College orientation was a time to unpack the bedroom that you somehow managed to fit on the plane, a time to make the friends you’ll probably never see again, and a time to celebrate your newfound freedom away from the confines of your past. With that said, Orientation was also a time to become completely disoriented – a nasty irony. No matter where we hail from, be it a ten minute stroll from campus or, if you’re like me, a sixteen hour journey across the globe, we will inevitably face those moments of consternation that make us question that decision we very eagerly made – and announced proudly on social media – those months ago.
Yet, international students seem to have that extra hurdle to jump over when it comes to this new life that hasn’t really started. It’s not merely the temporal adjustments international students have to combat, such as the eight to sixteen hour flights, or the six to twelve hour time differences that make jet lag sound as excruciating as it really is. Psychologically, it’s the short-term culture shock they have to overcome in a mere week – usually with success, but nonetheless an existing obstacle.
For starters, there is a notion of false excitement instilled not in the international students, but in the peers they meet in the week of Orientation – henceforth, (dis)Orientation. Be it China or Jamaica or Morocco, there are always these little misconceptions and stereotypes that immediately turn small talk into something profoundly personal. It doesn’t matter if these are meant to be positive, because the direct result is a false understanding of who we are based on our so-called origins. Wow, Hong Kong? Does that mean you’re planning to major in Economics or take a pre-Business track? India! How exotic! Do you drink a lot of tea in England like they say they do? Just humor me. Perhaps the one that hits some of us hardest: Damn, how do you speak English so well? I guess it’s because I’ve watched a significant amount of television as a kid? Seriously, we don’t mind explaining – it instils in us that pride.
The (stereotypically) collegiate goal of “being yourself” is even more difficult when it comes to socializing. With less than 10% of students in Class of 2018 being international students at both Columbia and Barnard, we don’t have the most ragingly diverse student bodies at a global level. Although I wouldn’t say that non-international students dominate our student populations, I would argue that social encounters are still subtly Americanized. This is especially evident in the different senses of humor across the various cultures. Certainly, it’s not always a matter of sensitivity to a particular subject matter; it is instead dependent on who is able to establish him or herself to be crowned Funniest Kid at (dis)Orientation. Ultimately, it’s not that the joke is not funny; it’s that the joke is not funny here. This probably why some international students like me end up coming off as shy, when we are instead absorbing our atmosphere through the foreign humor coming into our ears.
However, it’s never abysmal in the first and, more importantly, unofficial week at an unfamiliar place. We can subconsciously convince ourselves that settling in is somewhat significantly more difficult for us, especially when homesickness takes its toll. At the end of the day, however, we’re all on the same boat, and these qualms will no longer be relative.
Although being an international student is, needless to say, never the easiest thing to handle during (dis)Orientation alone, it still has its perks: there are underlying positives in these difficulties that international students may not acknowledge immediately – especially not in the very first week of (dis)Orientation. Regardless, international students carry that one thing that can be a huge asset: unfamiliarity. Like those of varying religions or sexual preferences, international students carry unknown perspectives as well. Many of these viewpoints are derived from our heritages, cultures and teachings – some of which may be morally different or simply obscure to the listeners. Thus, there is no reason to be shy, when what we’re contributing is a whole new learning experience for both our peers and ourselves.
In the end, that’s the beauty of being from another continent.
Special Thanks to both Barnard College’s Office for International and Intercultural Student Programs and my fellow peers representing countries worldwide for contributing responses – i.e. answering my questions after much pestering – to the research that culminated this piece.