Opinion: As an international student, it’s okay to be different


This is the seventh month I have spent in the U.S. as an “outsider.” I am soaked in the U.S. culture and society, but awkwardness and the sense of exclusion never fade away.

Illustration by Amber Williams

I feel awkward when people complain about the temperature. “Shoot, It’s going to be 48 tomorrow!” I don’t know if this is too hot or too cold. I have been using centigrade all my life. How am I going to respond?

I feel awkward when I need to correct people that I am Chinese, not Japanese or Korean. I understand all Asian nationalities look similar. I can’t tell the difference between French and German either. I get it, but it gets offensive when the mistake is from the same person over and over again.

I feel excluded even though I try to blend in and people invite and welcome me in. I barely understand baseball or football. The sense of exclusion starts to hit me whenever these topics begin. I don’t have the shared memory or experience most Americans have. I feel lost in many conversations about topics from TV drama reruns to 9/11 to Ferguson.

The most painful experience of all comes from the language. I feel powerless when I can’t describe a situation precisely. This hurts me even more when I think about how vivid and eloquent I can be when I am using Chinese.

Librarians would talk slower to me. My theory is, as native speakers, they just know from my grammar or accent or maybe just my appearance that English is my second language. I feel like I’m both being taken care of and viewed as stupid.

I still feel nervous when I try to order at Subway. I order by the shape of different cheeses and by the color of different sauces. The staff looks at me as if I am an alien or out of my mind.

A simple “how are you?” stresses me out. The standard answer from my elementary school English book was “Fine. Thank you. And you?” But no one in real life responds like that. I struggle to come up with new answers every time. Gradually, I assume this is just a standard greeting and people don’t always expect an answer. So I decide to go with “good” or “fine” because I don’t want to be annoying. But this makes me fit into the stereotypical Chinese character: reserved, unfriendly and even aloof.

Before I came to the U.S., I hated people talking in half Chinese, half English. They are just showing off, I thought. But now, I’ve become that kind of person. I begin to doubt myself. I question myself, who I am.

Debbie Pierce is the director of the Center for International Education. Pierce delivered a speech at International Symposium Series Tuesday, March 15. Pierce shared her experience as an American who grew up in Brazil. By discussing how her identity was formed through language, culture and other’s perceptions of her, Pierce gave out her answer to “who am I?”

Pierce was clear about herself as a “marginal person.” “I may be bicultural and bilingual. But I am never bi-myself,” Pierce said. “I always find out who I am.”

I am sharing her experience now, and from her speech, I can find a way out of the mist. I may never be able to blend in, but it’s alright to be different. Ultimately, I am here to experience the difference, and my difference is what Webster, a culturally diverse university, is based upon.

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