Differences are a starting point for finding unity

The other day, somebody from Switzerland asked me if I could cook. I had to laugh; I knew right away from the sarcasm in his voice that it was just his sense of humor in action.

We decided that his question fell under the category of “”things you should not ask a girl upon meeting her.”” We made up that little rule, and it quickly became something of an inside joke among the people who invented it. You could always bet that a good laugh would follow.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our cozy little university hosts so many international students. My friend, the Swiss joker, isn’t alone. Only recently did I realize just how colorful our campus is, with people studying here from places such as Milan, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Paris.

At times I feared I would scare them with all my questions and enthusiasm. I used to have a hard time holding it in. I have since learned to chill out. I didn’t want to come across as another pushy, overly inquisitive American. Despite my efforts at restraint, I have happily worn my sincerity on my sleeve. By and large, the international students have been equally friendly.

I probably shouldn’t worry so much. I’m just doing my job: I have conversations twice a week with people from around the world who choose to study American culture and English at UCSD. Not a bad gig, I think.

I used to joke with my friends that this job would be the closest I would get to studying abroad, at least for now. Although I have never traveled anywhere except Korea, and I know that traveling to another country would be an arguably better experience, I can still appreciate my current arrangement for its own often hilarious perks.

When is the next time I’ll be able to shop at Victoria’s Secret with Yoshi, a Japanese student, on my right, pretending to fit into a skimpy thong, and Nelson, a student from Brazil, on my left, asking the suspicious clerk what kind of lotion he should buy his fake girlfriend. All this is part of their sincere effort to practice English in a “”real American setting.””

These little bonuses continue to make me smile, all for a job that remains pretty simple.

I don’t want to bore anyone with banality, but after four months on the job, I believe that some cliches really do hold true about foreigners. You may already know some of them, but I’ll mention a couple anyway.

First, most people around the world — or at least in Europe, South America and Asia — are just like Americans, superficially speaking. Perhaps it’s that thing about globalization and everyone looking toward America to absorb pop culture, be it through music, clothes or even thought. Most of the international students I’ve met really do look a lot like us.

Of course, it works both ways. America borrows — or steals — from other cultures all the time to spice things up. Whatever you want to call it, the exchange is there. Exceptions exist, however.

Despite the apparent homogeneity of everyone’s dress, for example, each country has a style of its own, even if it’s just a variation on that one ubiquitous outfit, T-shirt and jeans. Clearly, what is comfortable is often more expedient than what will simply impress, although some are successful in combining the two.

Brazilians seem to have their own flair with fashion — especially the girls, who have no problem showing a little skin. Going from one beach culture to another, most of those I met seemed to enjoy the San Diego experience.

I also like the style of the Italians and the French. It’s not exactly formal, but it’s always cute. One time, Giulia from Rome showed me an impressive bracelet she made from about 1,000 safety pins. You have to love the Italians.

Something else I would always hear about was how much Europeans love to party. After experiencing firsthand the craziness of an “”international party”” — endless smoking and alcohol included — I can vouch for that statement, but with one exception: Parties at the UCSD’s International House would be a virtual, global open house. Everyone was invited, and everyone came: Japanese, French, Swiss, Argentines, Brazilians, Chinese, Chileans, Italians, Koreans and everyone in between.

I had the unique chance to witness something truly special from my party experiences: people from all over the globe partying together. Amid all the fun, and short of grabbing everyone’s hand to sing “”We Are the World,”” I would often catch myself thinking, “”This is beautiful.””

In these confusing times, when most people wonder about whom to trust and whom to hate, despite declarations of unity that remain tenuous at best, I think of what I have learned from meeting so many interesting and diverse people. The world seems to have gotten a little smaller and more personal. After putting faces on places I have only heard about or seen in movies, I have realized just how uplifting it can all be. My thoughts on the world and its people have changed oh-so slightly.

Now when I think of France, I’ll think of a country girl named Anais playing Django Reinhardt on her guitar, or Emily, the only Parisian I’ve ever met who wouldn’t touch a cigarette.

I’ll remember Simone, from the only Italian city I could never remember, and how he’d always complain about wanting an American girlfriend.

I’ll remember Makiko trying to teach me the Japanese word for every English word I could think of.

And finally, I’ll remember Niko, from my very first class, telling me how Swiss cows are the best cows in the world.

I hope to keep the memories. More importantly, I hope I never forget that our world is still a wonderfully diverse place and that differences are always a good thing. After all, they give people something to talk about, and who couldn’t like that?

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