The Difference a Smile Can Make

highway image

Credit: Gillian Reimann

When we think about different cultural perspectives, the regions of California versus Oregon, the Bay Area versus Portland and its greater area, rarely come to mind, but to me, they’re vastly different. Four years ago, I made a twelve hour drive up to Forest Grove, Oregon from Concord, California, to start my college experience and Pacific University, and I didn’t really expect anything to be that different. Well, I did expect more rain. But, a funny thing happened as I started to go to my classes and talk to local Oregonians, and I realized, there is a difference.

Back home in the Bay Area, everything is fast-paced. We don’t sit outside, reading books or listening to music as we take in the sunshine; because it’s always out in California, and there’s so much more to do. We don’t walk to restaurants in town, even if they are ten minutes away. And we certainly don’t stop and smile at people we vaguely recognize. Instead, we bustle along on our busy paths, we keep our heads down, we drive to get dinner, and we do our best to avoid the sun (since it’s always out and it’s always hot).

Honestly, life back home is abrupt, which has made the past four years in the Portland area a bit of an eye-opener for me. To be honest, not all of it is grand, starting with the rain—the endless downpour is annoying, and for a self-proclaimed sun-hater, even I’m happy on days when it’s out and there’s no precipitation in sight. The constant rain was a bit of a shock to try to adapt to, especially since I was going back home every few months for break. But even with the rain, when I’m in Forest Grove, I’m more likely to see people out walking around town and campus, stopping to talk and smile with one another, even in the rain. Back at home, I’d be hard pressed to see that kind of simple friendliness, and while I’m not saying that we’re all rude, there’s just not that level of comfort involved. Making the transition between the two states is difficult, especially because as soon as I get into the swing of smiling at people and asking how they are, I have to switch, going back to the head-ducking, antisocial attitude. And when I finally get used to sitting in traffic for hours and blaring music to entertain myself, I get thrown back into the fast lane where I’m constantly avoiding being cut off and going at least fifteen over the speed limit.

As a junior editor at Silk Road for the past three semesters, I’ve had the privilege of reading unique cultural perspectives and see various diverse tales across several genres, and so it’s difficult to see how my experience translates in comparison. But then, I remember that ‘unique’ and ‘diverse’ are subjective words, and they vary from case to case. My experiences from city life in the Bay Area and Portland, to the town life of Concord and Forest Grove illustrate a distinct gap in human contact and comfort. Back at home, people rush about, avoid eye contact, and set out for themselves. Contrastingly, when I’m here in Forest Grove, or the larger Portland area, people stop and start up conversations.

At a bookstore in Beaverton a couple weeks ago, I was stopped by an old man in the Science Fiction section who asked my opinion about some books. I stopped my perusal of the shelves, smiled at him, and offered up a few titles that I had read that were similar to the books in his hand. He grinned back at me and thanked me for my time, and I watched him go on to grab one of the books that I recommended, adding it to the pile. It was a

For me, the difference in culture between the Bay Area and Portland is just enough of a shock so that alternating and adapting between the two is difficult. Twelve hours of driving and a few mountain ranges separate the two states, making their differences subtle but certainly there, at least for this college student.

By: Gillian Reimann

The Twin Thing

Credit: Emma McMain

Credit: Emma McMain

 

In the middle of my Intro to Biology lab session, my phone lit up with a text from my mom. “Hi Hon. Sam is in the hospital with food poisoning. Will let you know more when we do…love you.” My own abdomen clenched like a fist. Time after time, people ask me if Sam and I have a “twin thing.” I always wonder what, exactly, they are implying. Do they suspect that we can empathically tune into one another across land and sea, as if we were still fused together with a thought-conducting umbilical cord? I always laugh and answer, “No, not really.” Nonetheless, with me in a sterilized lab room in Oregon and him in a sterilized Emergency Room in Thailand, I excused myself to the restroom. Still wearing my blue latex lab gloves, I placed one hand on my aching stomach and leaned against the cold sink.

The food poisoning didn’t really surprise me. Sam had been mountain biking in Thailand for weeks, eating cheap smorgasbords of oily meats and tropical fruits for nearly every meal. Traveling overseas and eating 5,000 calories’ worth of hand-prepared food each day entails a certain level of risk. What did surprise me was the intensity of Sam’s illness, which was relayed to me in a literal game of telephone between Sam’s good friend (who was also in Thailand), my parents, and finally me. As I discovered from the texts that caused my pocket, pillow, and backpack to vibrate at all hours of the day, my 6-foot-5, 200-pound athlete of a brother had somehow been debilitated by a nasty strain of Salmonella. He was too “out of it” to talk or walk for the first several hours, and he remained on an IV drip for the next 72. While Sam’s hands were poked with needles 7,000 miles away, I wrung my own and waited for more news.

 

When Sam and I were tiny babies, my father says he watched us lie in our crib side-by-side, hands touching as they often did. As Sam’s skin brushed my own, my dad claims that Sam jerked and did a double take, peering with wide eyes at the creature lying next to him. I can just picture the thought bubble in our heads as we recognized that we were two, not one: “Who is that?”

I was nine when Sam fell off the roof of our minivan, his daring game cut short by the impact of bare knees and elbows onto rough gravel driveway. “Emma!” was the shrill cry that tumbled from his lungs during the brief free-fall, even though my parents were closer. I felt the embarrassment of falling, the betrayal of gravity, and the sear of sharp pebble on skin. Not knowing how to comfort or what to say, I felt myself shake with laughter. It wasn’t humor. It was overwhelm. It was feeling my brother’s pain, and wanting to help, and not knowing how.

One awful day in middle school, my dad drove me to school while Sam biked. I spotted Sam streaking down the sidewalk, standing up straight on his muddy pedals. I watched as he approached a hidden uphill driveway, where a younger boy mounted his own bike at the top. Both boys gained speed, two trains on the same track, each hidden from the other’s view. I knew it was going to happen before I had time to roll down the window and yell. I saw it all: legs flailing, wheels spinning, bodies crashing. Sam and the boy were lucky to walk away without any serious injuries, but the scene played over and over in my head. I watched it unroll like a film, unable to press stop.

 

I called Sam from my apartment on his last day in the Thai hospital. He sounded like himself, making jokes about the hospital food and giving two-word replies to my inquiries about his plans for the rest of the trip. He is a listener, and I don’t like silence, so I talk. I talked on the phone about my classes, my plans for grad school, my boring Biology class, and what I had made for dinner. I asked him if most of the doctors spoke English (“enough,” he said) and when he might be able to leave (“probably in the morning,” if he stayed hydrated). Sam was fifteen hours ahead of me, and our calendars read different dates. I finally said goodbye, not knowing if he wanted me to keep talking or let him go. I tried not to imagine the hole where the needle had rubbed into his skin, the feeling of gut-twisting nausea for hours on end, cold sweats in a foreign country where sharing language was a struggle. I thought of my infant self, looking over to acknowledge that the twin beside me was separate, even though our hands were joined.

By: Emma McMain