait to immerse myself in the multisensory experience. Two: I’ve just returned home and I can’t wait to be in my own bed. Three: How am I going to kill several hours during this layover? Or four: Panic sets in. I might not make my next flight!
These sentiments have become extremely familiar to me because my family has spent a lot of time travelling and living overseas. Our travels have taken us all over the world, but whether we’re there for a few days or several months, we make every effort to live like the locals and bring a part of every place home with us. From learning to make Argentinian stew in Buenos Aires to creating stationery from elephant dung in Lampang, Thailand or riding public transit in Sydney, I always come home a different person than I left. But the thing that usually causes me the most culture shock is arriving back home.
The place I call home is East Grand Rapids, Michigan. This quaint little town is where my family lives between our overseas adventures, and it’s a stark contrast from most of the other places I’ve been. Consider, for example, the contrasts between life in East Grand Rapids with life in Singapore, the other city where I’ve spent the most time growing up. East Grand Rapids is a quaint little town of 11,000 people, 96.3% of whom are white. Winters are long and cold, the biggest event of the year is the high school football season, and the restaurants mostly serve comfort foods like burgers and pastas. Singapore is a massive, cosmopolitan city-state with a population of 5 million people made up of mostly Chinese, Malays, and Indians but with over a million people from other places around the world as well. The weather is tropical, the city never sleeps, and the eating options are truly endless with a side of chili sauce available for most every dish. Being in both places feels “normal” to me, but I haven’t always felt that way.
For awhile, I hated leaving Michigan to go back to Singapore. I had to say goodbye to my friends, our Michigan home, and my favorite Western foods. But in middle school that changed. Our trip to Singapore included some side excursions to China and Malaysia and it was the first time I remember really enjoying the novelty of each place we went. I tried whatever foods I could, learned to use chopsticks, and picked up some Mandarin and Malay. When we returned to the States, I made a 180-degree turn. I was suddenly thirsty for more diversity in my middle school and I didn’t want to be surrounded by all the familiar faces and language of East Grand Rapids! I moved from hating Singapore to hating East Grand Rapids and I couldn’t wait for another chance to leave home. It wasn’t until much later I began to realize both cities are rich with beauty.
East Grand Rapids has a culture of its own; it just took me a while to see it. There’s a history and way of doing things that I missed during my years of loathing life in Michigan. But I’ve come to see that understanding other cultures begins with understanding my own. This realization helped me become more open minded at home as well as overseas.
Learning to understand, appreciate and embrace the vastly different worlds of East Grand Rapids and Singapore is core to who I am. I never feel entirely at home in either place because I’m always missing the other one. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It has shaped me to seek beauty and depth in the foreign and the familiar and to bridge otherwise seemingly disparate ideas, people and places. It seems to me, that’s what cultural intelligence is all about.
Emily Livermore is starting at University of Southern California this Fall to pursue a degree in cinematic arts. She has a passion to create meaningful films that speak to diverse audiences around the world.