By Lee Jai Ryung
Small talk. The short, terse answers are the essence of a first impression. And first impressions stick. They cling onto you until a deeper friendship is formed. Unfortunately, small talk for me and many other international students is rather stressful.
The purpose of small talk is to create a bond, locate a similar interest, and identify common ground. “Where are you from?” When the answer is given, the brain goes through the list of acquaintances and experiences, filtering for someone, something, some bit of information that allows a connection to be drawn. When I give my answer — I am Korean but I grew up in Indonesia — there is usually nothing to relate to.
So they try again — “Who’s your favorite artist?” Again, there is a fissure. I listen to K-pop, not American music. And by this time, some people just give up. They end the conversation with, “Well, it was nice to meet you,” and we both walk away wondering if we really did “meet” or whether we are still strangers.
Perhaps it’s this lack of connection during the first encounter that causes international students to be treated differently. In the course of writing this article, I informally interviewed numerous international students, most of whom told me to “write about how people think that if you’re an international student, you don’t know anything.”
For most international students, their first language wasn’t English. They are fluent in their native tongue, and a few of my international friends are fluent in four or five languages. It should not come as a surprise, then, that they speak in a heavy accent or at times struggle to convey their ideas through foreign letters and words. This does not mean that they do not have ideas. International students actually bring in rich and original ideas, shaped by their experiences in their home countries.
Though outward communication may be a struggle for international students, many international students have developed a keen ability to interpret and understand the new world around them. We pay attention.
“They think we don’t know that they’re making fun of us,” one international student said, “even though they’re standing right in front of us.” I remember watching an international student rather creatively pull together a soup that was similar to what she was used to eating back home with ingredients from the dining hall. “What in the world is that girl eating? That’s disgusting.” The two girls sitting at a table adjacent to ours didn’t even bother to whisper. Perhaps my friend and I looked deaf. Or international.
As Americans are proud of their country, so are international students of their own country and culture. Any joke or criticism can easily become offensive. There is a clear marker that determines whether jokes about culture and heritage are offensive or not — the inclusion of the subject. Depending on how involved the representative of the culture is in developing the joke, bouncing off the humor of his or her friends, the joke can easily turn from being lighthearted to being misguided, misinformed, and outright offensive.
But why write about the struggle international students have? Don’t all college students suffer homesickness and grief? Don’t they all struggle to fit in at college? Yes, absolutely. Transitioning into college is always a tough stage in life. But at the end of the day, while some students can drive a few hours to the loving arms of parents during breaks, others have to be on a plane for over 30 hours and fly halfway across the world to see their families once, maybe twice a year. Some students can call home in the day while others have to wake up at dawn or stay up late into the night to squeeze in a 30 minute Skype call with family. And while some students are adjusting to college life, roommates, and new bathrooms, others have to adjust to a whole new country, culture, and lifestyle.
All that being said, I would like to make it clear that I think Furman is a wonderful place for international students like me. Although there have been bumps along the way, I have seen many international students embraced, both individuals and their culture, by fellow students. As Furman continues and expands its commitment to diversity, I am excited to see how much more open-minded and inclusive Furman’s campus can become