When Vivian Johnson decided to pursue a college education, it was not because her parents didn’t attend college, it was because she wanted to be in a position of control. She knew that college was her ticket to getting the qualifications needed for the career she envisioned. In “My Grub Box,” Vivian Johnson recalls her college experience moving from Emmonak, Alaska to the East Coast Ivy League School Dartmouth. Taken completely out of her native environment of the Yup’ik Eskimos, she details a certain adaptation to gain understanding of her perspective.
Vivian Johnson’s “grub box” created a signpost for her way of life through the realization that culture is inseparable from being native. The main aspect that set Vivian Johnson apart from other students at Dartmouth is her experiences as a member of a native Eskimo family. Johnson begins her memoir with a description of the function of a grub box and what it has meant for members of her family. On hunting and camping trips she would use her grub box to pack food and supplies to survive, but her grub box that helped her through college contained much more than physical items.
She used intangible things that were passed on from her parents, like a sense of identity and how to survive in different surroundings. (Johnson, 201) Another reason that Johnson didn’t fit into the “normal” student population at Dartmouth, was the fact that she didn’t come from a socially advantaged family compared to many of the other students. She could not relate to many of the other students experiences simply because her family didn’t take exotic trips or have fancy clothing, jewels, and cars.
Not only was Johnson different from other students because of her possessions and experiences, but she also had a different perspective and was used to a different way of thinking. She found it difficult to understand her government professor because she had not been exposed to that way of thinking before. Also, she at first had trouble discussing certain topics with her classmates such as the “concepts of land, substinence hunting, and fishing. ” Eventually, she had began to anticipate questions about why she didn’t fit in so she formulated answers to better describe her way of life. Johnson, 207) Upon her arrival at Dartmouth, Vivian Johnson realized that she was completely out of her environment. Her grub box helped her transition allowing her to adapt to college life and enabled her to slowly orient herself on her new landscape. She was outside her environment both physically and intellectually. Everything was foreign to her, from the smell and type of trees, wildlife on campus, and formation of the stars, to riding in a taxi for the first time, Vivian needed to adapt to her surroundings in order to survive.
The food she received from her grandpa helped her physically because she wasn’t used to the type of food served at Dartmouth, but the intangible qualities served a greater purpose. Those qualities formed a type of support system for Vivian that connected her to her roots as a way to remind her of her culture and heritage in order to combat the overwhelming pressures she faced in this cultural submersion. While Johnson described many of the hardships she had during her time at Dartmouth, she did manage to find a place where she was accepted for who she was and where she came from.
When she joined Native American at Dartmouth, Vivian was helped not only academically, but also with small tasks that made her life easier, such as mail, food, and housing. She became part of a social network that appreciated her and considered her to be one in their group, even though she wasn’t Native American. By finding similarities between herself and the other members of Native Americans at Dartmouth, Johnson was able to connect with them because they had similar life experiences. She valued this support group of friends so much, that she credits them for her graduation from Dartmouth. (Johnson, 209)
Upon graduation from Dartmouth, Johnson describes her exit “just as perplexing as her entrance. ” (Johnson, 209) Adaptation plays a huge role in Johnson’s survival attending college with different cultures. In the end, Vivian Johnson’s experiences she gained at Dartmouth from adapting further adds to her “grub box” enabling her to branch out to individuals in her adult life. The adaptation in Vivian Johnson’s memoir made it easy for me to relate to her story of going away to college. When I arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison there was a sudden sense of culture shock. Also, being on our own when your parents were the ones to feed you, take you places, and lend you money when needed, definitely leaves you to fend for yourself. Adapting to my new environment was no fun but is definitely an experience of having to adapt in order to accomplish new goals and “fit in. ” I realized that everyone has a different set of tools in their “grub box” from adapting to new experiences and when exchanged, form a more global perspective of race in the Unites States. Therefore, Vivian Johnson’s adaptation to reality serves as a launching pad for individuals to engage in difficult conversations about race.
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