A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

A jolt of reverse culture shock

A jolt of reverse culture shock

When I landed at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport last week for a family reunion, I was expecting to feel a certain way. There was bound to be some sense of an “at home” feeling; a comfort that I hadn’t felt since leaving for California. But when I got off the plane and began to look around at the people power-walking through the terminal, something felt foreign. Most of the people looked like me: white-skinned and of European descent. And English was by far the language of choice. Yet I felt like an outsider. It turns out, five months living in a Hispanic neighborhood (or any multicultural neighborhood), can change your perception of home.  

Things got much more comfortable at the family reunion, when I was surrounded by people I know much more intimately than the average passerby at the airport. We had a lovely weekend together, sharing stories, looking at old slides of our ancestors, goofing off during our talent show, and outbidding each other with beans during the infamous Metsker Reunion bean auction. We also celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday and my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, so there was lots to celebrate. 

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It was especially fun to see my 19-month-old niece Claire, who now knows who Uncle Jess is, and can identify some of her body parts in both English and German (that was her act for the talent show, and she nailed it). Claire is in full-on sponge mode as far as learning new words and names, which makes me extra excited to be her part-time nanny starting next month. Now if only she could get the potty-training thing figured out in the next few weeks (I’m not holding my breath). 

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Before I left for the airport last Monday to fly back to Santa Ana, I scoped out an authentic Mexican taqueria just a few minutes away from where my sister and brother-in-law live. The place was totally no-frills and located in the corner of a strip mall, the tacos were double-wrapped in small tortillas, juicy al pastor (pork) was topped with fresh cilantro and the place had bottles of Jarritos Mexican soda—so they aced the authenticity test with flying colors. It’s nice to know that if I’m ever feeling homesick for tacos de Santa Ana, I can get something almost identical in the Twin Cities metro.

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Arriving back in California was also challenging after a long weekend of reconnecting with family. The day after I returned, I had my weekly evening with the kids at the church, when we sing songs and play games together. They clamored for my attention, talking over each other about what they did while I was gone, refusing to listen when I tried to give them instructions, and running around the church as if they were possessed. I think it was the combo of me being gone for awhile, plus the fact that summer vacation had just started. But it was too much for me to handle. After a quiet weekend with the fam, I wasn’t emotionally ready for the noise and energy of being back at the church. 

Now that a few days have passed, I’ve adjusted back to the routine of not really having a routine. Every day is different here, and I do my best to take things as they come. It’s something that may come in handy when I’m watching my niece. Although I’ve gotta say, it’ll be nice to have one child to focus on instead of a few dozen.  

Today marks one month before I leave for Minnesota, and a part of me feels very ready to go back. But there are certainly people and places I will miss here, too, and there’s work to do before I load up the car on July 9. I’m well into editing my 20-minute documentary about the church, and I’m planning to have it finished in time for my last Sunday here, when I’ll be giving the sermon that day (my first one in Spanish). There are youth events to plan, fundraising to wrap up for National Youth Conference, another kids’ outing to the senior home, and a library of books that is quickly growing thanks to your donations (the kids are pumped!). 

Most of all, I want to spend this last month sharing quality time with some of the families I’ve come to know so well here. If it wasn’t for them, I would probably still feel like an outsider to some degree. But I’m at the point where if I see a white person walking along the sidewalk in front of the church, I catch myself thinking, “What are they doing here?” It’s probably not the best reaction, but I find it humorous that I find myself considering Caucasians to be “the other.” In a sense, it’s given me a glimpse into the life of a minority. That’s an experience I will gratefully carry with me for the rest of my life. 

PS – If you have 30 minutes and want to hear more about my experiences in Santa Ana, check out the Dunker Punks Podcast, hosted by members of the Church of the Brethren. Host Emmett Eldred and interviewer Ben Bear did an outstanding job of framing my experience in a moving and inspiring way. I’m deeply indebted to them for sharing this experience with a wider Brethren audience, and hopefully it will spark someone’s desire to take the leap of faith that I took at the beginning of this year.

Video: Five-ish months in five-ish minutes

Video: Five-ish months in five-ish minutes

Teaching with our lives

Teaching with our lives