ola/bonjour/nihao/ciao, we hail from another planet

the struggles of transitioning from our world to yours

A week before the campus eateries officially open and the majority of the incoming freshman population swarms Brown’s campus for orientation, a smaller group of just under 300 students walks onto this same unnaturally quiet site. They hail from over 60 different countries and speak a myriad of languages—in fact, most are bi- and even tri-lingual. They form groups with their fellow international students, bonding while overeating American pizza and complaining about the lines at the Ratty (the only cafeteria open before official freshman orientation). Making new friends with people who come from completely different cultures isn’t out of the norm for kids who grew up hopping between international schools, and strangely enough, this new, slightly scary country begins to feel a little bit like home. Until the arrival of the rest of the freshman population.


As an international student, I have befriended many local students who have been baffled by my rather American accent and mixed features. I’m a Eurasian and don’t quite look Caucasian or Oriental, so people find it incredibly amusing to guess which country I’m from. “Are you Latina? From Brazil, maybe?” “Oh, are you of Native American descent?” “You must be Mexican!” When I inevitably tell them my life story (Italian-Filipino, grew up in Dubai, etc.), I am greeted with the ever-classic “Wow, your English is amazing!”


It is okay that international students get asked all these questions—our life stories are interesting, and it’s nice to get a fresh perspective on a travel-filled lifestyle we take for granted. At the same time, though, it can be hard for us international students to relate to our new friends from across the pond. While it takes some people a couple of hours on a car, train, or low-budget airline to get home, we have to plan our lengthy plane journeys home months in advance, often paying hefty fees for tickets. Furthermore, it’s hard to remain in constant contact with our families and friends back home, as time differences mean that when we’re wide awake and ready to talk after a long day at school, they’re either halfway through a work day or snoring in their slumber. Instead of being able to gradually let go of the incredible, fast-paced lives we left behind, that cord is completely cut as soon as we jump off the plane and step onto U.S. ground. Hello, New World.


Unless international kids are from partly American families, or American families that traveled abroad for business, the first thing that hits them is the culture shock. The different kind of humor, the sarcasm, the over-friendliness (and sass) of employees at supermarkets and restaurants, and the smiles from strangers on the street. Not to mention the completely different dating scene—who knew that “We should get coffee sometime” was code for “Would you like to go on a date with me?” Back home, getting an espresso at a bar was part of our daily routine, and going with another person after classes or work was completely standard. So please, don’t assume that I want you just because I agreed to go pick up a beverage with you, thank you very much. And do not even get me started on the confusing world that is online dating. (What is the Tinder? The Bumble? I’m so confused!)


One of the most difficult things to get used to when communicating with Americans is the inches, ounces, degrees Fahrenheit ordeal. A current international freshman, Tina Wang, lamented: “Americans complain that it’s ‘so cold’ outside because it’s 30 degrees. Honey, if it were 30 degrees outside, I’d be wearing flip flops and shorts!” Similarly, when it’s -5 degrees Celsius, we international kids claim that the glacial temperature is “in the negatives,” which shocks and confuses Americans because -5 degrees Celsius is 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Consequently, we are greeted with “No, it can’t possibly be in the negatives!” and sometimes even an “Oh, stop exaggerating!” complete with an eye roll. In addition to measurements, there’s the complicated coin system that drives many of us insane. These little cultural differences easily pop up in conversation, and any miniscule slip up (“Which one is the dime? The nickel?”) results in a sympathetic look or a conversation about where exactly it is we’re from.


After numerous conversations like these, I wonder whether “an international” is all I am to people in this new country. An ambiguous-looking foreigner with an American accent who can’t name the states in the Midwest and who doesn’t think that a five-hour flight is long at all. It annoyed me that even after almost five months of being here, I was still being introduced to people as the “international friend” and getting quizzed about whether I rode a camel to school in Dubai or whether my house flooded in the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Would it ever stop?

A current international junior chuckled at my question, and told me that as time goes by, international students feel less and less like fish out of water. Accents tend to progressively sound less foreign, and even if they don’t, internationals get used to communicating with American units—inches, ounces, and Fahrenheit become part of our vocabulary. Though we’re far from home, we live the fantasies of many of our compatriots by attending an elite American university and getting the full “college experience.” We get to live the “American Dream,” but we also have the privilege of knowing a whole other culture and lifestyle that has inevitably made us who we are. So even though the first few months on campus bring up repetitive conversations filled with well-intentioned ignorance, it gets better. After all, we do have a lot in common with our fellow students—we’re all young, possibly lost, and trying to figure out our lives. All of us (with the exception of those who went to boarding school) moved away from home for the first time, and the shock of building our own tight daily schedules was universally experienced. The chaos of lecture classes, the foreign-sounding building names, and the inevitably long cafeteria lines were all something we had to get used to, and even after a semester and a quarter, our journey as newbies is far from over. But the world is our oyster, is it not?