Where are you from?

I recently completed an application for the REACH Program LinkedIn is launching. Their application was a series of short answer questions, and the first one really inspired me to write, which was an unexpected high point in the tediousness of job searching. I’ve included the prompt and my response below.

The Prompt

Your Personal Story: At LinkedIn, we strive for a culture that embraces and represents diverse ways of thinking, background, and approaches to solving the world’s problems. Tell us about yourself, and what unique point of view, experiences, and background you bring to LinkedIn.

My Response

“Where are you from?”

This is supposed to be a simple question — easy to ask and quick to answer. Yet because of my diverse experiences and travels, any satisfying answer I could offer would be relatively lengthy, which (outside the context of normal chit-chat) delights me.

My parents are about as different as you could get. My mom is adopted and grew up in Texas; she lived in a family where blood meant nothing and actions meant everything. My grandmother adopted and took in anything that needed love and a warm meal: neighborhood kids, Cambodian refugees, a Chinese child, and even a variety of animals. On the other hand, my father is the first-born of a traditional, New York City, Jewish family; the product of Eastern-European immigrants who fled WWII. Family, whatever form it takes, has always been a core value of mine and my family, and so it feels like going home whether I’m headed to the Big Apple or the Lone Star State.

And yet, these are two vastly differing, even conflicting, places. Linguistically, culturally, geographically — one serves you up a bowl of Southern Hospitality so full you can feel your stomach against the Bible Belt, while the other thrives on curtness, efficiency, and brute force. I like to explain all this because I think it sets the stage for understanding how I have managed to continually experience life from two, sometimes conflicting, vantage points, but still manage to understand and value both points of view.

Growing up, I went to a private school in Florida where I never really fit in. The other kids would ask me what kind of car my parents drove, and I would tell them “A black car and a white car.” This was apparently not the answer they were looking for, but I didn’t mind, because I had my books and found delight in my learning. For all intents and purposes, I was in the “nerd” category. That is, until, I found my next “tribe”…the theatre kids. I was lucky that my school had a phenomenal theatre program, and was happy to be a part of it, but having such diverse interests spelled trouble socially. The nerds thought I was crazy to be happy belting out showtunes in front of actual people, but I was too quiet and reserved for those with whom I graced the stage.

I attended Oberlin College in Ohio, convinced I had found the place for me because it would enable me to graduate with a degree in Chemistry and Vocal Arts. However, halfway through I discovered pre-med wasn’t the right path for me and was also struck with the realities of a starving artist lifestyle. I reassessed my options and found that I had acquired a great deal of credits in linguistics and language courses. I changed my major, convinced that even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do, at least I would be able to do it in two languages. This switch also led me to study abroad in Spain for 6 months, a life-changing experience which made me question everything about my lifestyle — I truly didn’t think there was anything more different than New York and Texas until I studied abroad.

I completed my degree and was scooped up by Teach for America to teach Middle School Math and Science. I had done a lot of babysitting and other tutoring throughout my academic career, so I wasn’t nearly as scared as I should have been. Since I had gone to a private school growing up, I really wasn’t prepared for what awaited me in the third lowest performing middle school of Durham, North Carolina. This experience, more than anything, taught me how ignorance can be hurtful. I considered myself pretty well-rounded going in, but I was sorely mistaken. I had read about mothers that worked 3 jobs to support their children, but I’d never met anyone who lived this journey. I came to understand the social norms of poverty and was frequently embarrassed at how I had taken the privilege of my life experience for granted.

After teaching for 5 years, I moved from North Carolina to San Francisco (which provided another chance for reflection on different culture and lifestyles) and used the move as an opportunity to transition out of the classroom and into tech.

So where am I from? I think this question is usually asked to get a snapshot of someone’s identity, and a sense of the culture in which they feel at home. In this sense, I don’t think I’m “from” any particular place. I take pride in being a chameleon with profound connections to many places because it enables me to see a single issue from many different points of view. My life experience is a constant reminder that different lives and circumstances foster different ways of defining words, norms, and expectations. My journey has shown me that every opinion is the result of a different path, and that every idea should be met with humility and respect. I can always be sure that there is a perspective I have not considered and a way of life that I have not experienced, but I believe that results are stronger when more stories are represented.

On buying holiday plane tickets

Ouch — holiday plane tickets are $$$.  Everyone knows this, it’s a simple product of supply and demand.  This got me thinking about how nice it would be to save the cash and hologram in to occasions or meetings.  How valuable is “presence” in a world full of FaceTime and Google Hangouts?

Back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth (or when I was in 5th grade), I was part of an amazing school chorus.  As part of the chorus experience, we got pen-pals in Norway, and even went to visit them as we sang around Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Pen-pals — an antiquated medium, but not idea.  Plenty of teachers today use the web as a tool to encourage communication between culturally and linguistically different students.  However, my pen-pals and I communicated through old-fashioned, hand-written letters, which I believe qualifies me to self-identify as “old,” or at the very least, “vintage.”

I remember it being very awkward when I met them. (Yes, them. I was lucky enough to receive two pen-pals; I’ve always been an overachiever.  And no, it wasn’t awkward because of me and my own awkwardness…though I’m sure that was a contributing factor.)  My pen-pals and I had sent each other photos of one another in envelopes that traveled across oceans, but that hardly prepares you for a face-to-face interaction.  Only much later, as someone who had attempted to learn another language, did I realize how much time it must have taken them to construct each of those letters (especially without the help of online translators), and how much more challenging in-the-moment communication is, and must have been for them at the time.

We were allowed to mingle over lunch, and — shocker — found communication difficult.  We tried various tactics, but I remember one interaction very distinctly.  One of my pen-pals opened her carton of milk, and squeezed the open top a couple times.  I thought maybe that was what you did to your milk carton in Norway, so I did the same.  My pen-pal realized I was trying to copy her, and then I realized I had copied a meaningless gesture, and much laughter ensued.  It might have been the clearest, most profound moment we shared.

I was happily surprised when my pen-pals found me on Facebook about 15 years after this interaction occurred. Goodness only knows if they even remember the Great Milk Carton Squeeze of 1995, but I certainly look back on the story fondly.

I do wonder, however, if Taran or Anne-Kristin would have found me all those years later if we hadn’t met in person?  My assumption is no.  I think that digital communication mediums greatly increase the ease and immediate gratification factors for social exchanges (especially the long-distance kinds), but the convenience also makes it easier for us to forget just how much there is to be communicated and shared in person.

I’m anti-blanket statements, so I’m not willing to say that *all* digital communiques are more disposable than face-to-face conversations (or milk-carton squeezing sessions).  However, I hope this serves as a reminder of the value of prioritizing in-person time with friends and family, even and especially as digital methods continue to make connecting so much easier (and cheaper).

So take out your credit card, and find some solace in booking that holiday travel.  It’s worth it.

A resurrected oddity

I haven’t made a post here since 2010.  In internet terms, I’m pretty sure that counts as a resurrection.

Today’s title comes from a sign I saw while on a recent trip — it permanently advertised a store with the tagline: Purveyor of Resurrected Oddities. Have you guessed what kind of store this might represent?  Answer: This delightful turn of phrase was proudly displayed outside an antiques store.

While the phrase surely applies more to antiques than it does to this page, I find it a fun and creative bit of language that I hope will both inaugurate a new beginning to Disposable Language and provide you with something you can share with any friends/relatives who enjoy antiques…err, “resurrected oddities.”

I’m not making any promises, but I will make an effort to be thought-provoking and effervescent in my posts. I’ve started with this page, which will tell you a little more about me and my language-related addiction.