Just the other morning, I woke up feeling my neck muscles sore and painful. I knew it was a problem with my pillow and my sleep position, and that this was a temporary discomfort for a day or two. I knew the Chinese words for this symptom; “But how do you say this in English?” I asked myself, and I did not know – I was not born and raised in the U.S., and English was not my first language.
I remember a story told by my internship supervisor who is a second-generation Korean American and speaks English fluently and without accent. He was a teaching assistant in graduate school, and at the beginning of each semester when he first walked into a new class, he could see the students’ shoulders slump and that they would roll their eyes as if to say “Oh great, another Asian guy who barely speaks English and I won’t be able to understand anything he’s saying”. Apparently, physical appearance alone was enough to sentence him. So here I am, nearly fifteen years after I came to the U.S., I still try very hard to know more about the culture(s) in this country so that I can better connect with my students; and I constantly ask myself: am I being understood in the classroom?
But this reflection is not about me. The reason I brought this up is because now I see more and more international students arriving on this campus. We can all cheer the success of our international education program for bringing in such wonderful diversity and cultural exposure to campus, but we should also admit that for many, if not all, of the international students, the struggle for academic success in a foreign country is painfully real. The international students I know all fall into two groups: some want to fit into this new society right away and so they want to be with American students all the time and completely submerge themselves into this brand new experience; others huddle together with their fellow countrymen, they speak their native language together, trying to hold on to their own culture, identity, or anything familiar in this brand new country. But either way it is not easy. I join a group of faculty to conduct a “faculty-led orientation for international students” each fall; and the first thing I say to the new students is that I admire their courage. The courage to leave home at such a young age to explore, to take care of everything by themselves including being able to tell the good influence from the bad influence in a foreign country; to wrestle with course content in a language that they haven’t mastered. They do all of these with family pressure/high expectations on their shoulders. And somehow they still carry a broad smile on their face and this polite, sometimes even timid attitude when they roam about this campus…
So please tell me that you are thinking what I am thinking: how can we help to ensure that their journey here is equally enlightening and pleasant as a college experience for an American student? What should we do to reduce the times that they have to second-doubt themselves simply because English was not their first language? Well, I cannot say that I have the perfect answer yet. After all, I myself still struggle and try to improve every day. But I do propose that we be more patient and understanding when we interact with international students in and out of the classroom. We could possibly take a few extra minutes to really get to know these students; gain their trust by expressing a real interest in learning about their home country; and accept the fact that people have very different study habits and cultural backgrounds. But their presence here is invaluable because they enrich our classroom and our community so much. Without them, my Boys and Girls Club activity would never include a Korean tofu dish; we would never be able to try authentic dishes from all over the world and get to know their cultures in “Taste of Nations” at the Mauthe center. A second language can be gained and improved over time, but cultural exposure and friendship and value for diversity is so much harder to get.