How (Not) To Be the Only Person You Know in an Entire Country

By Autumn Palen

Last spring, towards the end of April, I boarded an overnight bus at 11pm — just me and the backpack my mom had loaned me for the semester. One uncomfortably upright night of sleep later, I found myself in a country where nobody knew me, and I didn’t know their language.

And I spent one week there.

This is how that went.

The country in question was The Netherlands, and, although I arrived at Amsterdam Sloterdijk Station, just outside the capital itself, I stayed with a family in Heemstede, south of the markedly smaller city of Haarlem.

Getting from Amsterdam to Heemstede on my own, at dawn, turned out to be a bit trickier than expected. Even in English, the ticketing machine was exceptionally confusing, and the validation system was something my Morning Brain was not ready to absorb. Once I boarded the train, anxiety hummed within me as the Fare Enforcement Officer made his way up the aisle, for fear of not having done it correctly. Thankfully, the officer didn’t bat an eye, nor did I have to open my mouth and make Dutch come out.

I wasn’t in the clear, though. There was still the matter of getting off the train.

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Communicating in Two Languages

By Jessleen Dhaliwal

My mother and I speak two different languages; she speaks Punjabi and I speak English. We choose to speak different tongues. My mother asks a question in Punjabi, and I answer in English. Even though we communicate, the truth in our words is lost.

I never understood how our words lost meaning until I read Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. Tan describes language as a key factor in the cultural gap between Chinese mothers and their American daughters. In each story, there were misunderstandings because neither the mother nor the daughter understood one another. After reading The Joy Luck Club, I wanted to understand why my mother and I spoke different languages. Was it my limited knowledge of Indian culture? Or was it my mother’s fractured English? How could we speak, yet not understand each other?

When I finally asked my mother, she replied with a simple answer. In Punjabi, my mother said, “That is the way it has always been.”

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Volunteering Abroad

By Megan Wong

Through the Agency of Volunteer Service of Hong Kong, I delivered hot meals and necessities to impoverished families around Tsuen Wan, a market town on the outskirts. As I entered each of the homes, I was stunned. On each floor of the buildings where the families lived was a conventional flat; however, the original flat was divided into five more units, each no more than a hundred square feet in area. In front of me, I saw families living an overcrowded yet isolated existence, sparking within me disbelief and outrage. It was difficult to believe I was still in Hong Kong; how could Asia’s “World City” blatantly ignore the vital needs of its citizens.

In a prominent international finance hub, 25%  of the city’s population still lives below the poverty line. Hong Kong’s tug of war game between wealth and poverty is insidious and is symbolic of my hometown in its truest form. While walking around the city, constant reminders of poverty bombarded me wherever I wandered, be it a woman digging through the garbage for a meal, or a man kneeling on the sidewalk, begging for money.

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