On being a warm person in a cold environment
My name is Allegra Hanlon. I am half- Colombian on my mother’s side, and half Irish-American on my father’s side. I was born in California and raised in Miami, Florida.
I am not here to tell you a story about how I’ve been wronged in my upbringing as a Hispanic, nor am I telling you my story so you will feel sorry for me: I am sharing it for the readers of this site in the hopes that you may learn something from my experiences as a multi-cultural woman at Cornell.
Like any other South American, I was taught that introductions are made with a kiss on the cheek. Because Miami is essentially made up of various South American cultures, ranging from Colombia to Argentina to Peru, kissing a stranger’s cheek was the norm growing up. Attending a friend’s birthday party meant going around the entire venue and kissing each person’s cheek, even if you only knew the one person. Otherwise, you were considered rude.
I remember Orientation Week of my freshman year at Cornell, when I was at a party that was full of sweaty teenagers and Drake music. While exploring the new scene with my roommate, I was introduced to a guy whose name I forget.
“Hey!” I said brightly, and I leaned over and kissed him on his cheek.
He had blue eyes - I remember that - and they widened in surprise? Shock? Disgust?
“Um, hey,” he finally muttered to me. He jerked his chin in my general direction, shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and turned around to talk to someone else.
It wasn’t until my roommate and I were home much later that night that I realized what I did wrong.
“That guy we met was so rude,” I said to her as I got underneath the covers of my bed.
“Yeah, because you were acting so weird,” she said in a duh-voice as she yanked a brush through her hair in front of the mirror.
“What are you talking about? All I did was say hi!”
“Yeah, but you kissed him on the cheek. That’s really weird, Allegra. People don’t do that here,” was what my roommate told me.
Oh. I remember pulling my covers up to my chin and feeling my cheeks burn in embarrassment. No wonder.
For the rest of that year, as defined by my various conversations with strangers, my friends jokingly referred to me as “the girl that flirts with everyone she meets.” It didn’t help that I didn’t look the way the average American thinks a Hispanic should look, or as portrayed by American television: dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes. I have light brown hair, very fair skin, freckles, and green eyes. So it was normal for people at Cornell to be surprised at my heritage when they met me.
“Wow!” they would say. “You don’t look Hispanic at all!” People would demand I speak to them in Spanish in order to fully grasp the validity of my Latin heritage.
And at first, I didn’t understand. I liked to talk to strangers at parties. I liked to be loud and give lots of hugs and sit down and have a full conversation with whatever friend I would run into on the street. It wasn’t because I was being “flirty.” It was because where I came from, in Miami, it was expected of you. Being physically affectionate, not just to strangers, but also to your friends, was a form of communication. It didn’t necessarily have to mean “I love you,” it could just mean “hello.” If you weren’t loud at a family dinner full of Latin Americans, you probably wouldn’t be heard, because in my experience, the voices of Latinos are inherently as loud and passionate as the conviction with which they state their beliefs. And during that dinner, if a favorite Latino song came on, it wasn’t abnormal to stand from the table and begin to dance with a family member.
So, when I first arrived at Cornell, it was a culture shock, and I didn’t know if or how I would fit in. Everyone seemed so quiet. Nobody looked at each other when they walked on the street, but instead hugged their cold bodies closer inside their jackets. You only said hello if you were good friends with someone. It didn’t matter if they were in your Freshman Writing Seminar and you saw them three times a week anyway. For a while, I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could change the way I was just to fit into a school with people that were infinitely smarter than I was.
And then, I realized I didn’t have to. I realized that everyone is different from me in his or her own way. I realized that the Jewish culture (and there are many Jewish people at Cornell) is very similar to the Latino culture: they are also loud and love to eat, and value relationships between mother and son. I realized that the Asian population at Cornell was just as welcoming when I accidentally stumbled into a club meeting and was fed delicious egg rolls. And I realized that coming to a place like Cornell University wasn’t about me fitting into a different culture, but rather about me sharing the aspects of my own culture that made me special, and embracing the variety of cultures Cornell opened to me and making it a part of who I am.
Today, I still get really really excited when I see someone I know on the street. Even if it is just an acquaintance. I usually give them a hug, sometimes I’ll sit down with them and learn something special. And every time I do, I realize the value of saying “hello,” and I realize it’s because of where I come from that I think to do so and make a friend, and I am so grateful.
Cornell University C/O 2018