Travel provides students with valuable cultural experiences

September 10, 2019 — by Kaitlyn Tsai

As senior Claire Smerdon walked down the streets of a residential area in Dublin, Ireland, this past summer, she admired the simple houses that differed only in the style of their windows and the colors of their doors. Adolescents and children alike played soccer on their lush front lawns or simply engaged in lighthearted banter with their neighbors and friends.

Smerdon is one of many students who strengthens her ties to her native culture through traveling. On her annual trip to Ireland this past summer, she visited relatives in Dublin and traveled to the coastal counties of Wicklow and Wexford. Aside from spending time with her family, she also connected with Irish culture by staying for two weeks at a place where few Saratogans have ever lived — her aunt’s caravan, or mobile home, one of many in Ireland.

“I’ll hang out with people my age, play [soccer] until 2 a.m., hang out on the beach and go to a pub at night,” Smerdon said. “You never get that experience here, especially since there’s a lot of stigma around mobile homes, but there it’s the best vacation place ever.”

What Smerdon said she loves most about Ireland is its dramatically different lifestyle. Whereas students living in Saratoga often focus heavily on academics and obsess over college choices, those she meets in Ireland have much more relaxed lifestyles, in part because they have fewer opportunities than Americans do, Smerdon said. This laid-back atmosphere, on top of the lush greenery of the country and quality time with family, makes Smerdon certain that “part of [her] heart lives there.”

Junior Imaan Qureshi regards her native Pakistani culture in a similar way. Qureshi, who traveled to Islamabad to visit her relatives for two weeks this summer, said she never fails to notice the wide contrasts between Pakistani and American culture, ranging from food to the way people dress and behave. 

“People like to be hospitable, so if you were to go to someone’s house, they’d feed you, give you tea,” Qureshi said. “In general, people there really love feeding everyone. Having tea is mandatory.”

Although Pakistanis are generally friendly, men and women typically do not interact. Many people cluster in large houses in joint family households, which often have cooks, maids or drivers. Qureshi noted that people in Pakistan are often much more interdependent and close-knit than those in America.

Aside from these cultural differences, Qureshi added that people in Pakistan often live less privileged lifestyles than most Americans. Sectors do not have electricity at the same time, and there are signs of poverty everywhere, she said.

Although Qureshi fell ill during her trip, she was still able to reconnect with her native culture simply by being in Pakistan and spending time with her relatives. Even simple actions like conversing in Urdu reminded Qureshi of her Pakistani heritage. She learned again that she is someone “who dresses in Desi clothes and speaks a different language.”

Of course, not all students travel to their family’s native country each summer. For junior Ritika Garg, who has not visited India in four years, connecting with her culture relies heavily on speaking her native language and spending time with relatives who come to visit. 

Still, before moving back to the U.S. in 2015 for better education, Garg lived in Hyderabad for four years. She and her family moved there because her parents wanted Garg and her brother to spend time with their grandparents while they could while simultaneously experiencing Indian culture.

In Hyderabad, Garg lived in a villa community with a common pool, a clubhouse and parks. The laid-back, welcoming environment allowed her to make several close friends who helped her understand connect with Indian culture.

“Even though my friends and I didn’t go to the same school, we'd celebrate almost every Indian festival together,” Garg said. “They really helped me understand Indian culture and how rich it truly is.”

Such festivals included Diwali, the festival of lights. For Diwali, Garg and her family would clean their house and decorate it with diyas, traditional Indian oil lamps. After spending the day with friends, Garg would dress in traditional Indian clothes and walk to the clubhouse with her family, where the rest of the community celebrated with performances, dances and food.

Garg and her family also celebrated Holi, the festival of colors, and attended several traditional family weddings. These weddings allowed Garg to experience new music, customs and clothes that she had never before encountered, she said. 

Garg described the time she spent in India as an “eye-opening experience” that allowed her to connect to her Indian roots and completely immerse herself in her native culture for a long period of time. Although few students have had this opportunity, both Smerdon and Qureshi agree that simply traveling back to their native countries has had similar effects.

“My family in Ireland is very different from the people I’m surrounded by here,” Smerdon said. “Their priorities, lifestyles and problems are different, so seeing that has given me a lot of awareness to the fact that Saratoga isn’t an accurate representation of what the world is like.”

Smerdon, Qureshi and Garg all try to remain in touch with their native cultures while in the U.S. and embrace their heritage. Because of the large Desi community in the Bay Area, Qureshi said she attends numerous events and parties to celebrate traditional holidays and bond with others of similar backgrounds. For her part, Smerdon asks her mother about Irish traditions and growing up in Ireland and “goes crazy” on St. Patrick’s Day. 

“If you’re not staying in touch with your culture, then you’re not fully understanding the world around you or what makes you the person you are,” Smerdon said. “Traveling is really important for this because seeing other cultures and people and places makes you more culturally aware and more open-minded. Your culture is part of who you are, and being in your native country and meeting people who share the same background is comforting and fun.”


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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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