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Wait, Who Am I Living With? Multicultural Living Abroad

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It’s 10 pm on Tuesday July 14th. I’m sitting on the floor of the LAX airport trying to steady my breathing to refrain from having a panic attack. I read the sign blinking on the screen at the terminal: “35 minutes to boarding…” “30 minutes until boarding…” The time seems to be flying by. My chance to just get up and find a flight home is getting slimmer. Before I can make a move, the airline employee calls for Zone 3 boarding. I look down at my ticket; it’s my turn. Before I know it I’m buckled in my seat next to complete strangers headed for Sydney. Fears and regrets run through my mind urging me to get off the plane, but some little thought in the back of my head keeps me seated as we take off. Although I’m scared, I know this experience will change me forever.

My Multicultural House

After 22 hours of traveling, 3 days of orientation and very little sleep, it was finally time to move into the house where I would be living for the next four and a half months.

I walked into the house and dragged my bags up to the second floor, unlocked my door and promptly laid down on my new bed. A few hours later, I woke up to knocking on my door. When I opened it, I found an overly excited 20-year-old boy talking a mile a minute. He introduced himself as Dylan and began discussing our other housemates and where they were from. He was Vietnamese/Filipino but born in Australia. Another housemate was Sri Lankan, another was Indian, and the last Australian. Being the only American, I was both excited and scared. I was nervous that they would have negative and false stereotypes about American girls, but excited that I would get to have a multicultural experience while in Australia.

My housemate Dylan’s parents were from Vietnam and the Philippines. He taught me about his Asian heritage through food and language. He would make his meals for the week every Sunday and would always make a little extra so I could try his authentic Vietnamese cuisine. He taught me how to say certain words in Vietnamese and shared stories of his childhood and the times he spent in Vietnam and the Philippines. The amazing thing about Dylan was that he grew up in Australia, so he could give me insight on Australian culture as well. He took me to all the good restaurants, beaches and secret views of the city showing me what life in Australia was really like.

Dylan not only taught me about his culture, but I was also able to show him some of mine too. Feeling a bit homesick that I wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving, I prepared a traditional Thanksgiving meal for my housemates and my other American friends. In doing this, I was able to bring a little bit of home to Australia and share it in a multicultural setting.

A New Kind of Understanding

I remember being nervous to try the food because I was worried I wouldn’t like it and didn’t want to be disrespectful to his culture. But it was some of the best food I had ever eaten.

About two weeks before my flight home, the news of the Paris terrorist attacks came. Until then, I had only had a few conversations with my housemate Muhammad, who practices Islam. We had talked about his hopes to come to the U.S. in January and explore Miami and New York City. But I only really saw him when he would come downstairs for food or to study. Many times he was dressed in his clothes for prayer. After the attacks, I talked to him about Islam and how he felt about the situation at hand. He explained to me how terrorists do not define the Islamic religion. He felt ashamed that those people were associated with him and his religion. He also described the way people looked at him with fear when he went out in public. This conversation opened my mind up to a new definition of acceptance and understanding.

The greatest thing about living in the University Village was that not only did I get to know my own housemates, but many other residents as well. My friend Tori, who was also American, lived a few houses down in the village. She lived with two other students; one from Pakistan and one from Dubai. I spent time with her housemate from Dubai who was also very open to sharing his culture with us.

I especially remember one night after spending the day at the beach he wanted to take us to dinner to experience Middle Eastern food. We drove for what seemed like forever and finally arrived at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere called Jasmine’s. When we walked in, long tables were filled with families and piled high with food. Ahmed ordered for us because he knew what would be good for us to try. I remember being nervous to try the food because I was worried I wouldn’t like it and didn’t want to be disrespectful to his culture. But it was some of the best food I had ever eaten. This experience opened my mind and my heart to try new things and not make judgments prematurely.

I now think back to that anxious night sitting on the airport floor and I am beyond grateful for that little thought in my head that kept me on the plane. My life today would be so different had I gotten off. I never would have met these incredible people, had such amazing multicultural experiences or become more open to change and diversity. I wish I could go back in time and tell that girl sitting on the airport floor to have faith because she is about to embark on the best five months of her life.

Erin Clark is a Food Marketing student at Saint Joseph’s University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia in 2015.