Unfortunate cultural barriers exist at Williams

On an extremely hot and stifling afternoon of August 31, 1999, after a flight of more than 20 hours (followed by two more), I finally landed in America. But the dreamland of millions of people did not look very good to me: the heat and burning sunlight, the shabbiness of the Detroit Airport, the “impressive” cashier in the airport cafeteria who looked at me as if I were retarded when I did not know which one of coins was a nickel.

Yet not far away, just another two-hour flight, from the Detroit Airport, everything seemed to be totally different. I met other students who arrived at Albany on that day, greeted warmly by the “Airport Ambassadors” of the College, and came to my warm little Sewall House with my very nice housemate. My life was full of hope again. I thought that all the talk about racial/social discrimination in America was not true. And this was reinforced by my immersion in the International Student Orientation Program and First Days. Everybody was so nice and helpful, regardless of the fact that I was a complete foreigner.

Nevertheless, after everyone became immersed in the hustle and bustle of life, things looked a little not so nice again. I eventually experienced “cultural shock” and confronted “cultural barriers.” I also realized that it was no use to deny the existence of an invisible wall between “foreigners” and “Americans.” (These two words are in quotes because I still think that the word “Americans” refers to the indigenous people, because the people who immigrated to this continent a few hundred years ago were/are actually also foreigners.)

I remembered sharing with other foreign students our difficulties in becoming friends with Americans, especially because of the language problems, and the fact that Americans talked and appeared as if they had known each other for three years when they actually had just met three seconds beforehand. I also remembered how hard I tried to convince myself and my mom that there was no such thing as a “cultural barrier” in the world; I soon realized that I was deceiving myself.

I think maybe some Americans also thought that I was inapproachable too. I might look disinterested and/or dumb to some. I admit that sometimes I am very quiet, and sometimes I do not laugh at the same time as everyone else. But I do not mean to be cold. For most of the time, especially in the beginning of the first semester, it was because I did not understand the conversation or I did not how to respond (in English, of course, you know). It was certainly my fault that after studying English for so many years, my English proficiency was still so low. Yet, there is something that I could not blame myself for – the cultural difference. So I decided that I was not going to feel bad about not knowing the names of American television stars, and not being able to laugh together with the background laughter when I watch Friends (which is a rare occasion anyway).

This same discourse and struggle probably took place in the minds of many other foreign students. Whether or not to adapt to “the American way” is definitely no small issue to us. For me, it is a relatively easy choice, as I am here only for one year. For other students who will spend four years studying at this college and maybe work in America after graduation, the choice might be hard. I do not think retaining our own cultural differences is better than learning from Americans or vice versa; it is certainly a personal choice and nobody should judge one for it.

All I want to say is that it is a challenge for me to enter and find myself comfortable in American society. I might look indifferent sometimes, but I did fall in love with the beautiful snow and natural environment. And I would like to love the people too. Please understand.

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