International students: living in two worlds

Graphic by Jenny Chung | Daily Trojan

During her first week at USC, Ana Lucia Rivera would introduce herself to people as just “Ana.” As a freshman international student from Honduras, she didn’t want people to deal with two names.

But Rivera, an international relations major, came to realize that her name wasn’t just “Ana,” and she didn’t need to sacrifice her identity just because she was in America.

“Every time I meet someone [now], I’m like, ‘My name is Ana Lucia,’” Rivera said.

In many ways, Rivera’s anecdote epitomizes the experience of an international student at any university in the country. It is the struggle to adapt to a new country, a new culture. It is the dilemma of whether to change your identity. It is the challenge to fit in while speaking a second language and moving away from home for the first time.

But it is especially true at USC, which enrolls among the most international students of any university in the country. This academic year, the University brought in its most diverse freshman class in history, with international students now comprising nearly a quarter of the student body. Sixteen percent of the incoming freshman class came from 50 different countries, a figure that rose 2 percent from the 2016 freshman unit. Prior to 2014, USC had been the most popular option for international students for 13 consecutive years, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At a school of 44,000, it’s easy for international students to get lost in the shuffle. And oftentimes, they are. USC has championed a culture of diversity, the various international flags hanging at the Von KleinSmid Center serving as a symbol of welcome. But at the personal level, it’s difficult to grasp how each international student will adapt to a campus,  country and  culture they may not have experienced before.

A different world

There is one similarity every international student shares upon entering the United States: culture shock.

A common trigger is the food. Rivera, who grew up in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, was accustomed to eating a heavy diet of beans, especially baleada, a classic Honduran dish. 

“I’m a freshman so I have to eat from the dining hall,” Rivera said. “It’s just eggs, bacon — the same thing.”

Another is football knowledge, or lack thereof. At a school where every Saturday of fall semester is centered around football games, many international students enter USC not knowing that football isn’t “soccer.” Xiaoyue Zhang, a senior from Shanghai double majoring in business administration and accounting, was one of them.

“At USC, people are really eager to talk about sports or football and stuff, and I had no clue what they were talking about the first few years,” Zhang said. “I think that’s common.”

Felix Tam, a junior majoring in  international relations and the global economy who grew up in Hong Kong, said he has a professor in his business law class who frequently brings up football during class, and it makes him feel out of place.

“He’s gone to every football game since he was a freshman,” Tam said. “Every time he talks about football so enthusiastically and the class echoes with him, I don’t feel like I’m a part of it.”

There are minor things, too, like greetings. In Honduras, Rivera was accustomed to saying “Good morning,” or “How are you doing?” to people all the time, whether she knew them or not.

“Here, people don’t really do that,” Rivera said. “When I go into any place, I’ve been inclined to do it, and some people won’t answer back. Some people will look at me like I’m weird.”

But ultimately, Tam has come to accept the cultural discrepancies, comparing it to a semester-long study abroad program, except for four years.

“I just kind of embraced the cultural shock,” Tam said. “It’s just something that every international student is going to experience. It’s tough for international students to integrate into the culture, but that’s one part that is inevitable. It’s also the reason why we came here.”

Language barrier

Rivera went to an American school in Honduras, one that taught classes in English. Having spoken the language her entire life, she felt confident with it coming into USC. But she only used English in academic settings, switching to Spanish whenever she talked to friends.

“I know what I want to say, but I know I can say it a lot better or faster in Spanish,” Rivera said. “So that’s been a huge difference, learning to just think in English and how to say things in English. I was very confident in my English skills before coming here, but I’ve become more self-conscious about what I’m saying and how I’m saying it.”

Conversational English takes some getting used to for international students. Tam, for instance, didn’t know what the phrase “I’m good” meant when he first arrived in the country. His resident assistant, sensing more questions, referred him to Urban Dictionary.

For others, the language barrier comes at an academic cost. Serphina Wang, a junior from Taiwan majoring in global business, said she sees fellow international students struggle in business classes.

“[Business classes are] very project-based,” Wang said. “I know a lot of Asians who aren’t familiar with it or struggle really hard to come up with something creative. It’s not really their fault; it’s just the way the education system is.”

This can result in international students not being able to showcase their talents to their professors. Zhang said that though her English is strong enough to get through academic work, she has friends who struggle to speak in class.

“They’re capable of doing stuff, but their speaking ability prevents them from looking smart when they are actually smart,” Zhang said.

Fitting in   

When Zhang received her roommate assignment for her freshman year, she could tell from the names that her suitemates were all Chinese. Immediately, she requested a reassignment, and wound up with a roommate from the United States.

“My parents paid so much money for me to experience a Western education,” Zhang said of her logic at the time. “I didn’t want to just go back to the circle I had in high school. I didn’t want to just hang with Chinese people without knowing, ‘What’s the life of Americans, or other international groups?’”

Tam had a similar viewpoint during his freshman year, when he lived in Fluor Tower and frequented Café 84, the former dining hall next to his building.

“There was always this group of mainland Chinese students, just occupying tables, speaking loudly in Mandarin every day, in the same spot,” Tam said. “I was always wondering why they came to the States for college, if they’re just hanging out with their friends from mainland [China].”

However, in reality, many international students are reticent to fully assimilate into American culture, to stray from their pack.

For freshmen like Rivera, surrounding themselves with people who speak the same language can serve as a comforting reminder of home. All her suitemates are from either Colombia or Mexico and speak Spanish, and she’s been able to connect with them from a cultural perspective.

“I can speak Spanish and express myself as I would and they’ll understand me perfectly,” Rivera said.

In retrospect, both Zhang and Tam don’t think that running from their cultures initially did much good.

“I realize now that your cultural identity isn’t something you can change,” Zhang said. “I wouldn’t say hanging with Chinese friends is a bad thing. Even now, after three-and-a-half years, most of my friends are still Chinese or ABCs [American-born Chinese]. I don’t feel easily connected to people who are not Asian.”

Tam, who is now part of the Hong Kong Student Association at USC, regrets not joining the organization earlier.

“My first year, I tried to really separate myself from the Hong Kong community,” he said. “I didn’t really reach out to them. I tried to put myself here and make friends with people from the States. That’s not really good because a balance is more important.”

“That first friend”

The first resident who approached Thomas Finn, a junior majoring in computer engineering and computer science and a resident assistant at Parkside International Residential College, was an international student from Beijing.

“She didn’t know the norms of carrying money around,” Finn said. “None of the dining halls were open, so I took her out to eat. She only had a bunch of $100 bills. I said, ‘OK, in an area like this, you shouldn’t be carrying this much money.’”

It’s advice like this from resident assistants that can serve as valuable lessons for international students, who may not be aware of certain societal customs.

“My job is being that first friend that they have, being someone they can talk to if they get worried or afraid,” Finn said.

But Wang said her resident assistant freshman year did not seem to grasp what she was going through.

“Most RAs are Americans,” Wang said. “A lot of times, they’re not necessarily aware of what other cultures are. My freshman year RA … didn’t really understand the struggles of international students.”

However, this experience  varies by building, and by person. At Parkside, a majority of Finn’s residents are international students. He makes a concerted effort to get to know them, learning their names in their native language, picking up a bit of their language in the process.

One of his suites is split half-and-half between international and non-international students. So Finn played icebreakers with them and helped them talk to each other, eventually getting them to bond through a common interest: K-Pop.

Finn admitted it’s difficult to convince international students to come to residential education events. But his main goal remains making sure they are comfortable and happy.

“I want them to have that college experience regardless of where they’re from,” Finn said. “I don’t want them to feel alone. Every freshman will feel that, but being an international student ups that factor.”

What can USC do?

The Office of International Services, which declined to be interviewed, serves as the official on-campus organization for international students. It helps students with logistics such as obtaining visas and checking their work statuses.

There is also the International Student Assembly, which provides funding for the 20 member organizations, such as the Hong Kong Student Association, under its umbrella. As ISA’s assistant director, Zhang is working with OIS to be more proactive with assisting international students.

“OIS is predominantly right now just providing visa consultation to students,” Zhang said. “We want to make it more resourceful and have more outreach, even provide it more space for international students to chill and rest.”

The ISA itself is also attempting to connect the international student assembly. It has a mentorship program where freshmen or transfer students are paired with more experienced students, who act as a cultural guide of sorts. There are also various workshops that include “Football 101,” where students can familiarize themselves with the game, as well as a “Driving 101” workshop.

“We are a bridge between the school administration and staff and the student body,” Zhang said. “We do both event and advocacy work for international students.”

Still, no matter how fluent their English is or how many local friends they have, they are still international students, with a label attached to them, and a prevailing sense of uncertainty over their identity.

For Wang, her situation is hard to grasp. She was born in California and has a USC alumnus as a father, but moved to Taiwan as a toddler and grew up overseas. Yet, she exemplifies what it means to be an international student.

“I’m in two worlds, and I’m trying to get the best out of it,” Wang said. “I can’t answer what it’s like.”

1 reply
  1. Lance
    Lance says:

    Wonderful insight about why being an international student away from home is difficult, compounded by our complex culture and language problems. Welcoming and assimilation assistance must come from numerous sources to aid these young people embarking on life’s journey. Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments, immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow students, and even informative books to extend a cultural helping hand so we all have a win-win situation.
    Something that might help anyone coming to the US is the award-winning worldwide book/ebook “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” Used in foreign Fulbright student programs and endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it identifies how “foreigners” have become successful in the US, including students.
    A chapter on education explains how to cope with a confusing new culture and friendship process, and daunting classroom differences. It explains how US businesses operate and how to get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to work with/for an American firm here or overseas.
    It also identifies the most common English grammar and speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.
    Good luck to all at USC or wherever you study or wherever you come from, because that is the TRUE spirit of the American PEOPLE, not a few in government who shout the loudest!

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