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Why Johnson City, Tennessee, Is My Nepal

By Carolina Quiroga-Stultz

Sep 23, 2021

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The Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee

Photo by Anthony Heflin/Shutterstock

The Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee

Carolina Quiroga-Stultz is a professional storyteller—but she’s never told this one: the tale of how moving from Colombia to Johnson City, Tennessee, challenged her, confused her—and, ultimately, changed her life.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast! 

I am a professional storyteller. I tell traditional folktales, myths, and legends from Latin America at schools, libraries, and festivals. That’s what I do. I’ve told stories about the creation of the world, and different heroes’ journeys, but I haven’t yet told the story of how I got here. The story about how storytelling literally changed my life. 

I grew up as an only child in Cali, Colombia, but my traveling journey began soon after I turned 30. You could say I did the soul-searching that comes with that age. At the time, I already had a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. And another in social communications and a master’s in arts management. But I felt stuck. So far, I had done what my dad had wanted me to do, but I knew that these things were not what my soul truly wanted.

Around my birthday, a good friend of mine—who was a couple of years older than me—said something that sounded like an omen to me. She said, When I turned 30, I got divorced and then I found a good specimen who would get me pregnant, and so I did.” I thought: I want to change my life, too—but not like that.

So I did what I thought would help me find the answer. I had saved some money and I told myself, “I am going to go to Nepal. I might not get to the Himalayan mountains, but I’ll get as close as I can. I’m going to learn how to meditate and I’m going to figure my life out. I’m going to figure out what I really want to do and how I’m going to do it.”

But that’s not the journey that life had planned for me.

At the time I was working at a cultural center. I had a good friend and coworker that we called “Abuelo.” It means grandpa, even though he was just 10 years older than me, but he was very wise. He pointed me in a different direction.

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I told him about my Nepal plan and he said, “You’re so crazy. That is the worst idea ever.” He was worried about me going there alone. Then he said, “Don’t you like telling stories?” I said, “Yes, but so what?”

He knew one of my hobbies was storytelling, so he said that some other storyteller he knew had gone to the United States to get a master’s in storytelling. I thought, No one studies to tell stories, you don’t study to become a storyteller. There’s no such thing. You don’t get a master’s in that. You just get on stage and you tell stories. 

So, just to prove him wrong, I looked it up. And I was wrong. There was a master’s degree in storytelling at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.

At the time Google Maps was not very helpful. Google Maps showed me that Johnson City, Tennessee, was a pretty small town in the mountains—in about five pictures. My friends and family said that small towns are the best places to perfect your English skills, so I thought, That’s a plus.

I applied to the university and they accepted me. When I was applying for my visa at the embassy, the clerk asked if I had ever been to the United States. I told him I had been to Miami and New York. He said, “Oh girl, you have no idea where you’re going now.” I ignored him. 

But everything happened so fast and on January 6, 2012, I arrived in Johnson City, Tennessee.

It was cold and dark. I’d never seen snow before and I was not impressed by it. I just hated it. I come from a city with mild to warm weather, so I am not used to the cold, or to bundling up with many layers of clothes. Even inside the buildings, I felt cold. 

It was not only a climate shock for me, but it was a cultural shock too.

To begin with, my English was not what I thought it was. To come to study as a foreigner, you have to pass an English proficiency test. The test said that Carolina spoke very good English, but when I arrived in Johnson City, Tennessee, Carolina didn’t understand what people were saying, and people did not understand Carolina.

Today, I know that accents played a part in that miscommunication, but I didn’t know then. It was so hard. For the first couple of months, I felt lost. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life. My brain was trying so hard to speak and think in English all the time, that I would have headaches every single day.

Like one day while telling stories to children as part of my storytelling training: Halfway through the story, I began speaking Spanish, and I didn’t notice until I saw confusion in the children’s faces. You bet, it was challenging.

I’d also never seen so many white people around me.

I called my mom the first week and I said, “Mami, these people are seriously white and big and tall. Their skin is almost translucent. They are like giants.” I even told my mom that in my dorm, I saw a roach. My mom adores the United States, she couldn’t believe it.  “That’s impossible,” she said. “In the United States they don’t have roaches.”

I said, “No, they do have roaches, so these guys are not perfect as they show in the movies.” I don’t understand why, but just the fact that at least you guys have your own issues made me feel like I hadn’t traveled to another planet. But I still wanted to leave. I just wanted to leave. But I’m convinced these days that life wanted me here. 

Little by little I began meeting people at the school. Since in the U.S. if you don’t have a car you can’t go far, my world was the dorm, classroom, and the office where I got my graduate scholarship. But some of the people I met from time to time gave me a tour of the city’s outskirts. Even though I detested the winters, I learned that the Appalachian mountains are beautiful in spring.

Yet, I was having a hard time adjusting to the new lifestyle, the food, the weather, talking in English all the time. I even missed the boring novellas from back home—I didn’t have a TV in the dorm. Yet, it always happened every time I was about to say, “No, I’m done. I’m buying my ticket, I’m going back. I don’t care what people are going to think about me,” I would meet someone that wanted me to work or collaborate with them.

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One of the first people that I met was an Indian girl named Priti Sharma. I met her almost a month in. She was doing her Ph.D. in education leadership and she was very active in several student organizations. We met one night while waiting at a stop sign for the campus bus. She asked where I was from, and if I liked dancing. She was very straightforward. That’s all it took to recruit me.

She loved choreographing Indian traditional dances and asked me to be her partner in her next event, where international students were showcasing their cultures. It was an amazing experience. She was such a good teacher that the audience thought I was Indian too. I’m very grateful to her and to all the other people that I met because just a simple thing like inviting me to dance really helped me stay there for an extra month.

Literally, every week or every two weeks during the first eight months, when I was having second thoughts, someone would appear in my life and say, “Hey, do you want to join us in this?” In the end, I stayed.

I suppose as I lowered my defenses, and had more confidence in my English skills, I began to discover the city around me, enjoy the change of the seasons, and draw strength, wisdom, and advice from the stories I was working on. In particular, there is a Peruvian folktale called “In Search of the Magic Lake,” and it’s a story about a young girl that goes on a journey to save her family and the prince. But her kindness and trust in those who wanted to help her are what got her through.

I graduated in December 2013. Three months before I graduated, I met the one who was going to be the love of my life, my husband.

Back one day when I was complaining that I could have gone to Nepal, a friend said, “Well, Carolina, don’t you realize it? Johnson City was your Nepal.”

It hit me: Just as if I had gone to meditate in Nepal, I was never the same after moving to Johnson City. I really ended up searching my soul. I met the love of my life and many amazing mentors. And I’m still here. I found my calling—the thing that fills me with joy. I took a leap of faith. I wanted to quit so many times, but I am glad I did not.

As of today, I have walked a long path in my storytelling journey, and I am one of the youngest storytellers featured at national storytelling festivals. 

Coming to Johnson City was my hero’s journey. The whole experience helped me find my life’s purpose, which is not only storytelling but understanding the power that stories have in transforming us. Today, my repertoire is dedicated to Latin America, because I feel that audiences can draw wisdom and strength from our stories too.

My husband and I have lived in Texas and now Georgia. But I’ve been back to Johnson City many times since I graduated. My husband’s friends and family are from there. One of my best friends settled there too. The city has grown; there’s even a Colombian restaurant in town.

I’ve gotten better acquainted with extreme heat and cold, and I am more able to appreciate the snow and a couple of winter days—though my husband and I still prefer warmer climates. And while a decade ago I would never have thought I would say this about Johnson City (my Nepal), we have even talked about moving back. —as told to Angela Johnston

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