By Lea Kassa

One thing I’ve noticed after living in Comitancillo, Guatemala for two weeks is how people greet each other. There are three basic greetings, according to the time of day: “Buenos dias” for morning, “Buenas tardes” for afternoon, and “Buenas noches” for evening. Saying these greetings to people you personally know isn’t out of the ordinary for me – I would expect to greet people that I’m familiar with. And these greetings are used for familiar people, but what has intrigued me is that these greetings are also used for people you’ve never met before, people with whom your only connection is that you happened to pass by them on the street.

At first, I was taken aback when random people on the street greeted me and my coworkers with a friendly smile and a few words of acknowledgement. This is a completely unfamiliar concept to me – although my parents are immigrants from Ethiopia, I’ve grown up in Los Angeles for my entire life, and where I’m from, people would probably think you’re crazy if you greeted someone you didn’t know. Maybe it’s the bustle of a larger-than-life city like Los Angeles that numbs its inhabitants from connecting with people around them, or maybe that’s just the American way of getting by. I’m  not quite sure. I do know that I experience the same lack of connection to unfamiliar people around me at Cornell – no one really ever greets each other unless they already know them. There is a similar high concentration of people in Cornell as there is back home in Los Angeles, so maybe that plays some part in it. All I know is that, because of my past experiences, greeting and being greeted by unfamiliar people was a shock to me. Not in a bad way, though – in fact, I think this is how things should be. I think people should be able to feel a connection to those in their community regardless of whether or not they personally know them. A simple greeting like “Buenos dias” from so many different people out on the streets of Comitancillo has gone a long way to making me feel comfortable in this city, and making me feel like people acknowledge my existence, if not enjoy it. It’s wonderful that people here have such a strong sense of community that they greet strangers, regardless of whether or not they are foreigners like myself.

I’m sure people from countries other than the United States, or even people from smaller communities within the states, would have a different reaction to these greetings than myself. I’m sure it’s more normal to greet random people in places other than where I’ve grown up and where I now study. This particular experience wouldn’t affect people who are used to this sort of interaction as much as it has affected me. But for me, someone who has never experienced anything like that before, it was a welcome surprise and a gentle awakening.