Brown leather flare pants, white puff-sleeve crop top, black bag on my shoulder, and cat-eye sunglasses on my head—this is how I entered the dining hall for my very first brunch of freshman year. It was there, while in line to get a mango smoothie, my plate full of scrambled eggs and blueberry pancakes, that I saw it. He, the fellow bruncher in front of me, was wearing socks with sandals. I got my smoothie and left quickly, trying not to stare. But, as I walked toward my friends, I saw it again. It was not the same guy. This time, it was a girl—wearing socks with sandals. To my surprise, all my friends were dressed particularly comfortably—sweatshirts, leggings, sweatpants, and T-shirts. Some were still in their pajama pants and shorts. And flip-flops. My mom always said that pajamas and flip-flops were only for the house.
“Clothes and outer appearance make the first impression” my dad always told me. I still remember when I wore my favorite sweatpants to one of our weekly middle school choir meetings and my friends told me I looked like a potato sack. Coming from Greece to the United States for college, I quickly realized that people dress and style themselves differently here. In the US, people can wear pajamas, sweatpants, flip-flops, and socks with sandals because nobody judges them, or if they do, they don’t care.
When I got back to my suite after brunch, my suitemate was already in my common room: “Oh my god, I love your top!”
“Thanks. I don’t really care, but thank you!” I laughed and looked at her. She frowned, staring at me with a puzzled look on her face. I felt like I needed to explain myself: “I mean…I care about what you think and I really appreciate it, but it’s not like I would take it off if you hadn’t told me you liked it.” She nodded: “You’re funny.”
Since then, many friends have called me funny. I am still not entirely sure what they mean. Maybe I actually am funny. But, I’ve figured that they often call me funny when I’m just being honest. Maybe they think it’s weird for someone to be so blunt. Or, maybe they think I’m joking. In Greece, being blunt is usually normal; here, it is considered rude. I noticed that such bluntness is not appreciated in the US as much as it would be in Greece. I’m not sure if this means people here are less honest or just nicer.
In the US, the Greek culture of judgment and gossip based on outer appearance is luckily non-existent. Perhaps this no-judgment American culture is due to a prevailing sensitivity. Here, I’ve often felt the need to constantly remind my friends that I appreciate honesty. In Greece, people might use sarcasm or humor, nevertheless, they tell you exactly how they feel. Relationships feel more real when you know—or at least think you know—exactly what the other person thinks about you. Maybe this is what people here think is “funny” after all.
Even now, after living in the US for months, I won’t pretend to perfectly understand my suitemates’ desires to wear pajamas to the dining hall or my friends’ preference for flip-flops over sneakers. But when I step into the dining hall on Sunday mornings, I no longer think “potato sack.” When you emigrate, you acquire insight into other cultures that can make you rethink the “normal” you grew up with.
On December 23rd—after months of sweatpants, Sunday brunches, and Friday pajama movie nights with my suite’s favorite fuzzy blankets—I flew back to Greece: shiny purses, sequin black dresses and flip-flops tucked away in my suitcase, and sleek jewelry and sweatpants stuffed into my carry-on. When the plane was landing in Athens, I raised the window shade and glanced outside. I felt my heart pounding.
The next morning, we planned a visit to my grandparents’ house to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. My sister’s outfit was impeccable. “You look so cute, I love your dress,” I told her. “I really appreciate you, thanks,” she said, “but, even if you didn’t like it, I wouldn’t change,” she added. I looked at her with a huge smile on my face and hugged her.
When I got home that night, I changed, and—given my combination of overwhelming jet lag and newfound boredom—I decided to take out the trash. My neighbor was doing the same. I glanced at her outfit: black leather pants, light blue sweater, and shiny black leather double-sole boots, and I shouted across the driveway: “Maria, I love your outfit, you look so fancy! What are you up to tonight?” Her response was surprising, perhaps even funny: “Thanks! Not much, just a chill day at home.” I wondered what my suitemate would say as I smiled and nodded my head, wondering why she had decided to dress up for a chill day at home. I lifted the lid of the trash can and dropped my trash bag inside, looking down at my feet—gray sweatpants and matching sweatshirt, socks with sandals.