Dear international student ...
I’m from a small town near Johannesburg, South Africa. When I knew I was coming to the United States for college, I had some ideas about what life would be like. But there were several aspects that truly caught me by surprise.
For my fellow international students, or anyone else curious about American culture, here a few things that made me laugh, smile or shake my head.
Growing up, I watched hundreds of American movies. Among the many themes and patterns, there’s one in particular that always stood out to me: movie references.
Two characters meet on a train or at a party. To break the ice, the first character opens the conversation with a movie or book reference. Somehow the second character, a complete stranger, always knows the exact reference!
Being from a different culture, this seemed super cheesy and unrealistic ... until I came to America. Picture me now at Skidmore, rushing to get somewhere when, from a stranger I hear, “Run, Forrest, run!” Completely stopped by the absurdity of it, I can’t help but laugh.
I guess once you’re in America, you may find yourself saying, “Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”
I come from a country that believes in Ubuntu, “I am because you are,” so I’m no stranger to care from my community. But my understanding of kindness reached superhero levels when I came to Skidmore.
Here, people hold doors open not just for the next person, but for the next and the next and the next.
My professors emphasize mutual respect and that we are whole people with different life experiences.
Bosses, managers and even the people who make my lunch go out of their way to say, “Hey NK, how is your day going?” But even more remarkable is that they also ask, “How are you feeling?” and “Is everything going OK?” They go deeper than courtesies.
It’s not that other countries in the world are full of rude people with no hospitality, but the rumors are true: Americans smile more, and people here really do care.
My time here wouldn’t nearly as beautiful if it weren’t for the people who shared their kindness.
Familiarity with adults
At home, we are taught to preface names with “Sisi” (sister) or “Bhuti” (brother) when talking to or referring to someone who is older than you. Growing up, I never knew my parents’ or grandparents’ first names because we just call them by their titles.
Because of this, it was initially strange and uncomfortable when professors introduced themselves by their first names.
But these days I find myself saying, “Hi, Peter!” when greeting my professor and it doesn’t feel as foreign as it used to.
So many options
I remember seeing grocery stores in movies and I was super excited to go to Walmart. But let me put it directly: I had no idea how big Walmart actually is. It’s enormous. Huge. You can get lost.
I still get overwhelmed with the options on the shelves. My friends lament bringing me along because I simply cannot choose from the 30 different cereal boxes or the 15 different Oreo flavors.
Don’t get me wrong, having 15 different Oreo flavors is pretty exciting and I can personally attest to trying each and every one. But sometimes I do miss simpler days without decision fatigue.
Fear not though, soon you’ll be an expert empowered by your choices, and Oreo thins will (maybe) start to make sense.
No metric system
We all know America doesn’t use the metric system. It’s like America 101. But I was surprised by how much of a role it would play in my experience here.
I honestly couldn’t wait to get here to find out how tall I am in feet and inches. Maybe it's silly, but there is something cooler about saying “I am 5 feet, 3 inches tall,” than saying, “I am 1.6 meters tall.”
Regardless of how cool it sounds, I still get confused. My mind still operates in meters and I have built-in metric-based mental pictures for what sizes are like.
For example, I know what a 2.2-meter-tall person looks like. I have no reference for a 6-foot-tall person. And don’t even get me started when you say your suitcase weighs 50 pounds.
You can survive without mastering the system here, but you can’t survive without learning that people drive on the other side of the road. That one is a necessity.
Life in America
My time at Skidmore has brought about some of the most incredible and most challenging moments of my life thus far. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone. Skidmore’s international student community is a family of brothers and sisters.
And we all laugh together when our dear American friends sign off by saying, “May the force be with you.”