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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

An ocean of corn & soy

From my temporary on-campus housing, I watched streets fill with people in shorts and t-shirts walking towards town. Curious, I joined in an oversized sweatshirt and jeans. I did not blend. Excuse me, I am new here, what is happening? Surprised at my appearance and question, a local replied, “It’s the end of summer soirée. You arrived during the hottest part of the year, aren’t you hot?” Seeing the confusion on my face, she continued. “We celebrate this every year, the last party of summer. We eat Dutch letters at Jaarsma’s, visit the Molengracht, and climb to the top of the windmill for pictures.” Pausing, he asked the most perplexing question, “where are you from?” For some reason, I said Kiribati. Maybe I felt like such an outsider in Ohio and Iowa that I automatically defaulted to Kiribati. Right then and there, I developed a Kiribati identity.

When arriving at the town’s center, I felt lost. Surveying the crowded square, I estimated there were twice as many people as in Tamana with food stalls lining the streets. Food was everywhere, even in the trash! Some dressed up and took pictures in larger than life wooden Dutch shoes. Others raced in regular-sized wooden shoes, and teams armed with fire hoses shot streams of water high in the sky, pushing tethered barrels down the street. I cringed, watching all the waterfall to the road below. I couldn’t exist without feeling regret and remorse. I was different than everyone else around me.

Weeks prior, I was living in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. We had everything without having anything, and now I was living in Pella, Iowa. A vastly richer island in a sea of corn and soy.

I arrived with one backpack and a suitcase of clothes which did not fit. Cheri was short with white hair and energy, lots of energy. My supervisor, she was an angel with connections. Almost immediately, she came up with $500 for a shopping spree in a Des Moines mall. She said it was an AmeriCorps relocation grant, but I knew the government didn’t work that fast. I suppressed my fear of crowds, stores, and shopping that night, and returned with several pairs of jeans, a winter coat, a pair of sketchers sneakers, and three tee-shirts. Unpacking everything in my empty dorm room, I was thankful but still by the abrupt changes in my life.

As I had done for years, I fell asleep on the floor. Sleeping on the floor was how I connected to Kiribati. It would be years before I slept in a bed again.

The next day was my last in the dorm. I needed to move out for the students to move in.

Again, Cheri took me under her wings, showing me a two-bedroom apartment close to campus. “There will be another young, single man starting in the admissions office at Central next week. His name is Freddy and he is from South America. Would you be ok with sharing the apartment with him?” I was thrilled and thankful. Yes! Of course!

Starting over with someone not from here was perfect! Both of us could experience the culture shock of America together. Additionally, the food, rent, and bills could be split.

Our landlord would take on the role of apartment mom. “This is where the dryer and washer are located, the back door sticks a little, we can spray some WD-40 on that. Let me go get that and I’ll be right back.”

Rushing upstairs, she returned with a can of WD-40 and a bag of Doritos.

“Ever hear of a walking taco?”

Freddy and I looked at her, then at each other with blank faces. We were in for our first Iowan culinary lesson. The experience helped bond us and assured me of being in the right place, for the time being.

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