By the time I was in eighth grade, I was ready to leave my hometown of South Burlington.
I hadn't even lived there that long. I was born in New Jersey, but my family moved to Hanoi, Vietnam, for my dad's work when I was 2. My younger brother and I attended an international school with a diverse group of students; my best friends came from Japan, Germany and Australia. I was exposed to a global community at a young age — too young to realize how cool it was to be surrounded by people from all over the world.
In Vietnam, we knew many Filipino families like ours. We'd often get together after Sunday mass to eat and talk.
My family returned to the U.S. when I was 8, and we moved to Vermont. The Green Mountain State provided a welcoming home, but it felt limiting at times. I was raised to embody strict Filipino values: respecting my elders, putting family first and embracing God. My friends were brought up with different priorities where family and religion were concerned. I grew up bringing rice dishes to school for lunch, rather than the turkey sandwiches my classmates brought. There were few Filipino families in the area, making it harder to find the sturdy support system we'd had in Vietnam. The placid, tree-lined streets of South Burlington were nothing like the alleys of Hanoi, where the blaring honks of motorcycles intensified the cacophony of voices from both drivers and pedestrians.
I decided to apply to Phillips Academy, an elite boarding school in Andover, Mass., that attracts students from all over the world. In the winter of eighth grade, I told my Phillips Academy interviewer that one of the reasons I wanted to go there was because I was looking for "more opportunities." I thought it would give me something that Vermont couldn't.
And it did. During my freshman orientation, I met a synchronized swimmer from the rainy Pacific Northwest and a fashionable violinist from Tokyo. I discussed the merits of standardized testing with a trilingual singer from North Carolina and learned to ride a skateboard with a video blogger from Hong Kong.
I was assigned a dorm room with a fencer from South Korea. In our first days living together, I looked curiously at the containers of strange shrimp crackers and grape gummy candies under her bed and watched as she plastered our walls with anime posters of movies I'd never heard of before.
My roommate and I became fast friends and would regularly talk about our homes. I was mesmerized by her descriptions of life halfway around the world. She lived in a fast-paced, cosmopolitan city where the streets were never quiet and the buildings were covered in advertisements with colored, blinking lights.
As I befriended others in my dorm, I was amazed that this one brick building housed a kaleidoscope of cultures, with people from Asia, Europe and all over the United States. I loved to imagine waking up to the urban skyline of Shanghai, tasting exquisite foods in Paris and basking in the year-round warmth of southern California. This diversity was exactly what I had been hoping for.
At boarding school, your hometown is almost as important as your name. Only seven students at Phillips Academy were from nearby Vermont, while other states and countries had greater representation even though they were much farther away. When I told people where I was from, some didn't even know where in the U.S. Vermont was. Others asked me if it was in Canada. I worried that my unremarkable origins would make others think that I, too, was unremarkable.
But after a few months, I began to feel differently. Teachers raved about the great skiing, beautiful foliage and scenery in Vermont. Some of my classmates who visited the state for the holidays shared how the peaceful atmosphere provided a relief from stressful everyday life.
I also started listening more carefully to the stories my friends from different states and countries told. I learned about the unbearable pollution in Shanghai, where, at times, walking outside is discouraged. My Californian friends joked about how they couldn't have water-balloon fights in the summer and how most of their plants died due to the drought-related water constraints. I began to understand that all places have their downsides.
I also came to see that Vermont has influenced me in ways I hadn't realized before. My trusting personality and tendency to greet people passing by is a product of the friendly community in which I was raised. Burlington's liberal atmosphere has made me more accepting of others' differences. Living in such an outdoorsy place, where physical activity and fresh food are valued, has made me a healthier person — but also one with impossibly high ice-cream standards, thanks to Ben & Jerry's. Growing up in the only state with no Target, and one in which billboards are prohibited on the highways, I'm probably less focused on material things than your typical teenager.
So when my roommate announced at the end of the school year that she was going to spend her summer vacation in Vermont, I was confident that she'd find things to appreciate here. Sure enough, when she emerged from her intensive six-week, no-internet orchestra program, she told me how much she loved the charming little towns and unspoiled nature.
After picking her up at camp, her mom even said that she'd love to retire here one day. I'm starting to understand why.