For as long as I can remember my mom has told me to avoid drawing attention to my nationality when visiting my grandparents.
They lived in London during the 1970s and ’80s, a tumultuous period where political violence and acts of terror were frequently used by the Irish Republican Army during their fight for independence from the United Kingdom.
The experience deeply impacted my mom from a young age and stuck with her through her college years in the U.S. A string of terror attacks, both domestic and foreign, in the early 21st century only heightened her vigilance. She was on edge for a long time, encouraging me to avoid associating myself with America while abroad. She believed we would have a target on our backs.
I remember being upset. I liked running into Americans in places other than home. I felt like I could bond with them. I would think: I’m from America, you’re from America, and here we are, meeting by chance in some foreign land.
Eventually, I broke her rules and started wearing my Red Sox hat. On one London trip I was stopped by a Boston family who noticed my hat while walking through Hyde Park. We began talking about their city, baseball and how they were enjoying the vacation.
I was thrilled to connect with people at a deeper level than just my nationality. It felt personal.
My Boston gear would draw all kinds of positive (and sometimes negative) comments from strangers. Good or bad, I loved feeling connected with a community. When I got into Lehigh, I started wearing school shirts in an attempt to get the same type of acknowledgement.
Since then, I’ve been approached by strangers on streets or at airports who notice my Lehigh shirt. They’ll talk to me, asking what year I am and how I like it there. Then they’ll reveal to me that either they, or a relative, are an alum.
My favorite encounter happened three weeks ago while hiking with my family in southern Iceland. A guy in his late 20s noticed my brother’s shirt and asked if we went to Lehigh. My brother answered for us, saying we did.
“No way, man. I went to Lafayette! We hate you guys,” the man said jokingly as he gestured toward the group of a dozen others he was hiking with, all of them Lafayette graduates.
We started talking, exchanging Le-Laf stories, comparing sports teams and joking about who had the better endowment or party scene. It was pretty satisfying.
I began to think about the big picture. When we leave our homes and engage with the world, what identities do we carry with us and uphold? Larger identities like nationality and religion are easy identifiers. When I was walking around London, there was a chance I’d run into someone who is American or Jewish.
Sounds cool, but plenty of Americans and Jewish people travel and live around the world.
What we often overlook are the smaller communities we associate with, like our school or our favorite teams. It’s not far-fetched to imagine meeting an American at the British Museum or The Louvre, but I’ll do a double take if I see anything Lehigh- or Red Sox-related.
We often share experiences with people of our own nationality or religion, but I’ll share far more unique experiences with people from my smaller communities. I can reminisce with a Lehigh alum about Le-Laf, bed races and the grueling stairs on campus. I can meet a fellow Red Sox fan and discuss our aces, who’s struggling at-bat and how much the Yankees deserve our smack-talk.
I often think about bumping into those Lafayette graduates in Iceland. Professors at Lehigh always brag about our extensive alumni network and the connections that can help get jobs or other opportunities.
What they don’t mention are the more unique effects of being a part of Lehigh — the attention you receive from absolute strangers — rather than business referrals and job connections.
And while those Lafayette graduates probably won’t get me a job, they gave me one crazy conversation thanks to my brother boasting about our unique little Lehigh community.
Jake Epstein, ’20, is an assistant news editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]