Finding an identity through cultural differences

By Can Altunkaynak

Having international friends can be one of the most interesting aspects of college life. Hanging out with international students is a way to learn about other parts of the globe outside of the classroom. Considering the increasing focus on globalization in social media and workplaces, international students are crucial to opening doors to the greater world, both physically and mentally.

According to Brian White, Associate Dean of Students and Director of International Students & Scholars, the first international student at Lewis & Clark College was a Korean student who came to study at LC in the late 50s.

In 1965, LC established its first exchange program with the Hokusei Gauken University in Sapporo, Japan. Ever since then, overseas programs have been available to degree seeking LC students. Coincidentally, the number of international students on campus has increased.

Many international students appreciate the opportunities that are provided to them here on campus, as the liberal arts education style is not very common in other parts of the world.

“The thing that differentiated the education from Europe was two things: the fact that I did not have to choose a major immediately, and the fact that I can do track and field here,” Anna Slaidina ’20, an international student from Latvia said. “Back home I cannot do academics and track and field together, they are two separate things.”

For many international students, it is exciting to go to college in the U.S., but there are also many challenges. Bridget Flaherty, the Associate Director of International Students and Scholars, said that the way that social and mass media portrays things are not necessarily realistic, which might cause some international students to have unrealistic expectations of how their life will be when they make it to college.

“It is an interesting adjustment for them to come here and see what it is actually like,” Flaherty said. “Some things might have been true, but some things are not, and it can be really different.”

White said that independence and individualism in the American culture is one of the things international students often struggle with because there is much more emphasis on it in the U.S. White also described the adaptation period of international students, saying that many of them experience culture shock.

“November is usually when that (culture shock) starts: the weather has changed, the days are shorter, it is getting dark and cold and Lewis & Clark is not new anymore,” White said. He also noted that at this point many international students question whether they have made the right choice by coming to LC, because many of them were also admitted to other colleges. These other colleges still look perfect to them on brochures.

Most international students who come to LC do not initially know anyone. In such a case, being in a different place and culture might be difficult for them, especially if they are the only one from their culture or the only speaker of their language.

“I am starting from scratch, so nobody really knows me,” Mayeesha Dastagir ’21, an international student from Bangladesh said. “Initially when I got here, it was really hard for me to find a comfort zone. At the end of the day, you would want to find someone to confide in, and that was very hard to find. But then I got to know a lot of people and I opened up to them, and they did the same.”

It is worth noting that these challenges are faced by most college freshmen as well as international students, since starting college means starting a new life, especially if they are coming to LC from a different state. What makes the struggles of international students slightly different is that international students experience a greater culture shock.

Dastagir also commented on the cultural differences between the U.S. and Bangladesh. She said that in Bangladesh, people talked a lot about the way women wore clothes and how men always stared at them, whereas it was not a big deal in the U.S. She added that people understood what she really meant back home when she said things like “Men cannot control their gaze, all they want to do is to lick skin,” which would probably not be understood the same way in the U.S. For many international students, this is because of the differences in social relations and in the way people interact with each other.

“In American culture everybody is open and friendly versus back home everybody is very cold,” Slaidina said. “But here people keep friendships just to keep them. Back home, if you do not like somebody, you do not talk to them. I do not know if that is better or worse, it is just how it is.”

Gender pronouns are also a challenge for international students even though the concept is becoming more recognized in global culture. Still, considering that some languages do not even have a distinction in the third person pronoun and the fact that gender is not talked about as extensively as it is being talked in the U.S., gender pronouns can be confusing to international students.

“Before coming to America no one asked me about my pronouns.” Slaidina said. “I never had to think about whether a person is he, she or they. I had no idea what they even meant. Being super sensitive about everything you say, I guess, is the right thing to do, but I am just not used to being super cautious about everything I say. ”

Americanization is also a part of this cultural shock for many international students.

“Everything in class, outside of class, general world problems, books, etc. are mostly focusing on the American perspective,” Gabriela Maria Kalla ’19 said. Kalla is originally from Poland. “It’s always about having an impact on the U.S. or on Americans, while not really thinking globally or on a larger scale. But, I guess it might be the case for any country, to only put importance on the country’s own history and values, but here sometimes I feel like it’s almost too much.”

International students also said that Americans had problems with geography more than other nations in the world. This is, however, not surprising to hear considering the frequency of newspaper articles on geography literacy.

According to an article written by Becky Little on National Geographic news on Sept. 13, 2016:

“The global literacy survey asked 1,203 young adults 75 questions about geography, current events, and economics and trade,” Little said. “Among 18-to-26-year-olds who attend or have attended a two- or four-year college in the United States, the average score on the survey was just 55 percent — a failing grade in most U.S. classrooms.”

Other articles show that most Americans do not know where some of the politically critical countries are in the world like Ukraine, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan.

“I found it really weird that almost no one knows where Poland is.” Kalla said. “There is almost no knowledge of other countries, which relates back to the America-focused perspective. So that is annoying sometimes. But otherwise, people here are super open to the idea of talking to internationals and they always ask fun questions so that is a great way to start a conversation.”

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