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Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Credit: Robert Hsu

I arrived in Philadelphia a year ago, ready to start my adult life in a city. But really, I was an eager but sheltered child who had a lot of growing up to do.

Most people either love or hate cities. I always knew that I would love to live in a bustling environment, but I did not expect it to spark personal growth.

I grew up in an upper-middle class town in Michigan, which shaped my idea of “normal.” Normal meant hopping in my car to drive to school every morning, buying whatever I wanted when my family went grocery shopping and living in a beautiful subdivision.

Then I came to Philadelphia, where my sense of “normal” was shattered. My new home was much larger than my former one and it teemed with diversity in every way.

When Wharton sophomore Eric Parrish, who comes from a small, rural community in Ohio, first arrived in Philadelphia, its racial diversity stood out. “The foreign restaurants everywhere were outside of my comfort zone,” he said. “But this heterogeneous environment of the city has definitely allowed me to learn and grow.”

While I was aware of social and economic issues inherent to a city, living in the middle of one was a different experience.

At first, I was unnerved by panhandlers who I passed on my way to the supermarket. But soon it became part of my usual routine and added a dose of reality to my time at Penn. Every time someone asked me for money, I was reminded that not everyone has the same opportunities that I had growing up — a safe community, supportive parents and a wonderful education.

SEPTA wasn’t easy at first. Long waits in the heat, stations that smelled like urine and crowded trains. Granted, I only relied on SEPTA whenever I was en route to a restaurant or to complete fieldwork for a research project. If I were really impatient, I could still take a taxi.

This summer, instead of returning to the comforts of my suburban home, I stayed in Philadelphia and conducted research at supermarkets around the city.

The supermarkets I visited primarily served low-income neighborhoods with minority residents.

As I interviewed customers, I struggled to imagine what it was like to purchase nutritious food consistently on a salary of $20,000 a year or through food stamps.

Like most Penn students, I shopped at the Fresh Grocer. Whenever I walked there this summer, I passed McDonald’s on 40th and Walnut streets. The fast-food joint was usually bustling with activity — little kids coming in and out, devouring their Big Macs and fries. The knowledge I had acquired about our country’s growing childhood obesity epidemic, however, made the sight of a young child devouring a greasy burger for dinner particularly unsettling.

Many people criticize Penn students for staying within the confines of our campus’ bubble. But the truth is, since our University is located in a busy metropolis, this bubble struggles to exist on a daily basis.

But there are still glaring divisions between our campus and the community.

“It is interesting to observe the great contrast between the average Penn student and our West Philadelphia neighbors,” College sophomore Josh Rad noted. “Everyone grows up exposed to only a part of the world, so it’s crucial to learn about the unexposed parts.”

Living in Philadelphia has pushed me further outside of my comfort zone than most of my classes at Penn have. What I saw when I grew up wasn’t the typical or average America, which many outsiders claim to understand and know without having actually experiencing it. What I saw growing up was privileged America, a side of America that can be misleading at times.

Even though transitioning to life in a big city was difficult at first, Philadelphia has taught me to learn from its people and see them as fellow citizens who share my home.

Coming back after a school year and summer in Philadelphia, I finally feel like I’ve earned the adult title.

Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton sophomore from Novi, Mich. His email address is Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.

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