Friday, February 12, 2010

Rachel Miller: Adventures in Education

Each week we highlight one of the hostel's fantastic volunteers. This week it's Rachel Miller, who has been working at the information desk since September 2009 and has also a hand in Cultural Kitchen.

Q. What sort of volunteer work do you do at the hostel, and what's your motivation for doing it?
A. Once a month, I volunteer with the Cultural Kitchens program. I got interested in the Cultural Kitchens program because it combines two of my favorite things: experiential learning and cooking! After signing up for CK, I also started working at the Information Desk once a week. I grew up in Chicago, but have just moved back after being away for six years. The Info Desk was a good way for me to get reacquainted with the city, while also helping other people get to know my hometown.

Q. Can you elaborate on some of your previous international experience - traveling, studying, or working abroad?
A. My first international experience was a family trip to Ontario when I was ten years old. I immediately decided that Canada was fascinating. In high school, I took a trip with my sister around Europe, which was our own "Grand Tour". It really confirmed in me a sense of adventure, and I knew that I would somehow get myself out into other new countries. In college, I studied abroad for six months in London as I worked on my Anthropology degree. After college, I decided that I wanted to live abroad again, but in a more challenging environment. Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up teaching English in southern China for two years. It was an incredible immersive experience in a very complicated culture, and I doubt I could begin to understand contemporary Chinese events without it. During that time I was also able to travel to many different parts of China, as well as various countries in SE Asia. Finally, my girlfriend and I extended our return trip home to America and traveled for six weeks through northwest China, Turkey, and Bulgaria. Currently, I'm mostly interested in traveling to the western and northwestern U.S., although I have been invited to a wedding in Rio de Janeiro in 2010.

Q. How has your time spent in China shaped how you view travel?
A. I think my time spent in China confirmed for me what I already suspected about travel, which is that slower is usually better. The first thing I want to do in a new place is to see the sights. This can be done fairly quickly. But "seeing the sights" is only the tip of the iceberg, and as incredible as it is, it still leaves you with just the same photos as anyone else. Travelling slowly allows you time to help carry someone's kids up a hiking trail, hear what the your hostel owner thinks of the other guests, and find out what it is you've been doing the past few days that locals find terribly rude. Travelling slowly isn't always feasible, but it allows more time for you to develop respect for the area, and importantly, for the local area to develop a little respect for you (hence the importance of embarrassing lessons on social faux pas.)

Q. What's been your most memorable experience at the hostel so far?
A. I think my favorite moment happened at a Cultural Kitchen dinner table one night. Students from Curie High School had cooked us up some stellar Romanian food a few days before Thanksgiving. At my table, a student from Chicago and a student from rural Poland shared stories of their families' holiday traditions with two visitors from Chile and Spain. The group compared their respective local holiday costumes, dances, foods, and traditions. It was a really crazy, serendipitous moment in cross-cultural connection. That Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I went into the hostel to work at the Info Desk and brought a few pies to share. I ran into Marta (the visitor from Spain) in the dining room, and she greeted me like an old friend. "Oh, hello! How was your holiday? How was your grandmama's Thanksgiving dinner?" "It was wonderful," I replied, "It was nice to be home this year. Would you like some pumpkin pie?"

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