English Essay Writing

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66 MY FRESHMANYEAR .

. the descriptions ·of stUdent life. at,testF diversity is . one part. of ·college culture that is intimately tied to community, another part, And both part~ are ultimately conditioned by structures in

‘ :l:he iarger American· society-including values of indiyidual” . ism and choice, materialism,·and the ··realities of US. demo-. graphics-that may .seem, at ·first, to have little bearing_.pn:·. whether college diversity increases because freshmen Joe and . Juan truly become friends, or whether Jane strengthens com- munity by deciding .to attend Movie Night. But they do. Not un:derstandirig ;this ieads to a reality about diversity and-. com-‘ .

. · J:rlunity in university culture that does not match its rhetoric, and a persistent confusion about why this is so ..

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As Others See Us

A s a partial outsider in college owingto my <:~.ge, I found

. · myself drawn to ~ther partial outsi~ersi and_v:ice versa; . · . Those of us who m some way dev1ated fromthe no~m . perceivedsomething in common and.ended up,lnoted, seek- ing one another out. Th1,1s, the transfer student on my hall be- came a·.friend; i·was ~lose, too, to the more withdrawn and

·rural students at Previews; theloneAfrican American student .· in my freshman semirtar,.and the international students in my

dorms and Classes. · . . · .. . My conversati’ons with students froril other countries Were

often illuminating. As·anthropologists have ~ometo know, cul-:- tute can be invisible to its natives-so taken for granted that it seems :rn:n:Vorthy of comment. Although I could view stUdent life with anoutsider,-professor’s eye1 there Was much alJOut the U.S, college scene that, in its familiarity, was invisible to m:e as

.· welL The more I spoke with international stUdents, the more I noticed familiar refrains’ that both educated me and reminded . me about my own U.S. arid acade:rriic culture~ After having

•’ ;many such info~m:al conversa,tions witfl both international stU- dents and teachers, I d,ecided to add forrhalinterviews of :inter~ national stude:hts to my investigation of U.S. college life. In all, . I conducted thirteen formal interviews, a::; well as sev:ercil infpr:.. mal•conversations, which inchided’ perspectiv~s, from .Somalia,

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68 MY FRESHMAN YEAR

. England; Japan, Germany, China, Mexico, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, India, Malaysia, France, arid Korea. In this chapter I share the cqmments made and stories told by intetna- tidria~ students as they grappled to understand and to fit in at . · AJ:iyU) Their struggles, surprises, and dilemmas pojnted to both :rllundane and profound revelations. about U.S. students, professors, and the college education system. ·

Getting to Know “American” Students

‘ One of my ‘earliest international contacts was with a young J ap- anese woman, Toshi, who lived on my floor. During Welcome Week, after we played volleyl?all together, I introduced myself and began .a· ci:l.sual convJrsation. When I s,aw her again at a. workshop, we eyed .each other like long-lost friends, and she··

·introduced meto,two Japanese frjends accomp~mying her who lived in other dorfi\s. The four of us talked enjoyably for a while,and i~ was’ clear that the three.exchange students were pleased· to be engaged by an American studen:t in this first week qf activities.2 I told them that I’d like to make dinner for ·· the:tn, <md. departed intendiri.g to stop by Toshi’s room and ask her to invite her two friends to a Friday night dinner at bur dorm, As I Jeft, though, one of the women (whom I’ll call Chiho}asked me a brave question in. slightly halting English: “Excuse me but I don’t understand. How can we have together if you don’t 0ave my phone number and I don’t have yours?” .. . ·

I .saw her. <;:onfusion. After exchanging telephone with all three women· for assurance, I asked Chlho

· .. people had invited her.before without following up. “I so/’ shE; responded “b1.1t I’m not sure. l have. been here for months and I am still very confused by the customs.

· students are so friendly and so nice: They are so open wanting to gettogether, but they never take my and they never conlact me (‘igain, When I see ‘a woman I

AS OTHERS SEE US 6g ‘ ‘ ‘I

two days ago, shedoesnofseemto.kllow me or remember,my’ · name.”.

lwinced at th~-truth of.the friendlyAmeric@ veneer, “Nice to meet you,”· “Drop by;” “See you soon,” all sounded like au- thentic irlvitations forfurther contact. And yet the words were without social substance. It was not just Japanese, or even non- Western, students for whom deciphering friendliness was a probletJ;l. One German stUdent commented: “There are some sur_face things about American friendliness. Like ‘How are . .

– you?’ A girl asked me that one day when I was feeling sick, and · I answered that I wasn’t too good but she just went on like I had never said that. Maybe it’s.a sign of caring to _say .that. But in Germany,’How are you?’ is the actual start of a conversation rather than just a hi/ good-bye.” _ .

Meeting. and befriending Amedca~s in more than a sliperfi:- cialway prese11ted challenges to many international.students. Even in class, students found it difficult. One Asian student told me how, in her linguis~ics class, the teacher had told the class. that the native speakers should. try to include interna- . tional students in·their groups for the study project. “But wh~n · we formed the· groups,” she recounted, .’~nobody even re- sportded or asked us to be in their groups, so the international studeri:ts had to ma.ke their own group.”

Ih some ways, their dilemma was like my own. Where is community in the American university,. and ?ow does one.be’- come a part of it? :q,.ternational students learned quickly that being a student, being a dorm mate, being a c)assmate-none of it automatically qualifies you as a “member of the commu-

. nity,” that is, someone whom others will seek out for activities. “In Korea/’ one woman told me, “if we all take class together

and our dass ends ~t lunchtime, we would go out’ together as a group.” No suchgroup·outing was available as a way fornew

. students to meet others in their classes. Because in Japan, creat- ing a network of friends and contacts is. a major puwose. of

. going to college, Midori f~und it surprising.that U.S. stUdents “lt:~ave the classroom right after class is over. They come to class

70 MY FRESHMAN YEAR

to get a grade, not to meet people or talk to people. They leave . right away and don’t talk to other,people. I don’t get why stu- dents run out of class, packing up and running out immedi- ately.”

Many student$ expressed surprise at the dull reception they received and the lack of interest they perceived from American student,s about their experiences and backgrounds. “Students don’t ask me anything about my life,” a Somali student lamented. “Even my friends … they don’t ask me questions about how I got here, or my life in other places.” A student from the United Arab Emirates observed: “Here everyone minds their own business. They’re not that hospitable. Like if some- one from the U.S. came to the UAE, people would take them out to eat and ask questions. It would be a long time before they paid for their own meal.” A Mexican student concurred: “I’m lonely here. I don’t think an American coming to Mexico would have the same experience as I’ve had here. We’re more social, more curious. We’d be talking to him and asking questions.”

“When I talk to them,” one Japanese woman noted with dis- may about her American classmates, “they don’t try to under-· stand what I say or keep up the conversation. They don’t keep -talking, and I realize that they don’t want to take the trouble to talk with me.” She thought that maybe the problem had to do with her thick accent. When I asked another Japanese student what questions students had asked him about his country, he . answered: “Well, mostly nobody asks me anything about Japan. Some Americans don’t care about other worlds. They;

, don’t ask questions, but those that do sometimes know more\ about Japan than I do.” … ·

Almost all international students discovered some individu-‘ ‘ als who were interested in their lives, but it was much more the exception than the rule, and these tended to-be U.S. who were well traveled or who had been exchange students – themselves. “What I miss most,” admitted one student, “is have someone to talk to, to feel that someone else is in you.” A Mexican student agreed: “I’ve met people who

AS OTHERS SEE US 71

interested in me, but for a lot of other people it’s … ‘whatever’! My [car] mechanic is more interested in my life and my back- ground than other students.”

It was difficult, even for someone born in the United States, to see that the outward openness of both college and Americq.n life was often coupled with a closed attachment to a small set of relationships, many of them (as we saw in chapter 2) developed · early in college and focused on people of very similar back- ground. International students were often forced into the same structure, finding that despite their interest in forming friend- · ships with Americans, they seemed to end up in relationships with other “foreigners.” In many ways the active international programs, which ran socials and trips for its students, rein- forced a pattern in which international students came in con- tact mostly with other non-U.S.-born students.

It was interesting to me that, echoing the camaraderie I felt with “others,” a number of international students indicated that they found it easier to get to know U.S. minority students than white students. One student told me, “They [minorities] seem to be less gregarious than other Americans, in the sense that they seem not to have as many friends and they are look- ing [shyly] for people themselves.” In practice, despite the fact that many students had come to the United States expressly for the “international experience,” the majority fraternized with other foreign students.

“I think I know how to meet Americans,” Beniko, a Japanese student, told me, “because my boyfriend meets people and has some American friends. It’s his interests.” Beniko explained to me that Americans find relationships when they identify hob- bies or elective interests in common. She went on: “My boyfriend likes playing the drums, and he plays them in the dorms and people come into his room. They’re like a friend magnet. It’s the same with martial arts. He likes that, and other boys do too, and they watch videos together, like Jackie Chan. If you don’t have a hobby in this country, it’s harder to meet people. I need to develop a hobby.”

7’2 MY FRESHMAN YEAR

Relationships and Friendships

. . Both Midor1·and Reiko had been excited, if. a little nervous, to. beassigned an American roomtnate. It was surprising tb Reiko that there was no formal introduction; rodmmates met, instead, when they both happened to be ih the room at the same time. Midori had heard that many Americans were messy ·and loud, but she knew that wasn’t true across the board and hoped her. roo:mn:\.ate would not fit the stereotype. · · ..

As l.t turned out,Midori’s roommate-‘-neat and f~irly quiet-· was different from her expectations, but . she presented . chal- lenges on another level. She spent most days and nights at her boyfriend’s apartment, returning only one or two days a week to their room. And when she did, as Midori explained, her per- sonal and spatial boundaries were sharp:

· It bothers her· if I change anything in the room, ‘even though -she only came to the room one or. two times a week. She would say, “This is rri.y windo:w:-don’t open it”-even if sheis not there and I am very hot! “Don’t change the heater setting.” I ask her, “Can I turn on the

· light now?” “Can I put’ some food in your refrigerator?” It had almost nothing in it. After a while, she just comes back to the room and ignores me. She let ~e know that I am her roommate and nothing more.

The separateness and individualism of the roommate tionship was something that Reiko encountered as well, without the hostility. Her roommate had also commumuueu that they would be “roomril.ates and nothing more,” but Reiko came to appreciate the advantages of this arrangement:

I like the American system. My roo~ate is just my room- mate. In {my country] I would be worrying and thinking· all the time about my roommate. If 1 wantto go to dinner, I f~ell have to ask my roommate, “Have you eaten yet?

AS OTHERS SEE us ·.· 73

Would you like to go to dinner’?” 1 must ask her about her classes and help her if she.has a problem. Herelhave.a roommate and I work separately. I don’t have to care abo~t · her. It’s easier .

International students saw “individualism” and “indepen- dence” as characteristic not only of roommate interactions but of relations with family and friends as well. When Arturo was asked about how AnyU.students differed from those in his own . . . / . . country, . he respond~d: .”There’$ much more independence here. At home, students live with their parents. Here families aren’t that tied together. My roommates call their dads and moms maybe once a we~k, and that’s it. It would be different if they were Mexican.” Alicia, another Mexican student, thought similarly that “America~s have a iot of independence. At eigh~ teeh ip Mexico, I can’t think of living by myself. Maype ies.the money, but ‘:Ve think united is better, for both family ties and for expenses.”

For Peter from Germany, Nadif from Somalia, and Nigel from England, the disconnection from family had repercus- sions for social life ·with friends. Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than on~ internationalstudentremarked about the dearth of family photos on ·student d()ors, as if family dicfu.’t exist at school. Intermitional ‘students generally saw· family as more naturallrintegrated into their social lives. “When you’re not near your family,” Peter told rp.e, “it’s hard to know where do I invite people. NcLone here says, ‘C~me on and meet my .family.’ Here I have to invite· people to, come to a home with two’ other people I don’t know. It’s strange.”

Nadif continued in a similar vein:

Ihave Americanfrienqs, but I haven’t been to their houses. I don’t knqw their parents or their brothers and sisters or families: Back home, if I have a’friend, everyone in their

·family knows ,me and I know them. If I go over to visit [friends] and they’re not there, I still stay and talk with

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. 74 MY FRESHM~N YEAR

their family. Here fri~ndship doesn’t. involve families. I . .

.don’t know where my friends live and who their families are.

Nigel found the American system peculiar, much less similar to his own culture than he .had expected. “My friends come to my house, and they just walk in. It’s like they’re friends not just with me but with my fan:rily. You know, a lot of my friends’ par- ents.buy me Christmas presents.” He went oh:

·if I have a party_:_ like at Christmas I had a big party-my · mum and dad, they’d just join in and .drink with everyone else and have a good time; My American friends would think that’s daft. I have friends [at AnyU]who have all gr:own up in the same city near · one a~other. They wouldn’t know how to have a conversation with anyone else’s parents. They get their friends to co:rn,e over when their parents· are out, like, “Hey, my parents are away, comeon over.” At home, it doesn;t make a difference whether your parents are there or not.

For Alicia from Mexico, this was all evidence of American· “in- dependence.” But “independence,” she argued, was one side of

. a coin. ,The oth~r side “is that I’m not sure that they have real friend~hips.”

The issue of real friendship was often more problematic in inte~views than I had anijcipated.r I typiCally asked what l con- sidered .to be a straightforward question: “Do you have friends who are American?”

“I’m not sure,” answered one Japanese girl. “My American roommate might be a friend.”

“What makes you unsure?” I queried further. “Well, I like my-roommate,” sheexplained, “and sometimes

even h:ook and we eat together at home, but since August [six ‘ months earlier] we have gone out together three tir,nes. That’s really not much~ not whatfriends would do in my country; so I don’t know.”

AS OTHERS SEE.US

Another student responded to my question abo\if friend~ with one of his own.l/What do you mean by ‘friend/{he·:,. asked,”my version or the American version?”AFrenchstudent . · responded quickly to my query about friends: “Sure I have · friends. It’s so easy to :rneetpeople here, to ma~e friends.” Then she· added: “Well; not really fri~nds. That’s the thing. Friend’-

‘ ship is very surface-defined here. It is easy to get to know people, but the friendship is superficial. We wouldn’t even call it a friel)dship. In France, when you’re someone’s friend, you’re ·: their friend for life.” Their,.tiouble answering my question. taught me something: There . were recurring questions about · what cortstitutes friendship for Americans.

A prime difficulty in sorting out the concept centered on judgments surroU.nding what one did for a friend. When Maria . made her first American, “friends,” she expected that they would be more active in helping her settle in her new home.

I was living ih a new country and I needed help. Like with setting up a bank account and doing the lease. It was new .for, me. Amd looking for a mechanic to fix my car.· dr going shopping-I didn’t know what to buy [for my room]. And when I tell my friends that I had a hard day trying to figure outall the things they say, “Oh1 I’m so sorry for you:~’ .

Mar~a. found it Unfathomable. “In Mexico, when someone.is a friend, then regardless of the situation, even if I W<?uld get in trouble, I would help them. American people are always busy. , ‘Oh, I like you so much,’ they say. But then if I’~ in trouble, it’s, ‘Oh, I’m. so sorry foi you.’ ‘So sorry for you’ doesn’t help!” …

Geeta’~ roommates seemed just th~ opposite. When she told them that she was planning on buying a used ‘car, they told her,.

·· “Oh,’you don’t need .a car; We have two cars and one of us will take you where you want to go.” Butth~n after a while, she ex- plained,

I see how life is here. It’s like I’m a little eight-year-old girl, and I have to ~ay. “Could someone please t.ake me.herer’

76 MY FRESHMAN YEAR

“Could someone take me there?” So I don’t ask much. One day I said that I need a ride to school, and my roommate says, “Fine, but you have to leave right now,” and now isn’t when I want to go. After a while, I saw that I needed

my own car.

Nigel told me: “I don’t understand the superficiality in friendships here. Americans are much friendlier than the En- glish, but then it doesn’t really go anywhere. As far as deep friendships are concerned-! know there are people who have deep friendships, but it’s a lot harder to figure out who those people will be.” I asked him, “What’s so different about friend- ship at home?”

I think friends at home are closer. We’re in touch every day, for one thing. For another, when one person is doing some- thing, the others are supporting them. Here one of my American friends graduated, and I went to the graduation to support him. A lot of our other friends were here for graduation, but they didn’t even go to watch him gradu- ate, and they weren’t even doing anything. That upset me. There’s a lot of incidents like that. It’s confusing.

“Confusing,” “funny,” “peculiar” were all words used to de- scribe American social behavior. “Why do so many students eat alone in their rooms rather than go out or cook together?” “Why don’t any of the guys on my hall know how to cook any- thing?” “Why does everyone here use computers [Instant Mes- saging] to communicate with people who are down the hall or in the same dorm?” “Why do young Americans talk so much about relationships?”

The way that Americans socialized was also a prime subject of comment. Two points stood out. First, Americans don’t so- cialize as much, tending to spend more time alone, as this British student explained:

People back home of my age socialize a lot more. On a free night, you’d go out and meet friends and be doing some-

AS OTHERS SEE US

thing together. You’d probably go out as a big group. In a week of seven days, I’d probably go out two or three nights. It’s all student-based and promoted. Here, in the evenings, you walk down the hall and people are sitting in their rooms playing video games and watching television.

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The second thing consistently noticed by international stu- dents is how Americans seem to separate socializing and party- ing from the rest of their lives. “Social life in Japan,” explained one student, “is different. It’s not like, ‘This is party time.’ It’s more integrated with the rest of your day and your life.” A French student noted this same pattern, but with regard to clothing. “We’ll be hanging out, and then we decide to go out. The American girl in the group says, ‘I need to go home and change.’ I think, why? It’s the same people. We’re just going to a different place now. We’re not going to anyplace fancy. What is so different now that you have to go change your clothes?”

For one British student as well, the American “party time” mentality was perplexing:

I don’t understand this party thing in the U.S. When you go out here, it’s get drunk or nothing. If people go out with people and drink, they have to get drunk. If they don’t get falling-down drunk, they think, “What’s the point of doing it?” I find it difficult to understand. It’s really a Eu- ropean thing. You socialize, have a few drinks together, and go home.

For many international students, then, there was more flow between family and friends, school and home, and between ac- ademics and social life.

Classroom Life

In the classroom, most foreign students notice what U.S. adults, if they have been away long from academia, would probably notice too: there is an informality to the U.S. college classroom

‘·’ 76. MY FR!;SHMANY,EA:R

“Could someone take me there?'” So I don’t ask much. One day 1 said that I need a ride to school, and my roo:rrimate says, “Fine, but you have to leave right :f10W,” .and now isn’t when I want to go. After a while, I saw that I needed iny 0′:Vll car;

·Nigel told me: “I don’t understand the superficiality in .· friendships here, Americans are much friendlier than the En~ glish, but then it doesn’t really go ·anywhere. As far as deep

. friendships are concerned,-I know there are people who have deep friendships, but it’s a lot harder to figure out who those

• people will be.”Tasked him,”Whaesso different about friend- ·. ship at home?” ·

I think friends a~ home are clbser. We’re in touch every day,· for one .thing. For another, when one person is doing some- thing, the others are supporting them. Here one of my American friends graduated,. and I went to the graduation . to support him. A lot of our other friends were here for gradu;:ttion, but they didn’t even go to watch him gradu’- ate, and they weren’t even doing anything~ That upset me. There’s a ,lot of ip.cidents like that. It’s confusing.

“Confusing,” “funny,” “peculiar” were all words used to de- scribe.American social behavior. “Why do so many students eat · aloh~ in their rooms rather than go ‘out or cook together?” “Why don’t any of the guys on my hall know how to cook any- . thing?” “Why does everyone h~re use computers· [Instant Mes- saging] to coinmunicate with people who are down the hall or. in the same dorm?” “Why do young Americans talk so much about relationships?” .

The way that .Affiericans socialized was also apriine subject of comment. Two points stood out. First, Americans don’t so- dalize as much; tending to spend more time alone, as this . • · British student explained: . .

People back home of rny age sociqlize a lot more. On a free night, you’d go out and. meet friends and b~ doing some- .

/ . ‘ . AS OTHERS SEE US n·

thing together. You’d probably go oui: as a big group.Jna week .of sev~n dayst· I’d prpbably go out tWo or th.ree nights. It’s all student.,based ~d promoted. Here, in the evenings~you walk down the hall and people are si~ting ifi .·· their rooms playing video games and watching television.

The second thing consistently noticed by international stu- deritsis how Americans seem to separate socializing and party- ing :{rom the rest of their lives. “Social life inJapan,”.·explained one student, “is different. It’s not like; ‘this is p<,l.rty time.’ It’s ;mote integrated with the rest of your day and your life.” A French student noted this same pattern, but with regard to cJothing. ~’We’ll be hanging dut, and then we decide to go out. The American· girl in the group says, ‘I need to go home and. change.’ I think, why? It’s the same people. We’re just going to a different place now. We’re not going to anyplace fancy; What. is so different now that you have to go change your clothes?”

Fqr one British student as well, the Ame:dcan “party time” . mentality was perplexing:

I don’t understand this party thing in the U.S. When you go out here, it’s get drunk ornothing. If people go out with people and drink, they have to get drunk. If they don’t get falling-down drunk,. they think, “What’s the point of .doing it?” Ifindjt difficult to understand. It’s really a Eu- r<Jpean thing. You socialize, have ·a few drinks together, and go home.

For many internatim1.al students, then, there was more flow . between fainily and friends, school and home, and between ac-

ademics and social life.

Classroo¢ Life

In the classroom, most foreign students notice whatU.S. adults, if they haye been away long· from academia, .would probably no*e too: there is an informality to the US. college classroom

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78 . MY F.RESHMAN YEAR

that SOIIl~, inCluding professors; would interpret as bordering. op disrespect: ~Japanese student giggled as she.told me:”It makes me}augh when I see how students come to class:. shorts, flip-flops … tom T~shirts; Somestudents come to dass in paja-‘ · mas!” AMiddle Eastern student exclaimed: “You have so ;much’ freed~m here. You can step out of classin·the i:niddle of the chiss! We could neyer do that/’ For one Asian student, one of

. th~ surprises was how often students interrupt the professor in the middle of a lecture to ask their own. questions. This would· riot be tolerated in his country: An African student shared his thoughh;;: “There are certain. things that surprise me American students .. I look at howthey dr.ink and eat during class. They.put their feet up on-the chairs. They pack up their. books at the end ofelass before the teacher has finished talk'” ing.” ohe European student noted, ,;We used to ~at and in class sometimes, but at least we hid it!”

.mdeed, as, ahy American college student knows, stepnin out • .of class’ or interrupting a lecture with questions is

‘ quite ~cceptable. Eating and drinking during cla,ss, slee1-14L~ openly, packing up books before the teacher has finished,

. ing have come to be standard behavior that most professor~

will ignore. For the most p~rt, intemation~l students liked the

classroom and American profespors, U.S. protessors were scribed by differ~nt :int~mational · students as “lhld :’helpful/’ “open,” “tolerant” (of scant clothing and sleeping class)/’casual,” and “friendly.” .Some, like the UAEand students, appreciated that “teachers are not as involved in lives-they don~t see where . you live or try to force you study.”. For others, including the Japanese and Korean

·dents, it .was the interest in. listening to students’ probiems opinions and in helping students that was refreshing:

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· Teachers thinkhelping students is ;theiijo}J. In.Jap<l!l don’t thinkthatway. I.e:.,mailed :my prof iri Japan because am doing an independent study and I asked her to me ar:t atticle,Shegot mad at me and tlwughtthis was ;rude for rn.~ ‘to askher to dofhis, . ‘

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M: bTHERS SEE LIS . ‘ ·’ .’ . .. ·- ‘ ; . ‘. :··

· Americqn profesE;ors ani more open; they give you thdr . phone numbers and some let you C<;illthem at home. You . can really talk to them outside of class and they are willihg to give you extra help. ·

Although Americ’!ll pro~essors and. the· American cla,.ssroom · received highm(lrks for opehri.ess and helpfulness, they ‘re- c~ived mixed reviews on colirse content, including its. rigor, or-·. ganization, and modes ofeva~uation. Although one’ Indian stu- dent appreciated .that “profs ten me which points to .concentrate ori when I read; they’ sometimes give chaptersuni- maries so I.know what to focus my attention on/ more than.· o;ne other m~ntioned the controlled way in whi<;h the American college classroom is run. The student is given a small chunk of · reading and lecture to absorb, and, then thereis a test, usually short-answer format. Then there is another chunk of reading anci;a test. It is a system.that one $tudent described as “forceci study/’ but one iri which it’s generally fairly easy to master the material and do well.. . . . .

Most international students w~re used to.a.less pre-digested academic diet. Their course, /:on tent was delivered by lecture, and it was students’ responsibility to’ fully understand the con- tent without the benefit of outlines, projected overhead notes, and other aids, as in the American classroom .. Their. gradE\S for the semester would be based only on tWo long comprehensiye essay exams and sometimes a lengthy theme paper. The Amer- ican approach:,_ftequent small short-answer tests .smnetimes coupled with study guides and lechl.re outlines-was criticiz~d · by different international students:’

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[It w9rks but] in some w(iys … , it’s like elementary school · or.grade school. The teacher tells you exactly-which chaP:- ters to study; and thenyoureview jusUhose chilpte~s. The advisers tell you the courses to. take ‘and approve your . schedule. S9metimes it’s ani;10ying;

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Students here have lots of exain$, really small quizzes. The quizze~ make you study You learn a lit~le bit forthe quiz,

j•,

So MY FRESHMAN YEAR I

. then you learn a little bit differerttfor the next quiz. But . p’eople forget.frmrtweek to week Once the quizis·over,

they forget. …. Really, I wonder at the end of the semester what people .remember when they Ieiwe.

I find it difficult to t<ike the e(<ams’ hen~ s~riou~ly. You can ··go in,to a multiple-choke exam without studying really a!ld st~ come out all right from things you remem1Jer from das.s, and a process of elimination. You could never go into. an exam back home knowing nothing. TheY:re essay, and you start from a blank page; you wouldn’t. know what to write. I<nowillg almost nothing there,. you’d get a 20 per- cent. Bere yo~ coUld pass the test! . .

Still ·some students appreciated the. American graqing. sys~ . tern,. with smaller, non.,-comprehensive exams and a syllabus,

serving almost as a contract that_laid out exaCtly how tests, pa- pers, and presentations would bear. on the final grade. As

·Asian student’explained:

We don’t know what we’re getting for· a grade in {:my country]. We don’t have small quizzes, just one final exam or sometimes two, and there’s no class pa~ticipation. I had a class that Ithoughfi was doing well in butT got a C. Ex- pectations are much clearer in the U.S. They are much deafer about grading. It’s easier to s.ee results of a test or paper and how it related to a grade in a course.

“Teaching in America·is like a <me-man show,” argued . . .

a French student, in the middle of our interview. “Teachers jokes; they do PowerPoint,There is audience pa~:ticipation.”

“I thought you just said that in .Prance it was fl. one-m”‘n show,” I followed up, “because the teacher basically just up with a microphone and lec:tured.”

“Yeah, that’s true” Elene went on, “but it’s not It’s a lecture. they’re n.ot trying to illterest·and entertain ~tudents,andwhere I went tos.choolwe never rated the sors, like entertain~rs, with evaluations at the end of. course:”

;AS OTHERS SEEUS 81

Opinions of the U.S. system.vari~d somewP,at with a stu- • dent’s cou:tltry of origin. While Mexican students fotm:&u.s, · professors and advisers· a little formal, most international stU: dents noted their easy informality. A Chinese student was alone in mentioning that “the profs don’t seem to prepare as much. There is little in the way of dass notes or handouts for the stu-. dents.” And while the UAE and Som:ali students believed that “lJS. students are tnore serious about school because it makes I . , . more ofa difference to your future,” for most iriternational stu- dents, either the lack of rigor. of American classes or the work

. attitudes of American students presented a different sort of sur- prise.

”When I was in Japan, I heard how hard it was to go to uni’- versity in the U.S.,” said .one student, “but now I’m here and I see that many students don’t do the work.”

“How do you know that?” I asked. . She responded, “When I talk ~bout an assignment, they say

the)” didn’t do it!” It’s confusing, though, she admitted: “Stu- dents ill my class complam a lot about the time commitment . while, at the same time, they talk about the parties they go to and the drinking. Some students make the effort, but I see.that many others don’t do the work.”

Most European students agreed that U.S. classes were less demanding; “My first two years of classes in this COuntry,” said . Elene,~’were at the high school level. What a joke! Only at the , 300 and 400 level atn I seeing much better-and harder material.,; A Britishstudent commented: “My involvement withinmy ac- tual classes is a lot higher here, but. as far as the content of work, it’s actually a lcit easier. I didn’t work nearly as hard as I .. could,.and I .got Bs and better in all of my classes.” According to·. Li~ Chillese stUdents work harder and do more homework: “I don’t thirik .the Ameri~an students work that ha~d. L did a group,project with an American student and I see he follows. I organize.! suggest the books we should read’be.cause I want a. / good grade, He just comes to m:eetll;tgs but doesn’t really pre~ pare. J\:f the end; he thanks me for carrying the project” . · , ,

“Group work’r was one of three points that w,ere often re:- peated when I asked what if anything is different about the

82 MY FRESHMAN YEAR . . . ‘ ‘, ‘ ,.

“academic approat:h” · in the· American dassra,om .. I had never . really thought about it until I saw how many,intemational stu.:. dents noted the. frequency -of group projects and presentations in their classes .. One. European recounted: “Here they keep. telling you toget into groups; do a· presentation: I’ve done so many presentationS while I’ve been here I can’t believe it. …. Man yo£ them aren’t even ruarked::_we justdo them as an exer- cise .. Ithii:tkit’s a good tlring, because people here get a lot more

. corifident about tal.l<iTig ill: front of others.” . ‘ilt’s funny,” I mused with Beniko, a Japanese. student, “that

in .such an individual culture students do so much work in · groups.” ,

. “I think I tinderstand why you can,” she answered. “It is be- cause ofyour individualism. lrt Japan, we don’t and couldn’t do much groupwork because we would.consider each other TOO MUCH,:and the project would getVery complicated because of that.” ·Only_ American students, she, suggested, would have

, thenecessary.boundaries and sense ofthei;r own preferences to be able to negotiate the demands of a group project. · ,

Irldividualism and indivj9-u:al choice also figlired into both of · the other mentioned themes. For Asian students in particular,. one formidable challenge of the American classroom was in the number: of tim~s people were asked to ”say what they think. fiProfessors are always asking what you think ofthis and think of that/’ maintained one Japanese studenL “It’s great, but it’s scary when you’re not used to thls. I don’t always know what 1 think.”· . . .

One Korean woman remar-ked to me:

Everything here is: ‘~What do you want?” “What do you thinkr “What do you like?” Even little childrenhave pre£- . erences. and interests in this country. 1 heat parents in restaurants. They ask a three-year-old child, “Do you want

· Ftench fries or potato chips?” Every little kid in this coun- try can tell you, “I like green beans-but not spinach, I like·”· .vanilla but not chocolate, and my favorite color is blue.” They’re used to thinkingthatway. . ‘

AS OTHERS SEE US

”Choice” abounds in the U.S. educational system in wily,s. that :most American~born students are unaware of. “You c@’ ‘· take[coursesJ that interest you here,” affirmed one student. .”If I like archaeology_:__good, I take it. But then I also like astrori-, omy; so I take that.” AJapanese student explained that at home she “can’t take a ceramics course just because I like it.” The courses she takes are determined by her major and not subject to choice. In Europe, another student told me, “when we get electives, we are able to choose from a •very short list which colirse from the list you will take~ You get very few ‘open cred- its’ -what you ca~l electives-whe~e you can actually pick the course, and it is usual for someone to take a cpurse that is re- lated to ~heir major so it helps them with other co~ses.” ·

In their home countries, most international students could nofchange their major, nor could they liberally choose classes outside their major, nor could they double-major or double- minor. Most ·could n~t ·drop courses after they were_ enrplled. Fon some international students, even being able to pick one’s major was a luxury. In countries that rely heavily on test scores for entry into specific fields, one’s major often depends on ·

. rarikings on exams. A Japanese student reported: “Many · people in Japan pick majors they don’t want. My friend is study1ng to be an English teacher; but .she wants to be a dog groomer. She picked her major based on heri test r:esults ·and what she did well in.” ·

“There’s a lot of choice in your curriculum,” ~ne Spanish stu- 9-enJ maintained, ·”and . even in the time you take classes. ·In Spain, certairi courses· Must be taken, and a class is given at one

. time and that’s it:”

The same choice inherent in the curriculum was seen in the ·extra-curriculum. “There are so many dubs to choose from . here-yG>u can pick ‘any interest and there will be a club for it!” re:rnark(3d ·<ll”l African student. “If you want to join a sport in my. · country,” said another, “we have one or two sports you can join (soccer andcricket), but here you can choose fromso niany

-~ different ones like climbing, snowboardillg, basketball, soccer, ti’f,.,,.J-i.~n ~–l so many more,” .

84 MY FRESHMAN YEAR

There were few detractors from the benefits of choice in the American system, but a couple of students pointed out the downside of having so much choice. One suggested: “Your sys- tem is much more complicated, and it’s much less specialized. Because you take so many different kinds of courses, you are spread thinner and have less focused knowledge in particular areas.” Another looked at the implications of students’ freedom to drop a course at will: “People here can drop a class whenever they want. If I don’t like it, I drop it. If I don’t like the teacher, I drop it. If I’m not doing well, I drop it. In Spain, once you sign, you pay, and you can’t drop. I think it affects attitude.”

Indeed, as one foreign-born teacher confided, “I take time to talk to my students who didn’t do well on an exam or who are having trouble. I suggest that they set up an appointment with me, and I tell them what skills they need to work on extra. The minute I do that, it has the opposite effect in your system. In- stead of coming to my office, they drop the class. It’s really

quite surprising!”

Worldliness and Worldview

The single biggest complaint international students lodged about U.S. students was, to put it bluntly, our ignorance. As in- formants described it, by “ignorance” they meant the misinfor- · .. mation and lack of information that Americans have both about other countries and about themselves. Although most interna- tional students noted how little other students asked them about their countries, almost all students had received ques- tions that they found startling: “Is Japan in China?” “Do have a hole for a bathroom?” “Is it North Korea or South that has a dictator?” “Where exactly is India?” “Do you ride elephants?” “Do they dub American TV programs

British?” These are just a few of the questions American students

ally asked of international students. While they no doubt from the less sophisticated among their classmates, it was

AS OTHERS SEE US IJ

that international students across the board felt that most Americans-even their own friends-are woefully ignorant of the world scene. It is instructive to hear how students from di- verse countries discuss their perceptions of American students’ views of themselves and the world.

JAPAN: Really, they don’t know very much about other countries, but maybe it’s just because a country like Japan is so far away. Japanese probably don’t know about the Middle East. Sometimes, students keep asking about nin- jas.

UAE: American students are nice, but they need to stop being so ignorant about other countries and other cultures. Americans need to look at the world around them, and even the cultures around them in their own country.

MEXIco: The U.S. is not the center of the world. [Ameri- cans] don’t know anything about other countries. Many of them don’t have an interest in learning about other cul- tures. The only things students ever ask me about in my culture is food.

CHINA: Americans know very little about China or its cui-. ture. Most people think China is still very poor and very communist-controlled, with no freedom. There is a very anticommunist feeling, and people know little about today’s China, which is quite changing and different. New Zealanders know much more about China-perhaps it’s their proximity. I think that older people here have more of a sense of history, and that history, about the wars, about the cold war, makes them understand more about the world. Younger people seem to have no sense of history.

ENGLAND: People here know surprisingly little about En- gland, and they assume a lot of things, some true, some not. People’s impressions of me when I say I’m from En- gland is that I might drink tea off a silver tray, and maybe live in a castle, and use a red telephone box. That’s the

86 , .MY FRESHMAN YEAR

honesttruth, The questions that I’ve been asked are unbe- . · ‘ lievable. ” ·· . . ·- ·

MAL.\.;siA: I tell people that I am Muslim, and they take for granted thatl’m an Arab. How can they not realize that n,ot

. . . . ‘ ‘ all Mu.slims q.re Arabs whef1 they have many Muslims here who are American?

GERMANY: American students are much more ignorant of other countries and cultures. I suppose it’s because it’s so big; and knowing about California for you is like us know- ing about France. It’s a neighbor. The U.S. is less depen- dent on oth~r cultures, and maybe that’s why they.~eed to know less. Still, Americans come across as not interest~d in other cultures, like they don’t really care about other coun- · tries~ . So they think things like Swedish people are orily blonds.

·INDIA:, Somebody asked me if we still ride on elephants. That really bothered me. If I say I’ in Indian, they askwhich reservation? I say I’m from Bombay. ”Where is Bombay?” Some people don’t.even know where India is. A friend of mine arid I tried to make these Americans see what it was .. ···· like and we asked them where they’re from. They said Cal:· ifornia. Andwe said, Where was that? ·

FRANCE: People here don’t know where anything is. For Worlci War II, the teacher had, to bring in a map to show where GermanY and England Ci!e-it was incredible! I read somewhere a little research. that sc:iid only 15 to 20 percent

. · of Americans between the ages eighh~en to could point ·out Iraq on a. map. The country will go to war, · but it doesn’t know where tp’e country is! · ·

· ·Despite the critiCal consensus in these comments; it . unfair. of me to represent international student perspectivi:>!’: roundly negative. • In general; students from outside the States warlnly appreciated the American educational c.:rct.>m:

AS OTHERS SEE U:S ·

well as the spirit of the American college student. T,he cdti:· . ‘ cisms’ that they did~ have, though, were pointed and. focused. ‘ Taken together, theyamounted.to nothing lt~ss than a theory~£. the relationship among ignorance, intolerance, and ethnod~n-:

. trism in, this country, one that international eyes saw bordering’ on profo’und self-delusion: When I asked the linked questions> “What would you want American students to see about tl)em- selves?” and “What advice would you give them?” one Ger- man stUdent stated’ succinctly what many students communi- cated to me at greater length: “Americans seemto think:·.they . have the perfect place to live: the best country, the best city. I

. he~r that all the time. I used to think you just. got· that from , . politicians, but nbw l see it’s from regular people too. The pa- .. trioti_sm thing here really bothers me.”

It is sobering to hear these words from a German student, whose country’s historical experience in the 1930s and 1940s taught him the dangers of hypernationalism. To ‘his fellow U.S, students he offered thi~ recommendation: “I’d give them ad- vice to .live elsewhere. They should recognize. that the way of living in the U.S. isfine, but it isn’tnecessarily the best’way·for everyone: I don’t like to evaluate, and I’d like that·applied to me. Be more informed. Iriformation leads to tolerance.”

It. bothered a Chinese student who read in an article that . ! . . ‘ American students don’t want to study a foreign language be- cause they believe that the world language will be Eng~sh. “I think they need to learn about the world, to learn a foreign lan-

.guage;” he urged. It bothered a British student, who lamented how much of world music American students ~eem to miss ..

· “Everything here [on his· corridor l is either black· gangster rap or punkrock, and that’s basically it. They. don’t want to hear 9ther m11sic~ontemporary tnusicfrom around the world.”

The connection between lack of information and intolerance ‘translated occasionally into personal stories of frustration, hit- ting home in the lives of some students. ‘Twishthey [his hall

.. mates] were accepting of more different music;” said an Indian “I play my own music. I playitloud just like they do…___,

88_ MY FRESHMAN YEAR

Arabic and Punjabi and other stuff-~and they complain to the – -RAs. But it’s my right to play that too. Why don’t they under-

stand that?” – · “They don’t accept o~her cultures/’ speculated one Japanese

student.

Once I was eating the food I had made-Japanese noo- dles-and we Japanese eat noodles with a noise. Some~_ body else in the kitchen area -looked at. me funny. She asked, “Why are you making so much noise?” I told her that’s the way Japanese eat their noodles, and I can see by her face that she is- disapproving. It hurt me to see that. Some Americans don’t care about other worlds.

One key toward creating a more positive cycle of informa- tion, self-awareness, and tolerance was for many the university and university education itself. Learn a foreign 1anguage and study overseas, many- recommended for individual students. Use your education to expand your purview beyond your own country. For the University, other -.students recommended a greater emphasis on self-awareness, including a more critical eye directed to our own institutions and history.

For one Chinese ?tudent, the~need to be more reflective about the media representation of news and issues was critical: “Media coverage has a very great influence here. In China, it has less influence because everyone knows it’s propaganda. Here it is not seen that way because there is a free press. But it’s curious.” In American newspaper articles and TV news, “the individual facts are true often, butthe whole is not sometirr I can see how Americans need to questio!l the way_stories being represented to them.”

A French student beseeched us to examine our own educa- – – –

tional system:

Americans-teach like· the only inlportant_thing is America: Ther-e-is no required history course in college. The history

·course I took on Western civ. at AnyU was middle-school

AS OTf:!ERS SEE us. 8g

levet and it was very biased. I mean they taught how, in World War II, America saved France and saved the world, -_ how they were so great. The courses don’t consider what Americgns have done wrong. All the current events here is news about America andwhat America is doing: If it’s a.bout another- coun’try, it’s about what America is doing there. There’s nothing about other countries and th~ir his- tories and problems. [In France] we had lots ofhistory and geography courses, starting very young. I lea~!led about France, but then we had to take a course in U:S. industrial- ization, in China, Russia, Japan, too._ We got the history and geography of the world, so we could see how France now fits into the bigger picture.

For the international students I interviewed, American col- lege culture·-is a world of engagement, choice, ‘individualism,- and independence, but it is also one of cross-cultural ignorance and self-delusion that cries out for remediation. It was a Somali student who summed up all of their hopes for.” America”: “You -have so ID)-lch here, and so many opportunities.’ I wish America would ask more what this country can do to make the world a betterplace.”

  • Nathan As Others See Us Part 1
  • Nathan As Others See Us Part 2