Friday, February 5, 2010

Education in Cultural Diversity

I've spent the last week teaching classes. My three morning classes have younger college students (some younger in years, some younger in experience), and at night, I have adult college students on two nights of the week. Each group of students are different, diverse. Some eager to learn, others not so much; the majority I can seem to draw in but there are always one or two that are tough. During conversation with one of my groups, the topic of cultural diversity came up and like the good teacher that I am, I pulled from my own life experiences and brought up some experiences traveling and my time in Seattle and South Florida. After five years living in the Sunshine State, I gained the most cultural diversity I've ever experienced in my life. (I just realized that I usually tell people I lived there about seven years...hmmmm, how have I gotten that wrong so many times??...or did it just feel longer than five years and I subconsciously change the number???)

After sharing my experiences with the different cultures, languages, dialects, food, etc. I was taken back to my first day in Fort Lauderdale. Having traveled, by car, for a little over three days with a friend as my moving companion, we had only one overnight stop in Jacksonville, Florida where we stayed with my friend Paula, it was a long drive across I-10 and then down South on I-95. Having lived in Seattle for barely a year, I wasn't thrilled at the thought of leaving the city I had fallen in love with so easily. Somehow I was convinced that the job opportunity was worth the move, worth leaving the Pacific Northwest that had some odd pull and tug at my heart strings. My year in Seattle may have been one of the loneliest, exciting, scary, educational, insightful and rewarding times in my life, but alas, South Florida called my name. We arrived with a car full of clothes, and other odds and ends, to an apartment complex that looked somewhat of a tropical retreat. (Well, at that time, all of South Florida seemed to be a tropical retreat to me).

My friend and I waited for the moving truck to deliver all the furniture and boxes to the apartment. The driver didn't arrive too much later than we had and within hours, all was unloaded into our two-bedroom, second-floor apartment with an entrance on the first floor and an amazing view of the pool in the center of the complex. On a whim, my roomie and I decided to find our way to the beach, because after all, this was the first time either of us had the opportunity to see the ocean on the Atlantic side. While I can't recall whether we went out to have dinner before, I recall us making our way to Fort Lauderdale Beach. It was night out and the moon was bright, the sand was warm between my toes and under my feet, and the water was...well, amazing. It was warm; comfortably warm. I had never been in ocean water that didn't nearly cause frost bite to my toes so this was a new experience. The slight splashing sound against the sandy coast is a sound I will never forget.

The smell of the salt in the air, warm water and feel of the sand under our feet, combined, is most likely what made us do the following...without much discussion, my friend and I decided to strip down to our last layer of clothing and jump in the warm water. I turned my back while my friend stripped down, because we were just friends after all. After he was in the water I did the same and we spent the next half-hour or so enjoying the warm cool wavy waters of Fort Lauderdale Beach. The first night in a city that would change me and my life in many positive ways.

While life can certainly be stressful, I mostly recall good times while living in South Florida. Maybe it's what I chose to do because whether good or bad, I generally try my best to use each experience in life as a learning lesson. That first night on the beach was only one of many, many times I would end up with sand in my car and the smell of salt water on my skin. I would eventually discover a city so beautiful that people will go out of there way to arrange a vacation there. Three counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach) nearly overlapping, amazingly multi-cultural with more languages and dialects spoken than I had ever experienced. I would spend the next five years being exposed to cultures I knew about, and many I didn't, but had never experienced personally. Educational in more ways that my words can describe...which is quite surprising because I can usually find the words for anything.

Reminiscing about my culturally diverse experience in South Florida came to an end when one of my students asked me to share the most important or memorable thing I gained from my time there. I didn't have to ponder long to have an answer because while the ocean is beautiful, the palm trees picturesque (many with coconuts) and the food amazing...I left South Florida with an extremely culturally diverse mix of friends and family. From my Florida employee-turned-friend-turned-surrogate-mom, who is from the Dominican Republic from whom I inherited her family as my own (I'm like a distant cousin to her grown children), to one of my Bahamian employee-turn-friend who introduced me to Conch Fritters and one of the warmest souls and smiles I've ever met in my life, to my favorite couple (she from Columbian descent, he from Puerto Rican descent) who showed me what true friends are by including me as the third-wheel during many evenings and weekends when I otherwise would have been alone, to my Jewish employee-turned-friend who was my example and hero when it came to my decision to have surgery (she was much braver than I was). I've barely scratched the surface with examples of wonderful people who I call family and friends.

Reflecting on this is a reminder of why I love talking about cultural diversity whenever it comes up. There is nothing more educational when it comes to the topic than people who bring it to life for you.

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