Being an International Student Who Rejects Self-Segregation Sucks

Being an international sucks. Being Chinese sucks even more, because if you are French or Russian you are exotic but if you are Chinese you are just everywhere. People can't even distinguish your face from the sea of Asian faces. It's not impressive that you can speak Chinese when half of the people in a given room can speak Chinese.

Though there is hardly any prejudice or discrimination against me(some people are extra accommodating to me because I'm international), it's so hard to establish meaningful connections with people. Conversations will last no more than three sentences: "where are you from?" "China." "Oh. Cool." I'm having bagels, doughnuts, cereals, jelly beans, huge cookies and smoothies for the first time. I'm constantly asking questions like “is this pepperoni”, “what’s cross-country” and “is New Mexico a state”. Sometimes I could not contribute to conversations large--because I'm not confident about my English--or small--because I don't understand cultural allusions like “muffin man” and “pimp cane”--beyond expressing my frustration and cluelessness of the situation. The only way people would find me interesting is when I ask dumb questions like "what are jelly beans."

I don't know if people would take me seriously when I don't even know the basics of American culture. People would assume I don't know American culture or history and brush my opinions off by saying, "oh you probably don't know this part of American history." For example, I mentioned the Black Panther Movement in a discussion about race, and someone said "you brought it up because you don't know much about it.", which bothered me because I took U.S. History in high school and did know something about it. While it's true that I might not know about many aspects of American culture, it's still frustrating that people just assume my lack of knowledge and think my opinion does not matter.

Sometimes just sitting with a group of people intimidates me because I can't understand the conversation or I can't pick up the cultural cues like when to laugh, when to offer comfort and support, when to express appreciation, when to high-five or when to hug. I don't want to be perceived as being an anti-social, anti-fun loner who never talks in a group setting. I don't know if I'll ever learn those American ways. I don't even know if I want to. It takes an immense amount of effort to talk to even an acquaintance, not to mention strangers; I would feel tired and relived afterwards. Sometimes I just want to put my earphones on and listen to great Chinese music and shrink into my Chinese self, and then beautiful memories would rush into my mind. Looking back is not how you learn though, at least for college students. They are always telling us that we need to step out of our comfort zone and have our perspectives and values challenged. One thing all internationals know is that we have to take initiatives to meet Americans because Americans won't come to us. I know I'm supposed to embrace American culture, engage with Americans and get out of my comfort zone. But it's hard.

Of course, all these wouldn't be problems if I just hang out with Chinese students, which most Chinese students do because it does not take effort: they can usually understand each other pretty well. Before I came to Duke, I knew that Chinese students usually only hang out with Chinese students. I thought I was not going to do that because I did want a diverse experience. I also learned Duke students tend to self-segregate. I thought self-segregation was wrong and even racist. I thought making friends with Asian Americans and African Americans would be equally easy(or difficult) but it wasn’t. Although Asians have different personalities and interests, we still have a lot in common, such as our parents’ expectations, cultural heritage and academic pursuits. I usually feel more comfortable talking with Asians because they understand what being Asian and having Asian heritage are all about. Having a meaningful, interesting conversation with whites and blacks takes a lot more effort, although after the effort has been made, I usually feel glad that I tried to connect with them.

Finding someone that clicks for us is such a rare and precious occurrence that we can't afford to take factors like nationality, ethnicity or race into account. We all want to be with people who share our interests and temperaments and therefore can understand us, and even though they sometimes (or most of the time) turn out to be people of the same nationality or race as us, it's okay. Shared background, experiences or interests are the foundation of most friendships. Close friendships are essential to everyone. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to broaden and diversify our experience. Self-segregation may be easy and comfortable, but it's by no means "good". During the chautauqua lecture on race, I asked Prof. Lee Baker his thoughts on self-segregation at Duke. He said although it's almost a natural thing to do, people are not challenging themselves enough, and that studies have shown that people who challenge themselves by surrounding themselves with people from diverse backgrounds tend to be more successful. Getting out of our comfort zone and engaging with diverse groups of people benefit us the way college diversity websites say they do: diverse perspectives, which affect directly the creation of knowledge, are the cornerstone of all educational and professional experiences. Students discuss their varying viewpoints and learn from one another's unique perspective, which fuels intellectual energy and innovation. It sounds cheesy but it's probably true.

The key thing for all of us--not just international students--to figure out, is how to maintain a balance between comfort and discomfort, between being ourselves and pushing ourselves, between doing familiar things, meeting similar people and trying new things, meeting new people. We are told to be ourselves and not pretend to be who we are not. We are also told to go out of our comfort zone and challenges ourselves. The key here is that who we are and what we are comfortable with are constantly changing, and they would change faster if we proactively expose ourselves to challenges.

By: Clockwork Strawberry