My Trip to Appalachia

by Tara Lucian, USA

Every fall and spring break the Center for Social Concerns hosts seminars throughout Appalachia, a region of the United States that surrounds the Appalachian Mountains and includes counties in 13 different states.  This region is one of the poorest in the United States, with some of the highest levels of unemployment and lowest levels of education.  The people you meet in Appalachia are usually very different than the people you will meet at Notre Dame; they have different backgrounds, expectations for the future, and perspectives on life.  There are some similarities though: they are friendly people who are willing to lend a helping hand and work hard for what they want.

This spring break I went to West Virginia with fifteen other Notre Dame students. The beginning of the drive down was boring.  We spent hours driving through flat Indiana and Ohio cornfields.  Once we hit the foothills of the Appalachians, the scenery took a turn for the better. There was something eerily beautiful about the tree-covered mountains.  It was too early in the season for leaves, but rather than the normal brown or gray that you would expect from leafless trees, they almost had a blue tinge to them.  Driving through the mountains with the bright sun and blue sky overhead, and country music blasting on the radio, we made our way deeper into Appalachia.

We spent most of our time working with Park Ranger Eddie Hatcher, readying a state park for summer visitors while Eddie imparted his ageless wisdom on us. When geese fly in a “V,” why is one side longer than the other? Because there are more geese on that side!

When we finished work for the day, we would go hiking in different state parks.  Wading through fallen leaves next to trickling streams and babbling brooks, crawling behind waterfalls and under rocky outcrops, we wondered at the beauty of the nature around us.  Every walk was an adventure as we often went off trail, never knowing where we would end up next.  I have vivid memories of staring down at our car from a 40 foot cliff, wondering how on Earth we were going to get down so we could return in time for dinner.

Of course, there was an educational aspect to the trip as well.  There were several cultural events at the Folklife Center: Ranger Rudy taught us about the history of coal mining, Nancy spoke about preserving West Virginia and its culture, and Will treated us to a haunting coal miner’s song.

“It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew/Where danger is double and pleasures are few/Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines/It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.”

Even listening to the radio was an experience.  Most strikingly, I heard a commercial about looking for a job after high school, with no mention of college, no suggestion that it might be an option.  For many people in Appalachia, it’s not.  As someone who was raised assuming that I would go to college, this commercial made a strong impression.

If any undergraduate student is looking for a new experience to fill their fall or spring break, I highly encourage them to take part in an Appalachia Seminar.  I had the time of my life on my trip: I worked hard, recharged, met new people, and explored the outdoors.  I learned so much about a region of the United States that I had only ever driven through before, and I felt honored and privileged to have done so.

We’re All Irish

by Tanya Alconcel, Hawaii, U.S.A

Leaving my home state of Hawaii to come to Notre Dame was the biggest culture shock of my life, which isn’t something you might expect since Hawaii is still part of the U.S.  But the environment, the people, and the culture at Notre Dame was completely different from island life.  Although it was extremely disconcerting at first, I think it was my curiosity and excitement of being in a new place, experiencing a new culture, and meeting new people, that helped me overcome my initial fear and thrive in this new environment.  I stepped out of my comfort zone to talk to lots of different people, join lots of different clubs, and even try several different majors to learn and experience lots of different things, and that would be my biggest piece of advice to new students today.

Meeting and connecting with new people who were ethnically, religiously, and even economically different from me was a challenge.  But instead of letting my differences hinder me from connecting with people, I used it to my advantage as a great token of interest in conversation, because people were really interested to hear about Hawaii and my culture.  Be proud of yourself and where you come from, because I think people at ND really appreciate diversity and want to learn more about you!  And remember that despite any ostensible differences, we’re all Irish.

My Kitchen, My Mom and Me

By Hyewon Yun, Korea

I finally bought it: a 15$ zester/grater. This is not a must-have kitchen utensil, but absolutely the most expensive item in my kitchen. Considering I spent one year deciding to buy a $5 hand mixer, this should be an unthinkable extravagance. What is happening to me? The strange thing is that I have never thought about canceling the order or returning this since I first saw it on the Internet. Hmmmm…

My mother is the wife of a man who became the head of a big family at the age of 30 when his father died. She had to take care of her aging mother-in-law, her own three kids and six of her much younger brothers-in-law and sister-in-law who were then students in college, high school and elementary school. Her days started in the kitchen preparing breakfast for 12 people and packing school lunches for her husband’s brothers and sister. My mother used to find the lunch box of the youngest brother-in-law tossed into the trash can after he went to school. It was his childish way of protesting when he didn’t like the food in the box. He was too young to understand that food and other resources were in short supply with many mouths to feed in the family and his eldest brother’s business was not always booming. Her cooking was rejected and wasted that easily.

For me as a young girl, it looked pointless to be a wife and mother when it was such a thankless job. I couldn’t believe that anyone would like to become one in the first place: why would she waste her whole life cooking, cleaning and supporting someone else when she could work for herself and for a greater purpose, for example, a career. Naturally, I stayed away from the kitchen as much as possible and refused to help my mother. I worked hard at school believing that it was the only way for a girl to move on to the outside world and thrive in a country heavily influenced by traditional gender stereotypes back then. And I made it.

I went to college and become a member of Korea’s first generation who was taught feminism at college and awakened to the self-awareness that we can achieve something as a woman rather than just a housewife. As ambitious and assertive young women, our goal was never to allow our lives to become like our mothers’-what a passive and negative goal it was! We wanted not to do something rather than to do something. However, we wanted to break the vicious circle: women got married at a young age because the social norm forced them to do so and showed no other option, and they got hard training under their mothers-in-law to be proper workhorses for their husbands’ families. Thus they became the same relentless mothers-in-law for their sons’ wives.  After graduation, I got a job, worked hard to build my career and never cooked.  I was also successful in landing a husband who never cared whether I was a good cook or not.

Cooking became a daily routine, however, when my husband and I came to America. My husband was studying as a graduate student while I stayed at home and supported him. I had to cook three meals a day: both of us loved Korean food and simply our household budget was not enough to eat out all the time. Now I got very surprised at how fast the next meal came back after just finishing one meal. My husband sometimes invited his classmates or our neighbors who had helped us get settled in town. I had to become the sweet hostess who cooked and served authentic Korean food. Cooking, baking, dish-washing, cleaning and grocery shopping were endless. I didn’t even have time to hate the job because it was such a mind-emptying swim-or-drown challenge. It was an excruciating boot camp for homemaking.

I struggled for almost one year. While juggling and bumbling around in the kitchen, I slowly got used to fixing some food and started to put decent or even good food on the table. Sometimes, I had the luxury of spending some more time for presentation after already finishing the cooking process. I also found it greatly relaxing to bake cakes while listening to my favorite music, focusing on nothing but sifting, whipping or beating, and forgetting homesickness, boredom or mundane concerns as my cakes’ sweet aroma spread from the oven throughout the house. The kitchen became my meditation room, sanctuary and resting place.

Most of all, cooking and baking was sharing. It was a great way to spend happy times with good people: my husband, friends and neighbors. I suddenly realized that for the first time in my whole life, I was putting in quality time and energy and truly sharing something with others. By offering my own food, the product of my blood, sweat and tears-as I often got cuts, sweaty working with the hot oven and tearful over cooking mishaps-, I was reaching out to someone else and turning the time spent together into a fond memory. This is also what my mother has done for her whole adult life: readily sharing whatever she had with the people around her and happily working for her loving family, not sacrificing or wasting her life. I never had once considered that my life was similar to my mother’s. We are the women who have lived different lives in different worlds and different times. But when I cook and bake I transcend such differences and feel closer to her than ever. What an irony that only when we are an ocean apart I finally feel more strongly than ever that I am my mother’s daughter.

I once brought up my new love for cooking and baking while I was talking with her over the phone. She got very excited and cried, “Yes! Cooking is fun.” It was a strange experience because I had never thought that my mother enjoyed cooking. However, I had not known her very well, after all, during all those years. As this passion for cooking has been inside me all the time waiting to be found, she might have been waiting to be found, too, by her own daughter.