Current Issue

Changing perceptions

Person holding large tumbleweed

"I am no longer weary of the unknown, of a new culture and new people. Now, I'm ready to roll on like the eternal tumbleweed. Although I don't know what's in store at the end of the road, I'm sure the journey will be well worth the effort." Photo: Michael Darter, Getty Images

Driving through the Wyoming countryside with my American host on Thanksgiving, I noticed what seemed to be giant balls of dry twigs rolling across the street and getting caught in the fence lines on both sides. My friend explained that these “tumbleweeds” get bunched up and caught up in the wind, rolling across acres of farmland, roads and perhaps even entire counties.

As I watched the rolling tumbleweeds, it occurred to me that my life was following a similar trajectory, and destiny was guiding me toward an uncertain destination.

I had never planned to come to the United States. I never thought that one day I would have to leave my country — everything that I knew to be familiar and safe — and come away to this distant land to begin a new chapter in my life. Living with my host family — virtual strangers in the beginning — I missed everything about home, especially my family.

Even as I struggled to find firm footing in my new environment, I also was trying to reconcile the preconceptions I had unconsciously been harboring about America and Americans, which appeared to be at odds with the reality of my experiences and observations. One day my mother asked me over the phone, “Are they anything like us?” After a moment’s thought, an affirmative was the only reply I could give her.

While I had been warned by friends to watch out for signs of prejudice, what I was unprepared for were my own unconscious misconceptions and biases. I grew up on a steady diet of American sitcoms and movies, with the only “real” images coming from the news media. My perspective was that America was an alien entity and an unknown culture — people who couldn’t possibly have anything in common with what was real to me. It had seemed like my world was a tumbleweed that would follow its own course without intermeshing with anything else along the way. I naively believed that I could experience America in an objective fashion and from a distance. For me, Americans were a “they” that I didn’t fully understand, and it didn’t seem like I ever would.

But as I answered my mother, I realized that my world had indeed collided with America, and with the American culture and people, in a very basic way. The basic humanity of the people is the same. Families here share the same kind of love that binds me to my family; the joys and sorrows seem familiar, as are the concerns and values. While this is not to say that there are no differences, what matters most in any society — the people — are similar in an elemental way. And it’s not just Americans, but all the students I’ve met so far who come from all parts of the world. While we’re all are different in a unique way, the essence of all of us is the same.

Coming to this realization has made this new life easier for me. I am no longer weary of the unknown, of a new culture and new people. Now, I’m ready to roll on like the eternal tumbleweed. Although I don’t know what’s in store at the end of the road, I’m sure the journey will be well worth the effort.

Sumani Dash hails from New Delhi. She is in her first year of master’s study in DU’s Graduate School of International Studies and hopes to eventually pursue research in conflict management and resolution, democratization and human development. This essay won first place in DU’s 2006 International Student Essay Contest.


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