Interesting Tidbit of American Culture: Yelling ‘Play Freebird’ at a Concert

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Not so free bird?

Not so free bird?

If you go to enough concerts in the U.S., eventually you will hear it.  It will probably be towards the end of the night, as the band is winding up, maybe trying to decide what to play for their final song.  And then someone will yell out,  ”Play Freebird!”

The response from the other concert-goers will vary.  Some may join in, others may snicker, and still others may sigh at hearing the overused trope.  But what does “Play Freebird!” mean?

“Freebird” is a 1973 song by southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, who are probably best-known for their anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”  ”Freebird” hit the top 40, and has been voted as having one of the best guitar solos of all time.

The phrase’s first use, understandably, was to request the song.  On a 1976 Lynyrd Skynyrd live recording, the lead singer asks the audience what song they want to hear, and they shout back, “Freebird!” (the band obliges).

Today, however, “Play Freebird!” is yelled at bands who almost certainly don’t have “Freebird” in their repertoire, with no intention that the band treat the exclamation as a request.

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He Who Gives His All: Andreas’s Story of Applying for the CCI Program

by Guest Post - Posts (66). Posted Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Man Jadda Wajadda – he who gives his all will surely succeed. Through this Arabic phrase, I finally reached my dream to study in the U.S. After a long selection process, on August 2, 2011, I went to Atlanta, Georgia as a Community College Initiative (CCI) student.

This was how Andreas started his story of studying in the Community College Initiative (CCI) program.  He had written in to talk about his year studying in Madison, Wisconsin, which he called a “once in a lifetime experience.”  According to Andreas, he got this opportunity by adhering to a simple formula: “Dream + Effort = Reality!” But  the “Effort” part of that formula wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds.  He explained:

I knew about the CCI program from my best friend who got this scholarship. After seeing my friend’s pictures in the U.S. on Facebook, I told myself that I had to go the U.S. too. I began to search for as much information as I could from Google and my friend.

I realized my English was not good enough, so I took an English course for three months, three times a week, as my preparation for the TOEFL test. Although I had taken the course, I failed the TOEFL test two times. I had to get minimum score of 500 to apply for CCI program, but my score was just 417 and 473.

Then, I tried another way to improve my English. I bought a TOEFL test preparation book and forced myself to answer 10-20 questions each day before my next TOEFL test. Finally, my effort went great! I got more than 500 for my TOEFL test.

I applied to the CCI program in October 2010, because the deadline was November 1, 2010. It was a great moment when they contacted me in early December to say that I passed the document selection and they wanted me to do an interview.

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The US in Words #6: Pinned Down (How I Discovered my Own Identity)

by Paula - Posts (11). Posted Monday, January 14th, 2013 at 10:59 pm

The sixth in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms.  View previous entries.

To pin (something/someone) down = to get exact or specific information on/from

There were a few things I was sure I was before coming to the United States: blond, big, and Uruguayan. However, all of these things, which were part of my identity, seemed to blur and fade upon my arrival here.

The first time I ever stopped to think consciously about fitting my ethnicity and skin color into a category was on the plane from Uruguay to Miami, when I was asked to fill out a customs form (if you ever travel to the U.S., you will have to fill in one of those). It gave me options for Latina, Hispanic or White. I didn’t know which to pick and eventually made a random decision to placate a less-than-patient agent at the airport.

After having been in this country for about five months, I have since given the question a lot more thought than I ever thought I would.

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7 Free Online Events for International Students Jan. 14-18

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, January 12th, 2013 at 1:02 am

After a long break for the holidays, online events are back! As usual, we’ve scoured the internet to find upcoming free webinars and other events of interest to anyone who wants to study in the U.S.  This week: two events for TOEFL-takers, plus events for undergraduate and graduate applicants.

If you attend any of these events, report back and let us know what you learned! (Use the comments, the Facebook page or just email me – jstahl@voanews.com). And please share any online events you’ve found that we haven’t.

January 14

IIE: Getting Acquainted with the TOEFL iBT
More details: http://toeflibtmexico.blogspot.com/2012/12/toefl-ibt-webinars-for-january-2013.html 

Kaplan: Graduate School Personal Statement Workshop
9pm US eastern time
More details: http://www.kaptest.com/enroll/GRE/online/events 

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When Your Race Is Not the Only Race: An Education in Diversity

by ZitaMF - Posts (4). Posted Thursday, January 10th, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Students wearing Columbia University sweatshirts. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user airsoenxen

A multicolored student body (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user airsoenxen)

Being in a multiracial environment changes how you view yourself and the world. Whatever your race is, when you are surrounded by people of another race, you become more aware of your color, your looks, your accent, and the people who you ‘belong to.

You start to see that the world is divided by subtle differences, study then learn to acknowledge those differences, and eventually start to appreciate the great diversity that surrounds you.

Growing up, I was only exposed to people of white skin. I had barely even met people of another color. One of my main motivations for studying in the United States was the multiracial environment the country offers, which I knew would be a new kind of challenge. I was looking forward to getting a better understanding of how different races interact, and seeing how I would react in a multiracial environment. And while I knew this could mean seeing negative examples of race relations as well, I didn’t really have an idea beyond what I had seen in media of how racism manifests.

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Silence is Stronger Than Hate Speech

by Phillip Dube - Posts (4). Posted Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Phillip vow of silence

I never expected to be a victim of hate speech at a progressive institution like Bates College.  I had heard hate speech before – “Bitch!” “Fag!” “Nigger!” “Cracker!” – but it was always something people shrugged off, convincing ourselves it was okay because we did not want to speak up.  It was a traumatizing experience when, for the first time in my short life, someone used a racial slur directly at me.

It was a Saturday night and my roommates and I were chatting when a young lady walked into our room. I had seen her at one of the many orientation programs for incoming students and we sometimes hung out on her floor. Except for those encounters and the occasional hellos we exchanged around campus, I did not know her. She waved hello to us from the doorway and then closed the door to our room to chat to her friends who were outside.

A few seconds later, I laughed at something one of my roommates had said and I guess she thought I was laughing at her because she walked back into the room, looked at me, and asked, “Why are you laughing, nigger?”

It took my mind a few seconds to process what had happened. Then it registered. She had used a racial slur and it was directed to me. Realizing the gravity of the matter, her girlfriends forcefully pulled her out of our room. I was left upset and confused.

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Hook Up Culture in the US: Encountering it and Navigating It

by Yu - Posts (3). Posted Tuesday, January 8th, 2013 at 6:30 am

There’s something that tends to happen every Saturday morning in my house.

In our respective rooms, we wake up early, usually to the sound of one another’s stirrings. Someone goes to the bathroom, brushes his or her teeth, starts to get ready. Eventually, when we’re all awake and have our doors open, one of us will emerge, hair tousled, eyes lidded with sleep, and say, “So, how was your night?”

Although my housemates and I usually begin our evenings at the same party, we often drift off our own ways, either to other parties, back to our rooms, or to other people’s rooms. Asking what happened last night is the process of filling in the gaps, and our answers vary: sometimes we’ll talk about who we hung out with or ran into, and sometimes we’ll talk about who we hooked up with.

[International student opinions on partying at U.S. colleges]

It’s funny to think that hooking up – something that now seems so ordinary and so ingrained in my university’s party culture – used to be wholly unfamiliar to me. Prior to coming to the U.S., I had never heard or known of the concept.

A completely different culture

I grew up in a culture where sex definitely happened, but was never discussed. You didn’t talk about sex or physical desires, and you never saw any hints of it on TV or the media.

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New in the Glossary of Confusing Words: Seminary

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Monday, January 7th, 2013 at 3:48 pm

dictionary and thesaurusIt’s been a while since we had a new entry in the Glossary of Confusing Words, but we’re finally back on the case with a great suggestion from Muhammad: seminary.

Muhammad asked:

Under which category a seminary can be placed: college, university, institute, etc?

First of all, you may remember from our previous discussions of the words “college” and “university” that there is no official difference between these terms.  Dartmouth College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Princeton University all offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. However, you’ll often see “college” used to describe undergraduate programs, while “university” is used to describe schools that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees, or only graduate degrees.

A seminary is an institution of higher education focused on theology (the study and practice of religion).  Most seminaries are graduate-level schools offering master’s degrees, particularly the Master of Divinity.  Seminaries also usually offer academic M.A. degrees in fields related to religion.

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The U.S. in Words #5: Like Apples and Oranges (Learning to Greet Americans)

by Paula - Posts (11). Posted Saturday, January 5th, 2013 at 9:00 am

The fifth in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms.  View previous entries.

Like apples and oranges = completely different from each other, not comparable

How to say hello? Maybe with a sign!

One thing I was confident about before I arrived in the U.S. was that I knew how to greet people there.I come from a Latin American country where we keep a very close physical distance, we touch and hug continuously, and kiss hello, even with a person we’ve just met. I was prepared to curb that practice in the U.S. and was sure I’d greet Americans with a wave and a light-hearted, “Hi.”

But oh, did I find unexpected scenarios!

Since I arrived, I’ve been able to pick up on a lot of the common greeting patterns, like shaking hands with people I’m being introduced to and answering “I’m good” instead of the long-practiced “fine, thanks.”

But it turns out there are lots of greeting patterns, and deciding which one to use can be curious and confusing. Some people you’ve met a couple of times, or even your friends, will go for the smile and “Hi,” but others will give you the typical “American hug” and some even kiss!

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Top Posts of 2012 #1: Taking Responsibility is the Key to Academic Success

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Sunday, December 30th, 2012 at 7:05 pm

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

#1
The Best Advice I Ever Got For Writing in English: “Treat the Professors Like Idiots”
By Sunny Peng

Our top post for 2012 was also one of best revelations we’ve ever had on the blog. It was Sunny’s recounting of a piece of advice she got during her freshman year: “… to treat the professors like idiots …”

Read it: “The Best Advice I Ever Got For Writing in English: ‘Treat the Professors Like Idiots’

Lots of reading!

Creative Commons Photo: Stephanie Graves

“In my first semester,” Sunny explained, “I would always receive comments on my papers like, ‘Try to be more clear (explicit),’ no matter how clear and explicit I thought my papers were.”

A savvy teaching assistant eventually helped her figure out the problem:

My high school Chinese teacher always reminded us to not tell readers everything, but rather to leave space for their “reconstruction” of our words. This does not work in the U.S., where you are expected to be very explicit in making your arguments and not make assumptions without fully explaining them.

Or, as her TA put it, in what Sunny described as a “very blunt and funny way,” she needed “to treat the professors like idiots, and explain everything very clearly to them in my essays.”

This idea generated a lot of discussion among our readers. Some commenters suggested that Americans may be trying to avoid critical thinking, but Sunny countered that “critical thinking is one of the most important things I have been learning from Americans.”

Commenter Dana eventually explained, “It is precisely because they *do* apply critical thinking skills to what they read that most Americans tend to prefer that writing be more direct.”

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Top Posts of 2012 #2: Keeping Standardized Tests in Perspective

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Sunday, December 30th, 2012 at 11:08 am

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

#2
Why a Weak SAT Score Didn’t Kill My College Dreams
by Phillip Dube

It’s not that standardized test scores, like the SAT or GRE, aren’t important, it’s just that they don’t have to make or break your college dreams. That’s what Phillip concluded in his post about what happened when his SAT scores didn’t meet his expectations.

Read it: “Why a Weak SAT Score Didn’t Kill My College Dreams

“I thought it was unfair for my college preparedness to be judged on the four hours of mental torture that is the SAT, and on a test result that belied my actual abilities,” he wrote.

My high school transcript was stellar, my essays were well-written (so said my EducationUSA advisor), and I had dedicated a lot of effort and energy to making my community a better place.

I don’t know for sure that my SAT score is what hurt my Amherst application, but I felt that surely all those achievements were worth something. Did they not reflect my potential to succeed at an American college better than the SAT exam?

Phillip eventually applied and was admitted to a test-optional school that didn’t require him to submit an SAT or ACT score at all.  ”Without the option of leaving that score off my application …, I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to study here,” he said.

It’s good news for anyone whose test day didn’t go exactly as they had planned. Anyone like Shree, who chronicled his disappointing SAT experience in one of our most unique posts of 2012.

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Top Posts of 2012 #3: The Cultural Nuances of Language

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, December 29th, 2012 at 4:28 pm

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

#3
The ‘Wrong’ Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’
by Zita MF 

Do you know how to answer when an American asks, “How are you?” Zita discussed the slightly confusing protocol in another post that garnered quite a bit of attention in 2012.

English spoken here

Photo by Nick Hoang

It’s not a real question, she explained. “I’m expected to respond, ‘Good’ or ‘Fine,’ and ask the other person how they are, to which they will also respond, ‘Good.’”

Read it: “The Wrong Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’

“To this day, this style of greeting strikes me as an abuse of a question with which people show care and concern to one another in my culture,” Zita wrote, but it says something important about American culture:

In general, people from the U.S. do not like to express their emotions to strangers or acquaintances. They prefer to put on a permanent smile and mask their other feelings. The U.S. culture is based on individualism – the idea that one should only rely on one’s self and family – and this often leads them to avoid getting too close to others, including by using meaningful expressions in ways that might seem superficial to foreigners.

Zita decided, “[O]ne of the challenges and the beauties of living abroad is embracing the peculiarities of the host country. To me this means learning how to speak not only the language but also the culture.”

Learning to speak both the language and the culture takes practice, and a willingness to make mistakes, a fact Anil was kind enough to share in one of our most brutally honest and funny posts of the year.

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Top Posts of 2012 #4: The Surprising Links Between Food and Identity

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, December 29th, 2012 at 11:24 am

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

#4
Why do International Students Crave Food From Home?
Contributions from Mohammed al-Suraih, Sebastian Sanchez, Javaria Khan

A common complaint among international students is how much they miss their native cuisine, so it’s no surprise that one of our most popular posts of 2012 was one examining just what it is about food that makes it so important to international students.

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick

We learned that food interacts with your brain in some unique ways. Not only do you start forming your food preferences before you’re even born, so that by the time you study abroad some of your tastes for native food are pretty deeply engrained, but food is also deeply tied to memory, so nostalgia and food cravings become intertwined.

Read it: “3 Things You Don’t Know About Food and Why International Students Crave Cuisine From Home

But one of the most interesting things we learned about food is that what you eat is part of who you are; food and identity are linked together.

In fact, one reason why international students miss native food so much is because they’re also missing the stable sense of identity they had back home.  Studying abroad redefines your sense of who you are, what you want, and what you believe, and it can be a difficult process.

We saw just how difficult in Senzeni’s examination of how her self image changed during a year in the States, one of our most moving posts of 2012. ”The certainty I once had about what I wanted to see and achieve is gone, the answers replaced by more and more questions about myself and my path,” she wrote.

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Top Posts of 2012 #5: Navigating and Defeating Negative Stereotypes

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, December 29th, 2012 at 12:36 am

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one.  If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

#5
On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes
by Simba Runyowa

One of our most read, and most thought-provoking, pieces from 2012 was Simba’s moving look at how Africans are perceived in the U.S., and his plea for a more balanced perspective.

Harare (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)

Harare, Zimbabwe. Would an American know that this is Africa? (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)

“Do you live in a ‘real’ house back in Zimbabwe?” Simba said he’s been asked. “Do people have cars in Africa?” “How come you speak such good English?”

Read it: “On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes

But, he added:

While these comments all made me cringe inwardly in disbelief, none of them topped a remark I received while eating in the college dining hall early this semester, when somebody (Let’s call him Boy Z) remarked, ‘It must hurt you to see people throwing away food when so many people in Africa are starving.’

“It’s high time the world moves beyond these parochial, dated frames and seriously reorients the way it engages with African people,” Simba concluded, adding that while Africa certainly has its problems, so does America.

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My First Christmas in America: Why Did My Host Ask for a Gift at His Own Christmas Party?

by Sunny Peng - Posts (5). Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 1:13 pm

“I just got an invitation from one of my anthropology professors for a Christmas Eve dinner at his house. Would you like to go with me?” I asked my Chinese roommate while she was struggling with some high-level econometric problems. She immediately lifted her head up, “Nice! I’d love to!”

Wrapped gifts

Why did my host ask us to bring him gifts? Read on to find out!

“Wait a second. This is funny,” said I, as she was about to go back to numbers and equations, “The professor asked me to bring a dish and a gift to the dinner. I can understand about bringing a dish. But how could someone invite you to his house while asking you explicitly to bring a gift?”

I found out eventually what the gift was for, but first I spent a lot of time getting excited about this Christmas Eve dinner, even when I was studying for my finals. I had traveled home to China during last winter break, so this year’s Christmas would be another of my “first times” in the U.S. Besides, as an anthropology major interested in America, being able to celebrate Christmas in the U.S. with Americans fascinated me.

My roommate and I got up very early on December 24th, Christmas Eve, to start worrying about the food we would bring to the dinner. We had no idea how to cook American food, and almost everything in our fridge was from an Asian market in town. “You know what? We can just make Chinese food. It would not look that weird. He is an anthropology professor, so he would probably be very interested in what we cook.” I said to my roommate.

My professor knocked on our door to pick us up at 5:50 pm. We said “Merry Christmas” to each other as my roommate and I came to his car, carrying a high-pressured cooker with Chinese pork rib soup inside. Of course we had our wrapped gifts in tow as well. “I am curious how Americans will react to a Chinese soup at a Christmas Eve dinner, and how they are going to eat the ribs in the soup,” my roommate whispered to me in the car.

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The Student Union is…

A place to hear stories about studying in the U.S. Our bloggers have come from all over the world to U.S. universities, and they'll be sharing their experiences, advice and more.

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Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.