Three years ago when I just entered Vassar, I had no idea how to initiate a conversation with anyone. During international orientation, I saw other international students so busily exchanging conversations with people sitting next to them, while couldn’t even spare a second to eat the breakfast bagel on their plate. During the actual orientation with my student fellow group, I saw them laughing together, telling jokes I couldn’t understand. In the beginning, I seldom spoke anything in these settings, besides the rare occasions when one kind person at the table noticed my presence and directly asked me something.
It would be a lie to say that I’ve never gotten anxious because of those social situations. However, I have always known that as a huge introvert, it takes me a lot longer to make friends and to get comfortable with people. So I gradually made efforts and waited. Despite my discomfort and self-doubt, I still pushed myself to go to student fellow group dinners, show up to org meetings, and try out new things that I’ve always wanted to do. In my psychology classes, we’ve talked about how the American culture seems to value extraversion more than introversion. I think it is only true to some extent. I agree that it might be easier for extraverts, or for people coming from similar cultural background, to find connections and friendships at first. But everyone has their advantages. As an introvert, I am also a better observer and listener. I don’t just passively sit there, instead, I give nods or facial responses to the stories others are telling. Gradually, people around me start to value my presence, because of my personality, or purely because of the “mere exposure effect” where they are used to seeing me very often.
Naturally, things got a little bit better in my sophomore year. During the first semester of my sophomore year, I took a class named Emotional Engagement with Film. Being the only international in the class, and of course, the only one who understands Mandarin, I was so excited to see that we will be watching and discussing a Chinese film. I expected that week to be when I could show off my culture and knowledge. I even mentioned it to my major advisor, whom I was not very close with at the time, during office hour, implying that I would be able to contribute so much to class discussion. However, during the class period when we were actually discussing the film, I could not bring myself to speak a single word. I suddenly became so afraid to bring attention to my identity, and was overwhelmed by the feeling of watching something that resembles home so much with such unfamiliar people. I also realized that even as a Chinese, there were so many backgrounds and implications of this film that I never knew of. Sitting there quietly wishing no one to recognize my existence, I was also amazed by how knowledgeable my professors are.
The story I am standing here telling today does not include any magical turning point when I had a sudden realization of the need to represent my own culture, or a moment when I finally start to feel at ease being myself on Vassar campus. On the contrary, I believe that as an international student studying in the US, there are, and will be constant moments of confusion, embarrassments, feelings of not belong, feelings of existing between worlds. I still feel left out in my film classes when my classmates start giving examples of American TV shows that I’ve never heard of. I still have American friends showing disbelief and shock when I told them I’ve never watched certain famous Tiktok video. I still feel bad and homesick when all of my fellow performers in the music department recitals have family members coming to watch.
But that’s okay. A good professor would understand your relative ignorance of American culture and appreciate your genuine interest in learning more and trying to bring in different perspectives. A good friend would be willing to explain to you things you don’t know, and able to accept that you might not find it as interesting as they do. And for the part about homesick, just remind yourself that you have OIS, the international family that is so unique and unimaginable to most people.
Encountering cultural barriers, to me, is not a choice between either showing off “my” culture, or assimilating to “their” culture. There are spaces in between, where we could just naturally go with the flow, go out of your comfort zone and let all the feelings and uneasiness kick in. That is what we signed up for being an international student, and those complex emotions are our wealth. As long as we are kind people, we will find our place, if we give it time.