Typically, people who talk about study abroad as an immersion experience are referring to immersion in a foreign language. “Full immersion,” they say. “That’s the only way. I can’t learn [Spanish/French/German/Chinese/Arabic/Swahili/Greek/etc.] unless I have to speak it all the time.” Home stays with local families result in hilarious miscommunications at the dinner table.
But I’m studying abroad in an English-speaking country. This is partially due to the fact that with two majors, I couldn’t study abroad and graduate on time if I didn’t choose a school that offers classes the English department would approve. Additionally, my brain just isn’t wired to keep foreign language rules in order; I don’t have a strong grasp on the type of logical thinking you need to be good at that, and the same goes for music theory, math, and science. The rules of English make basically zero sense, but I’m able to navigate by intuition – I can diagram any English sentence you throw at me – but when it comes to practice understanding of logic-based subjects, I can’t remember anything for more than a second.
Immersion is about more than speaking a foreign language, though. According to a cursory Google search, Immersion is also the name of patented haptic technology (the tactile responses you get from an iPhone – that click or vibration that let’s you know you’ve clicked a button on the screen). It’s a brand of kayaking equipment. It’s a series of workshops hosted by the American Library Association. The word also calls to mind baptism, ritual immersion in water thought to cleanse the soul from original sin.
One of my two jobs is to copy edit Explorations in Black Leadership, a website co-created by Julian Bond and Phyllis Leffler. Over the past thirteen years, Professor Leffler and Julian Bond have been collecting interviews from famous black leaders in a variety of fields – poetry, politics, religion, teaching, and more. It’s my job to comb through every bit of text on the website, from biographies to educational modules. Most importantly, I listen to each interview and compare the video to the transcript, filling in missing words and standardizing the grammar.
Sometimes the world around you echoes back a thought you’re having. A few weeks ago, as I began to blog and reflect on my overarching theme of immersion, playwright Amiri Baraka traced his skepticism about religion back to his own baptism, recalling it as a physical, visceral experience that was ultimately disappointing. “They dunk you in that water,” he said, but instead of emerging feeling changed, he just felt like himself – not electrified by God’s presence, but just immersed in earthly water. Rather than reaching a new spiritual plane, Baraka found an experience that grounded him firmly in the literal, physical world that engaged his senses. For him, the ideas, the words behind the ritual just didn’t translate.
Recently, I’ve just been feeling immersed in work. So far, it’s been seven days per week for four weeks, or 28 days straight. I have two weeks to go before my first of two days off in July. This type of immersion is physical – I’m listening to interviews on my headphones for 30 hours a week, and I spend 15-20 hours on my feet serving customers at a retail store. It’s also mental – engaging intellectually with the transcripts as I interpret where sentences begin and end, how to demonstrate intonation through punctuation, etc. And occasionally, it’s even emotional. Middle-aged women in search of leisure wear can be a critical crowd.
As an English major and a writer, I’m captivated by this wordplay. Foreign language immersion, physical/emotional/intellectual immersion, the occasional incompatibility of abstract ideas and physical senses – it’s all webbed together in the definition of immersion.
I’ve lived in Charlottesville for two years now, but my life has played out on Grounds, where I’m constantly juggling classes, extracurriculars, and a social life that may or may not involve watching Extreme Couponing. Charlottesville is so much more than U.Va., though. Like any college town, tensions strain the relationship between students and permanent residents. Although Charlottesville isn’t in the Deep South, racial discrimination still determines where people live and whose houses are hidden from view. An uncomfortable blend of socioeconomic differences, misconceptions, and racism create hidden barriers between students and Charlottesville residents whose families have resided here for generations. To think of a U.Va. experience and a Charlottesville experience as synonyms is shortsighted at best.
I can’t change the fact that I came to Charlottesville for U.Va. In that sense, I’m no different than any other student, just like I’ll be just another study-abroader next semester. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that status, but I have no illusions about the type of “authenticity” I’ll be able to access as I search for immersion experiences in Charlottesville and beyond. What does that word mean anyway?
I’m not convinced that “authenticity,” like “immersion,” has a fixed definition, but I do believe that most people are able to describe an example of something authentic. So, I’ll do the same.
Spudnuts are a special type of donut made from potato flour. Donut enthusiasts prize Spudnuts’ unique use of potato flour, and although Spudnuts shops’ parent company went out of business, individual vendors have endured. Charlottesville happens to have one of only 52 remaining Spudnuts shops, so paying a visit seemed like a sure way of experiencing something that makes Charlottesville special.
Laura and I set out one Friday morning to the local Spudnuts shop, where a boy who was presumably the owner’s son helped us pick out some donuts. He told us that the glazed were most popular, but that the coconut donuts and the chocolate donuts tied for his favorite. “Pick out half a dozen for us,” I said. We ended up with one cinnamon sugar, two chocolate glazed, two plain glazed, and one blueberry cake donut. Including a cup of coffee, everything cost less than $5. Unfortunately, I was promptly embarrassed by my lack of cash – Spudnuts, like many small local shops, is cash only, as credit card fees would otherwise threaten to eclipse their profits.
We picnicked on the patch of grass next to the parking lot, soaking up the sun and watching as people pulled in and out of the parking lot, carrying away neat white boxes filled with dozens of Spudnuts. After we ate and contemplated napping, I stepped back inside to see if I could chat with the family who owned the shop for a few minutes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much before they disappeared into the back of the building, but they gave me permission to snap a few photos.
The building retained its 1970s feel with linoleum flooring, dark wood panelling, and walls hung with an eclectic mix of Spudnuts memorabilia, family photos, and paintings. Among these decorations hung the obituary of the shop’s original owner. I learned that the Spudnuts are made in-house daily, and the building’s lack of air conditioning meant that heat and humidity varied wildly. The original owner used to begin frying donuts as early as 1 AM, and the batch he served was simply the best he could produce that day.
Visiting Spudnuts brought me into a new world. For the family who has owned Charlottesville’s Spudnuts shop for the past four decades, logistics of the shop’s operation has undoubtedly directed their daily lives. Spudnuts is a weekend breakfast tradition for some, a travel destination for others. Collectors undoubtedly scheme to gain Spudnuts memorabilia like the clock I noticed, competing to snatch up pieces that are no longer produced. Our morning immersion in a new corner of Charlottesville was momentary, but we glimpsed something much bigger and more permanent that moves around us all the time.