I’ve been thinking of you, lovely readers of this little blog. As I assembled the post for the Secret Valentine Exchange yesterday, I was struck by a feeling of déjà vu. I dug around the roots of my memories, and realized that almost everything about this blog takes me back to a very particular time in my life: grad school.
After teaching English in Japan for a couple of years in my mid-twenties, I knew that I would be a basket case trying to transition back into American society (ironically my English was in a state of complete atrophy), so I did what comes naturally to me and went back to school. I figured I could while away some time nestled in academia while I re-acclimated to giant food portions, direct communication styles and inefficient public transit.
As part of my Educational Psychology studies, I was required to find an internship. Luckily, I landed my first choice: the International Center. Here, I would work with students, faculty and staff from around the globe by coordinating programs and providing “counseling” — the counseling amounted to little more than advice on bureaucratic, visa-related information, however, and not the brainy/emotional stuff I had anticipated. Anyway. A foreboding orange building designed by a world-famous architect housed The International Center, and secretly everyone thought it was ugly. But inside, it was airy, brand-spanking new and filled with light.
The Director of the International Programs didn’t like me. It wasn’t overt, her dislike of me, and I thought it was my newly defunct language skills that made our interactions stilted. She was my assigned mentor, so it was a bit of a problem. She hurtled project after project at me with virtually no instructions but with plenty of inscrutable looks, and then took extended lunches. It became pretty clear that she wanted me to fail. Fortunately — or unfortunately — it turned out that I was very good at project management. She disliked me even more.
While that drama was going on, I busily managed a large number of programs including an ESL class series, a housing assistance package for newly arrived faculty, Los Angeles tours and orientation parties for international students, and campus events. I thoroughly enjoyed coordinating all these programs, but my favorite was an oft-ignored group known as IWC, or “International Women’s Club”.
Now, there were a lot of things wrong with the IWC, starting with its name. The program aimed to provide resources for the spouses of international professors and researchers invited to UCLA. First of all, the assumption that the academics would all be male and the spouses female is ridiculous and must have been a carryover from the previous century (or most likely modeled after the Officer’s Wives Club?). There was no International Men’s Club. Adding to the ridiculousness was that the program offered zero resources and was merely a line item in the handbook the international folks received as part of their welcome package.
In fact, I didn’t even know it existed until a couple of women wandered into my office asking about it. It was an awkward moment. But the women seemed keen on doing something — “we can join, yes?” they asked, so I agreed to come up with an idea and told them to meet me the next week.
The following week, they showed up, and we went to a coffee shop. We got to know each other over lattes and pastries (two things that seem to always mark significance in my life). One was a stunningly beautiful Korean woman married to a Swedish professor. I still remember her name, Sohyang. Her English was bare bones, but she was a mover and shaker and gesticulated animatedly about her many ideas for our new “club”. The other was from the Czech Republic with a higher command of English and equal enthusiasm. She was an academic and scientist herself, but her husband received the research grant and she found herself with too much time. The two talked of the loneliness, the unwelcome idleness – these were intelligent, competent women who had full lives back home. I understood.
We planned a weekly meet-up of varied themes, and I would be responsible for executing them. The following week, four women showed up and we went to the Getty Museum. The week after that I invited a French graduate student to lead a cooking class, and a couple more joined. And each week as we explored the city and attempted crafty or cultural activities, more women showed up. Word kept spreading, and after a few weeks, we had more than a dozen women — not a huge number, but more than I’d ever dreamed of and I had to rent a bus for our field trips. As it so happened, the spouses were mostly female, and it truly became an international women’s club. Japan, India, Hong Kong, Russia, Korea, Germany, Czech Republic…
We were friends. Amid what seemed like froth and frivolous activities (we baked Valentine’s Day cookies in my cramped apartment one week), we dealt with life-altering matters too. I helped a woman buy and take a pregnancy test – miming the process was undignified to say the least; I listened to stories told in tear-filled, broken English of family left behind; I answered questions on how to take a driver’s test. Quite a few of the women got together frequently outside of the weekly meet-ups too. In a small way, the IWC gave a foothold in an unfamiliar territory for these women who used to be skilled and successful professionals and contributing members in their home countries. Now that I’m thinking about it, new motherhood held me hostage in a similar helpless state of being. Nothing challenges your sense of self like wiping up baby poo from the wall and trying to decipher the ear-splitting squawks. It’s often messy, confusing and disorienting being a transplant.
At the end of the year, we celebrated with a big cookout. I ordered t-shirts with an “IWC” logo, rented space near a marina, and we all brought food representing our home. The food! So delicious. After a year of regular outings, we were comfortable in our hodge-podgeness with many inside jokes, a lot of extra hugs, knowing that this was the end. Some women had already departed on the next leg of their journey to far flung locales; some women would be staying longer – I was graduating and leaving the city, headed to San Francisco.
Sadly, I’ve lost touch with those remarkable women but I’ve never forgotten them, or the sheer magic of the community. It just worked, you know? I was a little forlorn too when I found them. After my stint in Japan, I had returned to the US a stranger, needing a place to call home.
The parallels are obvious, right? Here I am, in my airy, light-filled digital space, meeting with you daily to talk about things that seem outwardly insignificant. And every week, a few more of you show up to join me, forging an international community that feels comfortable, connected. Maybe the people who thought up the International Women’s Club weren’t sexist pigs but understood something important. That women are powerful together; that we naturally gravitate towards each other and accomplish unexpected and wonderful things. And just like my IWC ladies, you are amazingly intelligent and beautiful and strong – you are creators, and savers of lives, defenders of laws, researchers of science, teachers of Important Lessons, students of everything, givers of nurturance. You have become my friends. Thank you for giving me a foothold in this crazy, unfamiliar online world. Hmmmm, this turned out longer than I expected. My sentimentality knows no bounds, but that’s all for today. Over and out.