On March 1 this year, my roommate Rada bounced into our room with a smile on her face. “Happy Baba Marta!” she exclaimed. Translated to “Grandma March” in Bulgarian, the holiday marks the beginning of spring, a celebration of life. Rada clasped my arm, tying a band of red and white thread around my wrist. The bracelet was held together by a glowing red bead, patterned with colorful shapes. I was supposed to wear the bracelet until I found the first blossoming tree, and then tie it around a branch. “Typically we also include seeing a stork, but not many of those in Connecticut, eh?” she added.
Rada’s gesture might have been small, but it completely changed my day. It was my midterm hell week and I had been stressed and sleep deprived, narrowly focused on my exams. The bracelet was a refreshing reminder that tests were not the end of the world. There were more important things, like appreciating the beauty of nature. I told Rada this was a holiday I wanted to celebrate for the rest of my life. She smiled and replied, “Bulgaria gets some important things right.”
Rada and I have a lot in common. We share similar values on success and personal relationships, we like going on adventures together, we’re open to new cultures and people and we take care of each other. But it’s our differences that have uniquely added depth and value to our friendship.When we met, I was curious to learn about her Bulgarian background, and she asked me about my Indian-American heritage. She was one of my first friends in college to learn about the Diwali parties my family threw for our neighborhood. I told her about my Sikh and Hindu background and how I created my own mix of beliefs. She explained her Christian Orthodox background and why she wasn’t really that religious.
We taught each other phrases in Hindi and Bulgarian. I only remember three words — praskova (peach), dobre (okay) and blagodarya ti (thank you). I told her my family’s stories, first as refugees from Pakistan to India and then as immigrants to the U.S. I learned about her grandparents’ farms and home villages. We talked about culture shock when she first came to the U.S. in an exchange year in 11th grade.
I realized that this open, yet warm discussion on our differences was unique. Most of my friends did not come from the same background as I did, yet we tended to focus on topics that were universal. As a result, I didn’t share parts of myself that were different in culture and worldview, but were still very important to me. This was concerning. When I didn’t discuss my cultural differences, I lost sight of them.
For example, in some interpretations of Hinduism and Sikhism, we value books (a symbol of education) as an extension of a god. Whenever I drop a book, I am supposed to put my hand on my heart before I pick it up. I was careful to do this in elementary school, but as I grew older and got weirder looks, I either was discreet about doing so or stopped. My friendship with Rada reminded me that I shouldn’t be embarrassed of these little differences, but instead take the time to explain them to my friends.
Learning about Rada’s life (and by extension, Bulgarian culture) hasn’t just been interesting: it’s changed my own perspective. I’ve learned about different values, spiritual beliefs and how to celebrate. And I’ve incorporated these ideas to improve my own life.
I understand that people may be reluctant to learn or adopt from other cultures due to a fear of cultural appropriation. However, I believe this appropriation happens precisely as a result of not discussing differences. When the meaning behind rituals and objects (like clothing) aren’t explained, it’s easy to misunderstand and thus misuse them.
Our campus may be diverse, but diversity isn’t just peaceful coexistence. It’s learning from each other, talking through differences and gaining respect for one another. Prioritizing diversity isn’t just important in promoting equality — it’s necessary for both personal and collective growth.Last summer, I visited Rada in Bulgaria for a week. We explored Roman ruins in Plovdiv, ate delicious tomato and cucumber salads, kayaked on fairy-tale lakes, went to nightclubs in the capital Sofia and visited historic monuments.
My favorite moment, however, was when we were strolling along a leafy avenue in Sofia. I stopped and pointed to a branch. It was laden with bracelets from Baba Marta.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Her columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .