California is such a weird place. As somebody who has lived on the East Coast my whole life, in a standard middle-class suburb of the South, I did not expect to experience such a contrast in a largely well-to-do area in another state on the opposite side of the same country. Yet some aspects I’ve encountered this first week were so strange, I might as well have come to a foreign country.
In one sense, the weather is much cooler and dryer than I expected. Even from my first step out of the airport, I noticed that although the sunlight was strong and direct, the dryness of the air made the temperature under shade easily ten degrees cooler, a phenomenon unfathomable in the humidity of the Carolinas. Another oddity was the plants. Taking a walk around the campus where we live, I found some very strange plants. One type of tree had almost iridescent purple flowers; a type of bush had what seemed like huge, bright orange flowers, but were actually colorful leaves surrounding a tiny flower in the middle; and another was a vine that had weird purple flower-leaf-pod hybrids that were the size of small footballs, filled with air, and could be popped. I was so intrigued with the strange plants.
Beyond the physical weirdness of California, I realized that the work I would be taking on would also put me in a foreign situation. This week, we received training for the camp we will be facilitating, where we learned skills such as how to facilitate activities and manage a classroom. Of course, I’ve worked with children before, and I’ve taught science in a similar camp-like setting, so that was familiar information. But what struck me the hardest was learning how to report suspected abuse and neglect in the campers. A lot of the girls at the camp may not be privileged to have supportive or cohesive families, so it is our job as counselors to notice the red flags in their behavior and report it, so they can get the help they need. We were told that historically, at least one girl has been reported at this camp every year, so there is a high likelihood that it will happen again this year. Hearing that, I was shocked—not because I was scared to deal with the situation, but because I realized that the girls I came to teach and form bonds with would most likely have wildly different life experiences from my own. I come from an area where abuse and neglect were very uncommon, or at least not often talked about, so the fact that it was almost certain here led me to wonder what other differences the girls and I will have, and how it will affect the relationship I have with them. It gives me a weird feeling.
However, weird or foreign doesn’t have to be bad. It’s just a reaction to differences in what we know. I know in the two months I am here, I can learn a lot from these differences. Just as I will learn to adapt to the weird weather and strange flora, I will adapt to interacting with girls who have differing experiences from mine. And in the process, I will learn about the community in which they live, how that differs from mine, and how that disparity can be bridged.