The Real Cross-Cultural Connection

At the 2019 FIUTS Blue Marble Bash fundraiser on April 20, three inspiring students spoke about their experiences connecting with others through FIUTS programs. We'll be publishing the text of these speeches over the next couple of weeks so that those who couldn't attend the event have a chance to hear what these incredible members of our community have to say.

The following is the text of the speech by Nadine Gibson, an 8th grader who has been a FIUTS Ambassador twice, serving as a local connection for students from the Caribbean this past summer and from Bolivia and Peru in the fall. She also participated in FIUTS’ summer youth program, the Seattle Language and Culture Institute (SLCI).

Nadine (center) and FIUTS SLCI friends from the U.S., Brazil, France, and Japan.

Nadine (center) and FIUTS SLCI friends from the U.S., Brazil, France, and Japan.

Like most of you in this room, I have an incredible passion for travel, languages, people, and how they all come together. Languages, in particular, have always intrigued me. But I’ve grown up in an English-speaking household in a mostly English-speaking community. Luckily, when I was little, a Russian family moved in to the neighborhood and my immediate thought was “Woah new friends who talk cool!” The family had four kids. And all of the kids in the neighborhood had formed a sort of coalition, if you will. I was over the moon about the new additions to the group. But my excitement was halted when the other kids started huddling together, collaborating on their stereotypes, exchanging “did you hear s” and “I heard s.” When the new kids came to the park for the first time most of the other kids just sat atop the play structure and stared, glared even. I was so confused, and eventually outraged. I couldn’t believe that one group had entirely shut out newcomers without even talking to one another. Sound familiar? I didn’t know what to call it at the time, I knew it was ignorance, but I didn’t know what to do.

Nadine (second from right) and friends getting ready for an SLCI excursion.

Nadine (second from right) and friends getting ready for an SLCI excursion.

I found FIUTS by total chance, thank god for marketing. Their programs have offered me the space, guidance, and freedom to grow, through many mistakes, tremendously, not only as a leader, but a person. The beautiful skill of self-awareness, and the virtue of patience are only two of the valuable attributes I have developed in large part by this organization and its programs.

At the first program I participated in with FIUTS, I had my first major self-awareness check. It was the Seattle Language and Culture Institute (SLCI) youth leadership camp. It was made of about 25 or so students, all ranging in personality, native language, origin, and, most importantly for this story, culture. The group was split up into two morning classes, based on English proficiency. Now I know this isn’t the most personal setting, but I’m sure that you can tell I’m energetic, outgoing, and comfortable and capable of talking. So, naturally, discussion group settings were where I thrived, or at least I thought I did.

Between the two classes there was about an even split which meant that whenever we’d come together there would be this hesitancy looming in the air through beautiful displays of awkward silence. But rest assured, I was there time and time again to demolish that silence with the sledgehammer of my voice. Whether it was short anecdotes, general conversation starters, or just mindless small talk, I thought it was better than sitting in silence. One day our counselor started talking about American communication styles and she said, ‘Yeah, Americans feel the need to constantly fill up empty space with their voice; we’re uncomfortable with silence.’

Nadine (far left) and SLCI friends on a hike at Mt. Rainier during the program retreat.

Nadine (far left) and SLCI friends on a hike at Mt. Rainier during the program retreat.

And then it hit; she was talking about me. She was telling me to shut up, but in the most incredible way. It was from a place of cultural understanding, which forced me to stop and think about the way I was operating which I thought was completely normal, and in fact universal. But what shocked me the most was that never before had I stopped, or been forced to check my mannerisms or behaviors and think about the cultural influence behind them. As silly as it sounds, for the first time in my life, I realized that silence is okay.

Another lesson SLCI taught me is patience. In large thanks to my father, patience is not necessarily a trait that I happened to inherit. With students from Turkey, France, Brazil, China, and Japan, I cannot count the number of times where the process of demonstrating the patience in allowing someone the space to think of the word or idea they’re trying to convey in a tongue that is not their first, gave way to the opportunity to build a connection. I remember one night during dinner on an overnight camping trip, I decided to sit with Yuta and Keisuke, two students from Japan. The table was quiet for a bit, which, remember, I’m okay with now, but finally Yuta turned to Keisuke, picked up his cup, and with one finger started rubbing the rim of it and talking to Keisuke in Japanese. They began smiling and laughing.

Playing a cultural diplomacy simulation game during SLCI

Playing a cultural diplomacy simulation game during SLCI

Then Yuta turned to me and paused. I could tell he wanted to say something, but instead he just started rubbing the rim of his cup towards me. He saw the look of confusion on my face, and said “water” pointing inside the cup, then he said “noise.” After about a solid 12 minutes of this few word back and forth we got it. He was talking about the music that people make with the water and crystal glasses by rubbing the rim of the glass. Why? I have no idea, but after 11 minutes of confusion and 1 minute of that “a-ha” moment satisfaction, I realized that we both could have just given up and said ‘never mind’. But we didn’t. And born from patience and persistence, we created a memory that I now have the honor of sharing with you all tonight.

And I’ll end with this. For weeks after my first program with FIUTS, I was on a sort of Cloud Nine, just with all of the new friends I made, lifelong memories, and newly gained knowledge. Then I remembered the Russian family. It just so happened that the oldest child was with his younger siblings at the park at the same time I was there; it was just us, and I realized, this is the real cross-cultural connection, down to a T. I got up from the bench where I was seated and plopped down on the tire swing next to them, and said “Hi” with a smile, which, in hindsight, was probably a little offsetting in its eagerness and excitement. But we just started talking. The oldest and I about school, and the younger sister about anything her mind would come up with. Smiles and waves are custom now whenever we see each other in the neighborhood, destroying the “emotionless Russian” stereotype. I am confident in saying that the connection between this family and me would not have been made if not for the skills I acquired, the relationships I made, and the lessons I learned from the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students.

Ellen Frierson