It occurred to me recently as I was sitting around the table having lunch in between classes that the vast majority of my friends in college are international students. Now, this is not to say I had been living in oblivion about this fact all this time, but rather I came to the realization that I ought to think critically about how and why this had happened.
It is, I think, a natural reaction for a person to gravitate towards the familiar when they are placed in an environment that highlights their exoticism. Being immersed in a new culture can provoke an inward obsession with identity. You begin to question who you are among those in your new environment, what you are doing there and the extent of your relevance. Suddenly, you begin to view the world through a completely different prism, one which highlights your differences and sobers you up to the fact that there is a rift between what you have always known and what you must now quickly learn in order to behave appropriately in a new society.
I do, of course have a number of American friends, but they are disproportionately outnumbered by my international student friends. I have found it useful to try to understand what led to this and have come up with a number of reasons :
1) Complexity of understanding a new culture
Culture is a complex thing. There are many dimensions of it that one needs to comprehend before they can claim to have mastered it, and many of them are subtle.
American culture is no exception. Speaking English well and familiarizing yourself with the geography of a place is not enough to lay claim to being an expert on American culture. You need to understand subtleties in conversation, behavior, humor, irony, and the unwritten rules of engagement, among many other things.
It goes beyond cultural understanding into what I like to think of as cultural interpretation/translation.
The concept of friendship in the U.S. is fluid and dynamic. Unlike friendships in other parts of the world, friendship in America can assume various gradients of depth and commitment, yet still be deemed as friendship. A person you say hi to occasionally can be labeled a friend. A person you collaborate with on one class project can be a “friend.”
This is a great departure from what friendship entailed back in Zimbabwe. There friendship was reserved for relationships with greater devotion and a more substantial connection, which appear to not be a requisite elements of friendship in the States.
3) Existing in different paradigms
Americans exist in a different social paradigm than the one people from certain other parts of the world exist in. This is a social orbit that can be hard to reach and access from the position of an outsider. Americans care about different things, enjoy different things, and are preoccupied with different ideas. Thus, I tend to find the experiences of international students more relatable and contextually accessible.
Like myself, many internationals come from third world countries, and many have therefore been confronted with socioeconomic barriers at some point in their lives. Among us there is a strong and universal consciousness of and sensitivity to struggle and hardship.
In my conversations with other international students we also discover strikingly similar things that stir nostalgia in us – food, tropical climates, an obsession with cricket and soccer, mother languages, the metric system and parliamentary governments – all of which draw vacant stares and confused expressions from Americans. There is a camaraderie in these seemingly trivial things that authenticates and strengthens friendship.
Of course this is not to say strong friendships cannot be formed with Americans, and neither is it meant to imply that Americans cannot also relate to these things. As one of my favorite African authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, there is never a single story about a place or a person. Therefore, in order to meaningfully understand others, we must allow ourselves to empathize with the stories that collided to make them view the world through the lenses they use. It may require us to momentarily step away from our parochial convictions of what we imagine people to be and allow real life experiences, not pre-conceived notions, to refurbish our attitudes.
So I have set before myself the mission of befriending more Americans. I feel, for my sake, that I should definitely make a more concerted effort to both gain and impart cultural awareness through friendships with my American classmates. Not only will it broaden the scope of my understanding of the world, but it will better equip me to navigate the complex new society in which I now find myself a part.