• Danielle G.

Episode 34 │ Kinky Gazpacho, Melting Pot (MOROCCO/SPAIN)

Updated: May 4


photos courtesy of Lori L. Tharps

"How am I gonna make peace with this country that feels so anti-Black?.... I have to thank Spain for giving me an opportunity to find a story, and finding this ability to see myself in places where others don't." (Lori, Episode 34)



*ANNOUNCEMENT* - My guest feature on The Thought Card Podcast is available now! (The Thought Card's host, Danielle Desir, invited me to be a guest on her podcast after I posted about Young, Gifted and Abroad in WOC Podcasters, a Facebook group of which Danielle Desir is an admin. She interviewed me in November 2018 and the episode that features me, episode 27, was released on April 4th.)


Speaking of the WOC Podcasters, I also have that group to thank for connecting me with today's guest, a fellow podcaster by the name of Lori L. Tharps. I posted about Young, Gifted and Abroad in the group's weekly free-for-all a while back, and Lori responded so enthusiastically to my post that I was caught off guard. She said that focusing on PoC study abroad experiences is a great idea, and that she was eager to share Young, Gifted and Abroad with the study abroad committee that she serves on at her university. And if that weren't enough, she said she'd love to be a guest and discuss how studying abroad quite literally changed her life! Hence, how today's episode came to be!


Lori started her podcast called My American Melting Pot in 2018, and has been running her blog of the same name since 2012. She passionately uses both to discuss race, pop culture, and multicultural identities in a proactive way. And she wears even more hats in addition to those! She's a journalist, a professor of journalism, a writer, an author of five published books, a wife, and a mom to three kids ranging in age from 7 to 17. Originally from Milwaukee, Lori spent 15 years writing for magazines in New York City before transitioning to the professor life in Philadelphia, at Temple University. But her life on the east coast would probably look remarkably different if she hadn't spent time in Morocco and Spain when she was younger.


When Lori was a teenager, her mom started volunteering with an organization called American Field Service (now AFS Intercultural Programs), which facilitates foreign exchange programs for high school students. Lori's mom not only offered support for local meetings and events, but the family also temporarily hosted many foreign students who were either visiting Milwaukee or on their way to their official host families in other parts of Wisconsin. Lori's sister also got to partake in the program, spending a summer in a rural part of France. Suffice it to say that Lori was exposed to the idea of cultural exchange fairly early in life. She hoped to follow in her sister's footsteps, but also outdo her by doing something different: rather than Europe, Lori wanted to do AFS in Africa. At the time (the '90s), Egypt and Morocco were the only African options available, and Morocco was the most unfamiliar to her so that's what she chose. At 17 years old, Lori spent the summer between her junior and senior year with a host family in Casablanca. She was one of 10 AFS students who went to Morocco that summer.


Because the focus of this experience was cultural exchange, students were expected to integrate into the host family's life and do whatever the family did. That proved difficult for Lori for the first couple weeks. She didn't speak Arabic and only one of her 11 host siblings spoke some English. She didn't like the food (her family frequently ate lamb). She couldn't explore her neighborhood alone (it wasn't unsafe but it also wasn't the best area for a visible foreigner with no Arabic skills to wander around). And overall, she struggled to understand certain customs and the unhurried pace of life that the family observed. She was losing weight, she wasn't making the best impression on her host family, and she was questioning why she'd chosen to place herself so far out of her depth.


It wasn't until Lori met up with a close friend and fellow AFS student who appeared to be adjusting much more smoothly than she was, that she decided to change her strategy. Said friend advised her to just go with the flow, and to throw herself into everything that was happening around her, and that's what she did. Lori went back home and tried to change her attitude, being more appreciative and open to her host family's way of doing things. And it worked! She became great friends with one of her host sisters, she learned the value in not always needing to be doing something or knowing what's going to happen, and she traveled with her family to other parts of Morocco like Rabat, Marrakesh, and smaller coastal towns. By the end of her stay, she felt like coming to Morocco was actually the most amazing thing she'd ever done, because it had shown her in many ways that America was only one version of reality, of what is "normal".


photos courtesy of Lori L. Tharps

After Morocco, Lori's next goal was to get to Spain. She'd studied Spanish in middle school and high school but school trips to Spain weren't affordable enough, so she knew college would be her time. She did her undergraduate studies at Smith College, where she studied education and Spanish and started learning German as well. In fact, she initially planned on going to Vienna for a semester to improve her German proficiency, but an advisor told her that she wouldn't see the improvement she wanted in only one semester, plus she might face a significant amount of racism there. So instead, Lori opted for an IES (Institute for the International Education of Students) program in Salamanca, Spain, which allowed her to study for an entire year at the University of Salamanca. She took education and German classes, all of which were in Spanish!


Having studied Spanish for so many years, Lori had romanticized Spain as a European locale where she would find herself and flourish, similar to how Josephine Baker did in Paris. But Salamanca was somewhat of a college town; international students were everywhere, but locals tended to have a small-town mentality. She was disappointed witnessing the numerous shocked or flat-out racist reactions that locals in Salamanca had to her skin color and hair. Thankfully she was one of five Black girls there at the time, so she wasn't alone, but she couldn't help but be annoyed from time to time by people's ignorance. And though she'd hoped to integrate into the local Spanish community to improve her language skills and gain a more thorough understanding of the culture, most locals weren't interested in developing real friendships with a revolving door of foreign students, so she found herself more immersed in the international community than the Spanish community at large.

Make worthwhile change

But even Lori's disappointments proved valuable. Making peace with Spain despite its anti-Blackness is largely what caused her to fall back in love with writing, a love which began when she was a child. She not only realized that she wanted to make a career out of writing, but contemplating her own Blackness and the multitude of identities she encountered in Salamanca's international community also inspired the multicultural focus that much of her work centers around to this day. And her hopes of making Spanish friends weren't completely dashed. In particular, she met a certain young Spanish man in her German class who came to her crowded apartment for dinner one day, and that man became her husband seven years later.


Today, in addition to her family life and her work as a mutli-faceted storyteller, Lori helps promote study abroad opportunities within the College of Media and Communication at Temple University. Along with other members of the study abroad committee, she helps to evaluate student applications, develop new programs in new locations around the world, and get more students who don't typically apply for study abroad to consider it as a viable and worthwhile experience. This summer she and her family are headed to Spain for the first time in seven years, and she wants to also visit Portugal (her "happy place") during the trip. She also hopes to go to Ghana one day. Lori can be found on her website (myamericanmeltingpot.com), on Instagram (@myamericanmeltingpot), or on Twitter (@loritharps).


Be sure to listen to this episode, "Kinky Gazpacho, Melting Pot (MOROCCO/SPAIN)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!


RESOURCES:

Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.

Young, Gifted and Abroad

Perspectives on studying abroad from past and present students of color.

© 2018 Young, Gifted and Abroad. All rights reserved.

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