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Essay: A mother lands in the US

A mother's journey to the farm houses and orchards of Vermont โ€” not quite the cowboys of Western novels.

Julia Kumari Drapkin and her mother, Chitranee Kumaraperu Drapkin. (Courtesy of the author)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The night before I moved to Argentina, my mother had a party. The party wasn't for me, but it ended up being a great chance to talk to her. Not about dad, my sister, the house or the dog. But for once, about her. She told me the story about how she first moved to the United States.

"It was just like the Peace Corps in reverse," she said. The Peace Corps sent Americans abroad to learn about other cultures, but my mother was sent to the U.S. as Sri Lanka's first cultural ambassador in 1971. "We were supposed to learn all about American culture."

Mom has always told us that back in Sri Lanka, she always felt like an American. Sri Lanka was under British rule when my mother grew up. Mom says that most people she knew who moved abroad would go to the United Kingdom.“I just didn’t want to go there,” she said. “I was like born an American.”

Still, Mom admits she didn't know much at all about America before she came. In fact the only thing she knew, she had read in Zane Grey Western novels. "I used to love reading those," she giggled. "Wyoming, out West! I read all the stories about the West."

Now here is where I start to protest: My mother has spent the last three decades or so in the wild plains of suburban Florida. The idea that wide-open plains filled with cowboys and Indians inspired her to come to America is kind of ridiculous."That wasn't the only thing," she relented and both giggle uncontrollably. "I don't know it was just a feeling."

And so with that feeling, she jumped at the chance to be Sri Lanka's first cultural ambassador at the School for International Training. The school was founded in 1964, out of a program called the Experiment in International Living, which specialized in cultural exchange programs. It ran training programs for the Peace Corps.

After 24 hours of flying and a five-hour drive from New York, she landed in Brattleboro, Vt. There were no cowboys or Indians. It was farm houses and orchards and teeny tiny towns. This is where the School for International Training brought people from all over the world. It was like a mini-United Nations, but in the middle of New England.