LinkAge, the School's multicultural club, recently hosted a cultural fair full of booths, food, music, performances, and fun. The event was the culmination of the group’s culture week, which featured meals from around the world in the Dining Hall, a cultural dress day, and students sharing stories about their heritage during spotlight talks.
Keep reading below for excerpts from spotlight talks by Cristobal Elizondo Junco de la Vega '23, Nicole Ocampo Montoya '23, and James Yae '23, as well as Dining Hall meal descriptions written by students. Click the links to jump to that section.
“My favorite aspects of Hotchkiss are how diverse we are as a community and how supportive we are of each other, and I think that really shone through this week,” said Darina Huang ’23, one of the heads of LinkAge. “It felt really amazing to recruit new booths at the fair as well. We ended up having almost 30 compared to 20 last year. Personally, I learned so much about different cultures through food, booths, and spotlight talks, which I will definitely miss next year.”
Director of International Programs David Thompson is the club's advisor, and he reflects: "The week of culture highlights a lot of the surface elements of culture, like food, festivals, and fashion, but what is gratifying is that those serve as doorways for community members to engage in conversations about the deeper elements of culture, and to allow students to share more about what it means to bring their cultures to Lakeville."
Cristobal shared the story of his family leaving Mexico to escape threats of violence. They flew to Texas and learned how to navigate a new country and culture.
After a few months of living in some tiny apartments, we were finally able to find a nice, calm neighborhood for us to move into. However, we weren’t really used to this type of environment, and what followed was a slow process of trying to get used to our new neighbors while they got used to us. They were absolutely astonished that my whole family voluntarily chose and insisted on buying all of the houses right next to each other. My grandparents, along with four other sets of aunts and uncles, all decided to buy houses that were quite literally beside one another.
But the funniest moment came on the Day of the Dead. My grandmother made an altar for Dia de los Muertos right on our front steps. And on that altar, along with many other traditional things, she decided to place some candy skulls, each one with the last name of one of the families in our neighborhood. I am sure that my grandmother had the best of intentions in mind, however, the neighbors were terrified. After my grandmother had a few conversations with our petrified neighbors, they realized that they were in fact not in danger, and that they really didn’t know a lot about our strange traditions. They invited my grandmother to teach the local school children about the Day of the Dead. Those kids weren’t the only ones who learned something about a new culture, because the next year, in an attempt to be more American, my grandmother set up an altar, this time for the recently deceased Steve Jobs. And in the following years she also made altars for Robin Williams and legendary race car driver Ayrton Senna.
America gets a lot of hate for being an unwelcoming place; but for my family, that wasn’t the case. For us it was a safe haven, a place where my parents could finally relax without having to worry about their children being kidnapped or killed. It would have been so easy for someone like my grandmother to turn on the news and conclude that she wasn’t welcome here. She would have never reached out to our neighbors, she would have never made those candy skulls, she would have never taught the kids at the school, and she would have never connected with anyone who was different to her in any important way.
Our introduction into American society wasn’t the smoothest, and there were definitely many instances of culture shock. But what we found is that when you take the time to actually talk and connect, it doesn’t matter how little you know about each other's culture. I urge you, whenever you see someone who is different from you, who comes from a different culture, talk to them—be honest, ask questions, and don’t simply ignore their differences. Because in the end, these differences are what make them unique, and they are what make them human.
Back in Colombia, I lived in more places than I can count on my fingers. But the one place I could always call home was my “finca,” which means country house in Colombian lingo. In my infancy I awoke at the crack of dawn every day with a bursting enthusiasm to chase sunrises, traverse the rich grass fields of Colombian pastures, pick oranges, swim in rivers, and best of all, experienced the thrill of “sneaking” into neighboring fields to pet dogs and moo at cows.
My identity was formed subconsciously in the years before I could even understand culture; relatively uneventful fragments of time, sitting on my mother’s lap and feeling irrevocably protected by the warmth of my Colombian finca, I now realize, are at the core of who I am.
Mornings after big parties, my mom would take me to harvest, showing me how to plant, prioritizing the soil instead of the produce. She told me that all you needed to do was to care for your land, to treasure it as your own, and it would provide.
At my most emotionally malleable, I experienced a subconscious growth, nurturing a deep appreciation for my land and people. What you have to understand is that these gatherings on my finca were not your old regular parties. My great-grandma had 23 kids—one of which she adopted. So, you can maybe begin to understand just how important people came to be in my life in Colombia.
My finca taught me to be as accountable for my land as I am to my people, and even now, years removed and thousands of miles away from my finca, my family, and the country I call home, Colombia to me is the warmth of my finca.
I’ve always answered the hometown portion of my identity with Old Tappan, NJ, where I currently live. But rarely have I said I was also from Seoul, South Korea, the city and country where I was born.
And for me, I’ve spent my time quite literally in these two places, Seoul and Old Tappan, for each half of my life. The first nine years, I spent my childhood in the bustling streets of Ichon-Dong and Apgu-jung in Seoul, running around with my parents on weekends to grab 김밥 (a delectable korean dish consisting of rice, vegetables, and meat rolled up in dried seaweed).
Or sometimes I would spend my evenings with my two older sisters, buying food-shaped erasers named 먹지마지우개 and even pens that had seven different color tips in small family-run bookstores that were in front of my elementary school. Stores like these were called 문방구s, which are now unfortunately going extinct and being replaced by larger, commercial retail stores.
And at home, that was our apartment on the eighth story of a small villa, I fondly remember my mom always making seaweed soup, or 미역국, for birthday occasions. The aroma of sesame oil and the umami-filled broth would permeate the kitchen and eventually the dining room, where my sisters and I set up the table for the family. Or in late evenings, my dad, coming back from work, would bring 통닭, or, translated to English, whole fried chicken.
And as my family came to the States in 2013, I’ve tried to hold on to those memories and my Korean culture that I've breathed my whole childhood. My middle school years of immersing myself in American culture, a complex mix of being able to speak my own mind and learning to be around people of different ethnicities and diverse backgrounds brought the joy of being in a new place, a new culture. But soon, I got lost. With these two distinct cultures came conflict. Being American at school, from drinking milkshakes and eating large-group ordered pizzas to doing pie challenges, while also trying to be Korean at home, as speaking Korean became more or less Konglish (Korean + English) and slowly, some of my mom’s cooking was conveniently swapped out for more traditional American cuisine. I didn’t really know which of the two cultures really mattered, or what I could call was really ours to myself and my family.
And coming to Hotchkiss was no different, but there was a spark. In facing the School community, I had an American facade, but from the inside, my Korean roots and heritage kept telling me otherwise. I wanted my Korean culture to become forged into who I was, and who I wanted to be. Yet simultaneously, I didn’t want to sacrifice my other self that enjoyed experiencing the breadth of people I surrounded myself with. I tried harder to speak Korean with my family and at Hotchkiss, with my peers and fellow underclassmen, while also formulating my own definition of what it meant to be American—being an passionate explorer, a relentless adventurer. I realized being bicultural wasn’t something that I should be ashamed of, but something I could embrace and share with others. And so I did.
And so, here I am now and I would like to end on this note: Hi, my name is James, and I am a senior. I am from Old Tappan, NJ, and Seoul, South Korea. I am also Korean American.
Culture Week featured meals from around the world in the Dining Hall. Below, students describe each of the meals.
Lebanese: Serena Salfiti ’25
Hashweh is a meat-based traditional Arabic stuffing, often served inside chicken or lamb. It consists of rice mixed with ground beef or lamb, and it is commonly served with a salad made with fresh yogurt, cucumber, garlic and dried mint. Often scattered as a garnish on top of this dish are pan-fried pine nuts and almonds, both of which are native to the Middle East. The word hashweh means stuffing in Arabic, but often in our house, it is served as a main dish alongside fattoush salad. As a kid, I always loved when my dad would make his delicious hashweh. In Jordan, food is an identity, so celebrating this cuisine so far away from my Jordanian relatives has helped me feel connected to my heritage.
Japanese: Anri Yamamoto ’24
Japanese curry rice has a thicker, stew-like consistency compared to traditional Indian curry and is often made with potatoes, carrots, and meat. When curry was brought to Japan by the British from India, it was reinvented with ingredients from Japanese cuisine. Ohitashi is a technique to boil and immerse vegetables with dashi-based sauce (savory broth). Curry rice is an extremely popular home-cooked meal in Japan. People make it differently per household or depending on the region, and you can add almost any vegetable or meat you like. You can also eat it along with a side dish. My favorite is eating it with tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork).
Mexican/Latin American: Leanna Wells ’23
A quesadilla is a simple but delicious Mexican dish consisting of a corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese and occasionally chicken, beef, or anything else cooked on a griddle, in a pan, or on the stove. One of the many amazing dishes in my mother’s repertoire is tacos made with homemade tortillas. Growing up my sisters and I would take turns rolling them out under my mother’s supervision. She’d always remind us to be gentle, not to make them too thin or thick, and to always keep our work area floured so they wouldn’t stick. As we got older, we’d help with cooking the beef and chopping the tomatoes and onions for the pico de gallo, but using the rolling pin was always my favorite part. After having a wonderful meal as a family, the next day there would often be leftover toppings and tortillas from the night before. My sisters and I saw this as an opportunity to make quesadillas for breakfast; simple, easy, and delicious. I was in charge of shredding the cheese, and my sisters made some more pico de gallo and heated the tortillas. We sat around the table, with our parents still fast asleep upstairs, and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. Food has always been a way for my family to come together. There are so many memories I have that wouldn’t be possible without dishes like quesadillas and tacos.
Greek: Poppy Morelli ’25
Baklava is a traditional Greek pastry made from filo dough, honey, spices, and a sugary syrup concentrate that gives baklava its typical sweetness. Although this dessert is delicious, this sweet delicacy is difficult and time-consuming to produce at home. The thin layers of filo dough are susceptible to tearing, and transferring the baklava from the dish to cut leaves a lot of room for error. Baklava brings me back to my childhood and the many hours spent after church services enjoying this treat with other children who shared my love for the flaky pastry. During Easter, my grandmother and I would spend all day making this pastry by hand to ensure everything went smoothly, but it was not until that night that we would find out if it was up to my grandmother's lofty standards. This dish is not only delicious but brings communities and families together.
Italian: Giulia Hurlock ’23
Penne alla vodka is an Italian-American dish that became popular in the 1980s. When I was growing up, my version of penne alla vodka was what my mom called pasta rosa (pink pasta). Pasta rosa is a more simple version with just penne pasta and a sauce of crushed tomatoes and heavy cream. The base for the sauce for penne alla vodka is very similar to pasta rosa, however it usually includes using onion, pancetta, or other types of ingredients. As a child, pasta rosa was always one of my favorite dishes, and eating penne alla vodka reminds me of home. Baked ziti is a form of pasta al forno. Pasta al forno is a traditional Italian dish that originated in Southern Italy in the provinces of Calabria, Campagnia, Puglia, and Sicilia. The pasta is boiled halfway through until it is transferred into a pan where it is mixed with tomato or bechamel sauce (depending on the region), topped with parmesan cheese, and put into the oven to finish cooking. One example of pasta al forno besides baked ziti is lasagna. There are many different versions of pasta al forno varying from region to region in Italy.
Puerto Rican/Caribbean: Sophia Rivera ’26
If there is a staple in a Puerto Rican household, it would be rice. It’s served with nearly every meal. There are various forms: white rice, yellow, or, my personal favorite, arroz con guandules. The flavorful rice is made with traditional Puerto Rican spices and beans. Pernil is traditionally served during our Christmas dinner, but it is something I look forward to all year round. Pernil is a slow-roasted pork shoulder that is usually marinated for days to absorb all of the seasoning and then baked for hours for perfection. Tostones are twice-fried plantains that are very common in Caribbean cuisine. They are often served as a side and are delicious with a dip in a garlic glaze called mojo.