International Students: Building Homes Away From Home
by Komal Ashfaq | published Oct. 16th, 2018
"Do you know what 'clockwise' means?" a TA asks me very slowly, instantly reinforcing to me that he perceives me as an outsider who can't understand English. With every condescension like this one, and every incomprehension towards something I say, I feel increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, I just stop talking in that class, because I feel embarrassed about my accent. It's strange to think that whatever you say, someone else might not understand it. Being an international student comes with a slew of isolating experiences like this.
When you're a kid, you think you're just like everybody else, and everybody else is like you. Whether you live as an American, Italian, Venezuelan or Nigerian — you think you're the standard. You think your evening chai is the norm, buying jianbing on the streets is the norm, your abuelita piling your plates with food is the norm. Your surroundings are familiar, and the culture is something you take for granted. But when you leave your culture, and move to a new space, what was familiar to you is now alien.
For international students, this can be a jarring transition. Aside from being the new kids, it's easy to feel like you're seen as the "other." People fumble your name, even though it was common back home. They ask about your accent. Or perhaps they haven't heard of your country at all. Of course, these things are expected for a foreigner in any country. It's not fair to begrudge this behavior. Yash Kapadia, a first year Computer Science graduate student from India, had a point to make about this.
"We didn't even know Rochester existed before coming here. Why would anyone know about our countries or cities?" Kapadia said.
RIT does make attempts to be friendly and inclusive. On the whole, international students learn to love their experience here and the campus becomes their home. There is a culture of helpfulness, where people don't mind going out of their way to aid complete strangers. The initial rush of loneliness and homesickness is still inescapable for anyone who moves somewhere new. But homesickness is magnified for international students because it is not just their friends and family that vanish, but their whole context disappears as well. The language, food, people, social expectations and experience all change entirely.
There is an element of erasure to our identities when people don't know or understand anything about the bright, fulfilling, thriving worlds we come from. It's not just Americans who are unaware. Other international students are sometimes just as clueless of each others' backgrounds. As a consequence, students from lesser known countries feel like they lose a part of their identity when speaking to those who aren't aware of their culture.
Language Barriers and Cultural Context
Milky Abajorga, a fourth year Biotechnology and Molecular Sciences student from Ethiopia, has a name that means two different things in English and in her native tongue.
"In English, my name means white but in my language it means lucky. The first few Americans I met said Milky is a stripper name. I was disturbed, because the name means a lot to my culture, my parents, and my identity," Abajorga said.
These interactions put a dent in how we perceive ourselves, especially when we are unable to convey something that is culturally valuable. It is also notable how in this case, one culture is being overwritten by another. Although natural, given the fact that one meaning is unusual in the western context, it is still erasure to Abajorga's personhood. Abajorga also faces a dilemma when it comes to educating people about her world.
"The other day a person asked me if Africa is part of Asia. I want to welcome questions about my country, but how do I create a safe space for people to ask me questions, but also avoid the ones I'd be taken aback by?" Abajorga said.
There is emotional labor at play here. It's a strain for international students when they are constantly reminded that people are ignorant of their worlds, and to then have to constantly explain their culture's existence and most basic aspects. This strain conflicts with the natural desire to introduce others to things you love such as your home country's foods, traditions or holiday locations.
Like Abajorga, many international students face misconceptions and ignorance about their homes, from locals as well as other international students. Cyrille Zongo, a first year Business Administration graduate student on the Fulbright scholarship said that he often faces confusion when he talks about his home country.
"My country is not well known. When I say Burkina Faso people are like 'what?' I want people to know a little bit about this country, such as that it exists. It's beautiful and I want people to come and visit. Burkina Faso means 'the land of upright people' and they are indeed warm, welcoming and friendly. They are also some of the poorest people in the world, but that isn't the only thing the world should notice. The country is poor economically, but in terms of culture and tourist potential, Burkina Faso is rich. When people think about my country, I want them to think of its beauty, and its wonderful people," she said.
Since their peers don't know their culture, they don't have their full context. Often international students then aren't seen in their entirety. A bit of us becomes imperceptible. This is especially true with the language barrier. If a student can’t express themselves well in English, they might be mistaken for being quiet, shy or stupid. Nobody pauses to imagine that in their own language, they might be very intelligent, with complex thoughts, or they might have loud and talkative personalities. Many natural extroverts go quiet because they can't communicate in a new language or culture.
Some international students struggle to rebuild their previous identities despite the language barrier. Tejas Arya, a first year Computer Science graduate student from India commented on this issue.
"Some of my classmates seemed to think Indians don't know English, and seem surprised when we turn out to be fluent in it. Maybe some Indians messed up English in the past for some people, and so those people might have formed some lasting judgements about the rest of us. But it's not so bad in college. People here are open-minded and ready to change their opinions," he said.
Eurocentricism and Erasure
Ruhullah Farahi, a second year Business Administration graduate student and Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan, bemusedly recalled an uncomfortable conversation he once had.
"One of my roommates asked me if I could shoot a gun. He said I'm from Afghanistan so I should be able to shoot a gun! I couldn't understand what the relation was between the two," he said.
Afghanistan, and certain Middle Eastern nations, have a one-dimensional narrative that precedes them via the international media. There is an expectation of poverty and violence. Although this is understandable, and there is truth to these narratives, it should go without saying that it is not mathematically possible for every Middle Eastern person to come from only poverty and violence, given the immense size of cities and populations in these areas, and the increasing middle class.
"Frankly speaking, nobody has ever said a word against Afghanistan, but you can see it in their faces and their eyes when I introduce myself. One can understand that, because I have never heard the media talk about the good parts of Afghanistan," Farahi said.
Typically, major media around the world is Eurocentric, and there is just a one-way exchange of information. The west in turn, does not receive mainstream information from the rest of the international community, so there is an imbalance in cultural understanding. This is especially true for smaller countries. The root of this imbalance is the archaic idea that western culture is the best form of culture, and other races and people are inferior, and hence not worth knowing about. Since then, the perspectives have become more egalitarian. However, ignorance of other cultures whilst western culture becomes globally acknowledged results in eurocentricism.
There are 196 countries in the world, of which 102 countries are represented within the RIT student body. For most of us, it's a struggle to name just 50 countries. Many of the countries we can recall are mere names to us and there is often a lack of general cultural knowledge. Abajorga pointed out a common mix-up: people think race and religion are the same thing, and have a picture in their heads of what a Christian or Muslim looks like, which does not intersect with their race. For her, in Ethiopia, all intersect, given it is an African country with large populations of both Muslims and Christians.
The Herd Mentality as a Coping Mechanism
There's a natural implication to believe that not being "different" is the best way to be understood and accepted. In this case, a herd mentality takes form. This is especially true amongst Indian and Chinese students, who, combined, make up 68 percent of RIT's international student population. It's easier to relate and make friends in your own communities, with people who get you without you having to explain everything about yourself. Of course, in this case it helps to be an extrovert.
"Being away from home is tough. You don't have your family or friends and you can only rely on yourself. In order to feel at home, I had to get to know people, and then share my culture with them. I reached out to some students to help me, and they did things like letting me stay at their homes when I arrived, and picking me from the airport. These are small things but they mean a lot when you are away from home and everything is new and strange. I think I managed because I was social. I now feel comfortable here," Farahi said.
But what about students who aren't that social? It's hard enough being an introvert in your own country. It can be even harder when there is a language barrier. Additionally, apart from India and China, most international students are present in small numbers. Sometimes they are the sole representatives of their countries, and so they have a harder time finding a group to gel with. Students from European countries tend to fare better, because the less you deviate from western standards, the easier you assimilate into western standards. Similarly, it helps to be from a previously colonized country, such as India or Pakistan, where many British customs alongside the English language have filtered down to most of these countries' middle class.
Carving Spaces for Ourselves at RIT
So how do international students make a home for themselves here at RIT? Vrishabh Lakhani, a second year Computer Science student from India described the challenge.
"Some international students are intimidated by the natives. We think they must be better socially, more adjusted, more used to everything. But that's not true. After interacting with people, you realize we're all equally clueless about most things," said Lakhani.
This is a comforting thought and one that helps us realize that under the myriad of ways we dress and talk, we're still are ordinary souls who love, hate, fear and are socially awkward. Some students get ahead with their own personal thirst to learn. Zongo emphasizes, "I don't want to be someone who stands apart. I want to be part of this global community. If you hide yourself, you will not learn from other people or new experiences. I want to be confident to go to other people and learn what they know, and share what I know. But I've changed for the better — I am very confident now in approaching people."
For many international students, the cultural barrier means they have to rebuild their identities from scratch. However, more optimistically, many see it as a clean slate to create a new self-image. There is also the inevitable change that comes with traveling to, and living in, a new space, spurring rich internal growth. It is a strange metamorphosis, one that is not as talked about, because it is so hard to express. It is also hard to relate to, given that a lot of people never experience an international relocation their whole lives. Yet, a common thread amongst all international students is that eventually they find a place for themselves at RIT. They make good friends, enjoy their lives and accumulate very positive experiences. The initial isolation is an unavoidable phase that almost all international students have to conquer.
The Willingness to Learn New Things
There’s no real solution to this phenomenon but there should at least be a wider acknowledgement that people go through this. International students don’t have to be coddled or pitied, nor are they looking for sympathy. They are capable, intelligent adults. However, they do go through some difficulty adjusting, especially when new. The most we can all do is go the extra mile and find out a little more about our peers’ cultures, countries and contexts. This helps us understand each other better. It also brings in an interesting exchange of ideas because there are a lot of things other countries do differently, or perhaps better. Finally, there is also simply the human desire to have your experiences validated. There are so many things all of us wish more people knew about our cultures, so much poetry and literature that would lose its beauty in translation, so many little nuances across language, so much history that has shaped us, so much fashion that you just don’t get here.
When asked what they wished people knew about their countries, the responses were full of love and pride.
"Africa is so diverse! Ethiopia has a very rich history that I wish people knew about. We have some of the oldest empires, one of which was the Axumite empire. It was one of the biggest and most influential kingdoms in the world," said Abajorga.
"I want everyone to know how kind the Afghanis are. You make an Afghani friend and they will do anything for you. They never deny you,” Farahi stated.
"Well, the food back home is great! The people are also extremely hospitable and are ready to serve even strangers," added Zongo.
Finally, there are many versions of home, and many places we will consider home in our lifetime. We will travel, take root in new places, and step out of our comfort zones, and in doing so, we will find ourselves building brand new ideas of home.
"Anything that makes you uncomfortable reminds you that you are away from home. But eventually, you adapt, adjust, and make friends. And then when you leave RIT, you feel like you are leaving home," Farahi said.