Being an international student always warrants a myriad of questions.
No, I am not American. Yes, I am aware that my accent sounds vaguely close to yours. No, I cannot speak on behalf of my country’s political views. And yes, we do know how to party.
But everyone’s experience of being “international” is a distinct one. Some of us have moved from schools across the globe. Others have grown up in a “Westernized” international school in our home countries. Many of us have had very limited exposure to the United States and its culture.
Constantly confronted with questions of identity and belonging, it is unfair to assume that all our experiences are uniform. There are varying degrees of personal dissonance, discourse and culture shock that happen to each person.
Josh Pratt ’16 from London, England, shared some of his thoughts on being international in the midst of Vassar’s often vocal and dynamic culture of political dialogue and engagement.
He likens the experience to being “dropped in the middle of page 250 of a storybook,” an environment where everyone else around you expects you to have understood the nature of the issues at hand from the first page.
More specifically, he expressed confusion with the level of animosity towards the Republican party, stating that the only time that he’d ever hear a discussion this heated back home was during “a football match between Chelsea and Arsenal.”
This shows just how different cultural emphases and priorities can be. While some may assume ignorance or distaste when an international student doesn’t seem to know much about U.S. politics or social justice issues, it may just not have been a large part of their culture back home.
Josh is also working on VCTV’s upcoming production titled “Lost in Translation” in cooperation with VISA and OIS. He hopes to shed light on the multitude of international student experiences on campus. For him, working on the show has taught him that “each international has their own amazing world out there, and it’s been amazing to open up and share these worlds.”
However, other students cite different experiences for their definition of being international. Elianne Lugo ’17 recalls a conversation she once had with a random man on a train who couldn’t seem to believe that a girl from Nicaragua could study somewhere at Vassar as one such incident.
While dodging ignorance from individuals similar to the one she encountered on the train, she also has to constantly reaffirm her identity, where even other latinos ask if she is “fully Nicaraguan.” She describes her experience of being international as one of simultaneously hating having “[her] Nicaraguan-ness taken away” on one hand, while resenting that some “people from [around] here exaggerate it.” She states that although these encounters don’t exactly offend her, they do tend to annoy her.
One’s identity is not for you to question, take apart, or validate—it is theirs to learn to come to terms with. Especially as an international student whose identity takes up a small percentage of the student population, national identity becomes a much larger and more defining part of who a person is in the context of the school.
However, some struggles that students have here do not just pertain to national identity. Hassan Saad ’17 from Pakistan finds that his experience with hookup culture as a time when he felt a big cultural disparity.
His first time at the Mug his freshman year, he “saw the trashiest and grossest makeouts” happen, contrasting from his culture’s usual culture of courting a girl before even thinking about physical intimacy. He was “very taken aback” and confused, quickly thinking that his “cultural values were polar opposites to Vassar’s.” Although it was a few years back, Hassan still feels confused and hasn’t particularly figured out as to what he wants out of such relationships, a problem that has his roots in his background.
Diego Encarnacion ’18, another international sophomore, noticed most the difference in the treatment of social issues in the USA and in Singapore.
He states that “the west puts an emphasis on the integrity and rights of the individual,” leading to “much debate” about issues such as “race, gender, socioeconomic class,” while in Singapore, the “cohesiveness of the society as a whole is what’s prioritized— even over rights like freedom of thought and expression.”
My personal experience of being international has been similar—a struggle of reconciling personal, societal and school-held ideas and beliefs.
Like Diego, the values reinforced by the Vassar community (openness, dialogue and political liberalism) and some of the more conservative Chinese-Indonesian values I grew up with (respect, honour, submissiveness) do not necessarily play along in my head, and I continue to struggle to navigate issues and formulate personal opinions on them.
Additionally, I often find myself as the spokesperson of my country and culture in class discussions. There are times where I feel like the “token international” voice in a discussion, a required outside perspective that often gets marginalized or drowned out by other American perspectives as soon as I stop speaking.
However, my voice, and the voices of others are not “token.” We do not speak for an entire culture, but for ourselves, just as an American student’s personal values and beliefs do not represent those of the entire nation. Although it may be difficult to distance a person’s national background from their opinions, just know that those who live outside the immediate U.S. bubble are just as diverse in opinion as you are.
To think of the international student experience as a uniform one, or to dismiss such experiences as something too difficult to sympathize with and learn from, is to invalidate every other person’s struggle to come to terms with American culture.
The experiences listed above are only a small fraction of the myriad stories that live on this campus, and I encourage you to seek out and listen to them.
Although it can be argued that each and every student in Vassar wrestles with questions of identity and one’s place in the world, coming from outside the U.S. adds more webs to untangle.
With international students, there is a larger physical and emotional independence from home—tensions, disagreements, and differences between one’s home and school culture become more prominent.
And if you were still wondering, yes, I have a problem finishing American portion sizes. No, I do not know enough about American geography to know where Rhode Island or South Carolina are on a map. Yes, the obsession with football confuses me—and no, I do actually love the pop culture here.
But what I do know, is that I am a collection of my knowings and unknowings, and they do not detract from my views and opinions. I am my own kind of student, citizen, foreigner all at once—learning, inhabiting and exploring this brave new world just as much as the next student here.