By Kyrene Kagahastian
Aromatic smells wafting from the kitchen. Clanging sounds of silverware. The exchange of words and conversations bouncing from all directions of a dormitory dining hall.
Little did I realize that during those dining hall meals I would also be getting a taste of culture on the side. I lived at an off-campus dorms my freshman year called Tropicana Del Norte, which was a melting pot of people from different parts of the world.
Amid all the stimulation surrounding me, the noises that particularly grabbed my attention were the sounds of various accents and languages. I had never been around so many languages different from my own – English and Tagalog. The sounds of Japanese, French, Portuguese and Chinese stirred within me a sense of curiosity and wonder. I befriended several foreign exchange students that year from Brazil, Japan, Italy, Korea and China, and each time they spoke in their native tongues, I was fascinated.
I remember whenever I ate with my Brazilian friends, we would spend almost three hours sitting, talking, laughing and sharing stories. To them, meal times were moments set aside in their day to relax, unwind and enjoy the company of loved ones. I later learned from my Italian professors that this was also very common in Italy.
My foreign exchange friends gave me a deeper appreciation for other cultures and languages. I gained cultural insights through their expressions, mannerisms, and the way they communicated with one another. I learned about their lifestyles and their country’s societal norms. They shared stories of what life is like back in their homelands.
Freshman year, I lived with a girl from Japan named Mihana, who taught me that Japan was a very collectivistic society. Collectivism means that people value what was most beneficial for society as a whole.
She said that there is an unspoken rule to avoid drawing too much attention to oneself. Mihana shared that in public, people are generally quieter and more reserved than in the United States. For example, speaking to others on your cell phone on public transportation is socially unacceptable. Their intent is to respect shared, public spaces.
Cultural differences like that were at the back of my mind when deciding on a major. I recalled my pull towards different cultures, and my childhood dream to travel the world. I decided to give Global Studies a chance, and where students are required to learn a foreign language, I chose Italian.
Though Italian was not one of the languages I heard in the dining commons, after watching the movie Eat Pray Love, I was attracted to Italian culture, food and language. The melodic tone of the Italian language reeled me in. With the rolls of the “r’s” and the soothing trills of the “t’s,” Italian was music to my ears. I also developed a deeper love for languages in general, and the way people use language to navigate throughout the world.
In Italian and the other languages I heard, I found words with no direct translation in English to be the most fascinating. Words like saudade, a Portuguese word to describe the feeling of longing and nostalgia. Or the Japanese word wabi-sabi which refers to finding beauty within life’s imperfections and impermanence.
Stumbling across these foreign words was like tapping into a whole new perspective-- as if I had been given a new set of eyes and ears to experience the world. Thanks to a multicultural dormitory and pursuing Italian in Humanities and Fine Arts, I learned that beyond the unique quirks and sounds of every language lies so much more depth and beauty.
Kyrene Kagahastian is a fourth-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Global Studies and currently enrolled in the Journalism for Web and Social Media class in the Writing Program.