Citizen Diplomacy Story Challenge 2016 Winners: Cara Price, Grand Prize

by Cara Price, National Security Language Initiative for Youth to Moldova, 2016

“This is you,” she said, pointing to bug-eyed Professor Trelawney, the focal point of my Harry Potter t-shirt. I took in the frizzy hair and gaping mouth. Flattering. Her attention shifted to Hermione. “This is me.”

The next day, she called me Squidward.

When I decided to spend my senior year of high school studying Russian in Moldova, I expected my assumptions to be questioned, my luxuries eliminated, my patience stretched. I didn’t expect these challenges to take the form of a six year old girl. Physicists claim that energy cannot be created or destroyed; obviously they’ve never met my host sister, Nicoleta, who has access to an infinite supply. Between marathoning My Little Pony and playing the role of pony myself, I felt more like a child than ever before.

That might sound cliche, but so’s the temptation to pinpoint a magical moment of maturity in my year abroad. Boarding a plane in Pittsburgh didn’t confer instant adulthood, nor will I be recounting any mid-Atlantic revelations. As an ambitious high school student, I felt I already knew something about maturity. By comparison, NSLIY resembled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The more time I spent in Moldova, the more distant my previous understanding of adulthood became. Tick-tock, one month — there go family responsibilities; here come Nicoleta and playtime.

Tick-tock, another — stuttered speeches in Russian replaced technical presentations to local companies. According to conventional wisdom, leaving home is a transformative experience. I don’t disagree, but my missteps were minor. Think less bildungsroman, more comedy of errors: ordering the literal translation of hot chocolate and receiving a bowl of fudge, letting Nicoleta discover where I keep my candy, and offending babushkas with a hip-length coat (my ovaries will freeze!).

The reason I felt like a kid again thus extends beyond My Little Pony. Rather than confirming my maturity, my time abroad exposed its deficiencies. In the eyes of children, adults know all. Meanwhile, I could barely understand the complex choreography of public transportation, much less Moldovan politics. Like C.S. Lewis, I believe that maturity requires “putting away childish things,” specifically “the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” By this definition, perhaps I did mature. What could have been a humiliating process — acknowledging my ignorance and striving to learn more — was instead liberating; growth cannot occur without uncertainty. As weeks and months passed, I started to appreciate Kindergarten sensations, from the thrill of recognizing a word on sight to an identity limited by my vocabulary. (Unfortunately for me, pony in Russian is also pony.) The most hard-won wisdom of my experience, however, relates to Nicoleta. Never underestimate the value of playing “sleep.”

To those looking for the Fountain of Youth, I say: leave home, whether for a day or a decade, and reacquaint yourself with the discomfort of not-knowing and the curiosity that follows. As for the starry-eyed youth in pursuit of adulthood: stop searching; go play with a six year old.