I met Sheryl Friesen at the CLP Writers and Artists Conference–a Russian Mennonite girl from Belize visiting the U.S. for the first time. Her comments intrigued me. “The buildings are so big,” she said. “They’re like villages in themselves.”
Today I am heading off to Ontario for a summer adventure of my own, and I’ve asked Sheri to do a guest post for me. I’m planning to publish several other guest posts while I’m gone, as well as a few of my own posts I’ve already scheduled, since I won’t be able to write from Ontario. When I come back in August, hopefully I’ll be able to fill you in on some of my adventures. For now, here’s Sheri, telling what it was like to come to the U.S. for the first time ever.
I looked at Mom and Dad, and they looked back at me. Suddenly it dawned on me: this is my trip, and they were waiting for me to step away, to say good-bye, to take my bags, and to go.
It all washed over me. I was taking a leap into thin air. I had not navigated an international airport since I was seven. I had never faced Americans on their home turf. I had never experienced North America. And the people whom I trusted to host me the next two months were strangers. There would be new experiences, new people, new culture, and new food.
And it was my decision!
I hugged my parents goodbye. Then I turned and headed into the airport.
After about an hour of flying over the Caribbean Sea, I saw it: land. First it was Florida, then the southern coast. Could it be? It must be! The distant bluish-green haze with the glowing, golden edge was the United States of America–the land of milk and honey that every Latin American dreams about. The land of riches, the land where missionaries come from, and the land of education.
As soon as I entered the Dulles airport, I heard a voice call out, “Connecting flights, this way. Staying in the States, this way.” I looked up and saw a man with neatly combed hair, clean suit, and a neck tie. There was no greasy hair, sweat and smoke smells, or lounging officers. I was immediately impressed by the order and efficiency of this place. No missing, broken signs. Instructions were clear and in place.
The immigration officer greeted me with a friendly, “Hi, how are you?” He took my immigration form, and got down to business: “Have you been on a farm?”
What should I say? I live on a farm! I said yes.
“What food do you have in your baggage?”
“A chocolate bar.”
“Oh, a chocolate bar is alright.” He probably thought I was blond. Or maybe he knew it. But he let me go.
When I attempted to exit the airport with the crowd, I was directed to a global entry line. I pulled my heavy suitcases over and joined the line. While I waited, I watched a young man from the East, dealing with the officer.
“Where are you staying in the States?” the officer asked.
The immigrant stared blankly at the officer, then quietly answered something.
The officer repeated, “Where are you staying in the States?”
The immigrant nervously whispered his answer.
The officer raised his voice, and in very American English, asked, “And where in the States does your brother live?”
The immigrant answered something, and the officer again repeated the question.
My blood was warming up. I love cultures, languages, and accents, and I occasionally translate for English friends. How I wanted to step over to that line, and get those two people to understanding each other! After all, I understood the American accent.
Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the counter where an older officer peered at me through thick, large glasses.
“How are you doing?”And then, “Did you come from a farm?”
“Well, I live on a farm. ” I stalled. I’m a teacher and don’t normally work with the animals much.
He cupped his hand over his ear, and raised his eyebrows in a question.
I repeated my answer.
He asked another question.
I said, “Pardon?”
He repeated, “Did you walk where the cows walk?” He was enunciating his words now, like I was in first grade–or maybe from the middle east. I remembered the young man from the East now…. Maybe I was going to face more cultural shock than I thought.
In Belize, cows walk on the streets. And so do we. Did I walk where the cows walk? Of course!
The officer ended up washing my runners–and my Sunday flats–in disinfectant, and then let me go.
Several minutes later, I stepped out of the airport with Frieda Thiessen. I looked around–everything was as brown or browner than dry-season Belize. But instead of the sticky, hot breeze of Central America, I braced myself against a dry, sharp chill. Dry and sharp, and yet foggy. I was glad to get into the car and out of that unrelenting chill.
We hit the road. I sat quietly and stared out the window. Roads–wide, smooth, organized, complicated– ran on endlessly. And cars–shiny cars beside us, shiny cars behind us, and shiny cars before us.
In Belize, you might count all the cars you meet on a three hour drive, just for fun. Well, try it in the States.
Frieda used a GPS to take us home. I could not fathom why somebody who had a driver’s licence would use a GPS to find a place a few hours from home. In Belize, people that drive cars know the roads they drive on. I had not been in the States long until I realized that Belizean roads are a completely different story than North American roads! If ever I plan to drive in the States, I will probably get a GPS before I get a car….
We were barely out on the highway when I noticed the trees growing in a neat patch not far from the road. I opened my mouth to ask, “Is that woods?” Then I stopped. That was one thing I could probably learn by observation.
In Belize, “bush” or “woods” refers to a tangled mass of gnarled trees, vines, aerial plants, and thick underbrush. Here I looked straight through a series of uniform, evenly spaced trunks, all pointed straight up. Was this American woods?
I know now that it was exactly what is called “woods” in the northern States, and I respect it as such; in fact I like it. The neat beauty of the Northern woods is a shadow of the beauty in American homes, education systems, roads, and the people.
Sheryl enjoying a North American woods
We stopped in at a restaurant. As we entered, a waitress called out, “Hi!” and welcomed us. That accent! It reminded me of the missionaries in Belize. I assumed her (and anybody who spoke that accent) to be intelligent and kind. (To the end of my stay in the States, I strongly associated certain American accents with the AMA missionaries in Central America, and I had the hardest time believing that those people aren’t all like the missionaries).
The waitress brought out menus. I was lost on that one. There was no ceviche, escabeche, stew chicken, or rice and beans. What’s the dif between all these soups anyhow? I did the only thing I thought safe–I ordered what Frieda ordered.
That was a bowl of soup and a sandwich. Now soup is something my mom cooks all the time. So why not order soup? Well, when the waitress came with our bowls of—what was that? Cheese sauce? No, that was supposed to be our soup. I tasted it. Delicious. But nothing like the chicken or pork-flavoured broth soup that we eat at home. As it turned out, this was not the last time I ate a thick sauce called “soup” in America.
I spent the first nights with a widow named Martha Knicely, in Harrisonburg. When we arrived at her house late that night, she welcomed me, and showed me to a bedroom and bathroom upstairs. The room was small, with a rug floor (called “carpet” in the States) and a soft bed with nearly half a dozen covers. I thanked Martha, assured her that I would be fine, closed the door, and just looked. Rug floor. A finished ceiling. Multiple covers on the bed. A huge, wood-framed mirror. Hot water in the bathroom. It all spelled one thing: R-I-C-H. These people were rich and hospitable.
I was unsure which of the many covers I was meant to sleep between ( and I am not sure yet) but that was one thing nobody would ever find out if I did it wrong. So I thought.
I was wrong on that one–the morning I left, Martha asked me to throw down the covers, so she could wash them. “Just throw down the ones you slept between,” she said. I did as I was told, and never asked if I got it right or not.
Martha served an ample Mennonite breakfast: soft scrambled eggs, homemade bread, jelly, coffee, orange juice, and more. (How do these people stay slim?) I loved it.
Only, I was quite unsure of my etiquette. You know, there was this little knife on the butter dish, and another knife beside my plate. Well, I used the one beside my plate to spread my butter–until one day I saw somebody use that “butter knife” to spread butter. Then I upgraded that part of my etiquette to American.
I spent the next few days at Christian Light Publications attending the Writers and Artists Conference. There I met people by the dozens. I was intrigued by the American (Mennonite) culture, accents, and opinions. I immersed myself in the culture wherever I could, and I loved it.
I found the people amazingly friendly. They spoke in soft voices adorned with a creak unheard of in Belizean young people. I loved that. (I wonder why Belizeans speak in such loud, hard voices, when it’s so much easier to speak quietly.) And everybody spoke English. Some of my friends claimed to know only English. It took me most of my eight weeks in the States to realize that there are people that live a full life, have friends far and wide, travel more than I ever did, and still speak only one language. I speak English too. English and…maybe English and a bit of “Belizean” as one of my friends put it.
One day I went along to Starbucks, this American wonder that keeps youth alive. I just had to master Starbucks if I wanted to fit in with the other youth. But once inside the shop, I turned nervous; everything on the menu looked strange and terribly expensive. Oh, if only I was on a Belizean city street, buying some native special just now! But I was at Starbucks, and I had to make it through. I desperately asked a friend to explain the menu to me, but of course I didn’t understand, since I really had nothing to start understanding from. I again ended up asking for “the same thing she got.” When I got that order, I eagerly took a sip of this fabulous coffee–and I burned my tongue. Ouch.
I tried again more patiently, and it really was good, as good as something on a burned tongue can be.
I went to Starbucks in the States one more time. And I ordered a cold frappuccino.
I traveled from Virginia to Pennsylvania, and later up to Canada. Although I remained sensitive to the difference in culture, climate, and language, I loved nearly every minute and every place in the States. And I slowly learned to do things the American way: vacuuming floors instead of sweeping them, cleaning windows with glass cleaner instead of a dripping rag, saying “how are you” on the street instead of just nodding, and buckling my seatbelt every time I got into a car.
If I should sum up the American people that I’ve met in one word, it would be friendly. There is much more to them, but their friendliness stands out. And I feel blessed to have tasted a bit of the land that the Latin American dreams about.
Sheryl back home in Belize holding her niece