I will never forget my very first conversation with an American. He was an employee at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. I was a new arrival, highly exhausted after almost 20 hours of flight.
When this is all you want, and you can’t remember the word for it
Upon landing I found myself overwhelmed by homesickness, and very badly wanted to find a telephone to call my parents. I went up to this man to ask for help, but blanked immediately after opening my mouth.
I did eventually ask for the phone and call my parents, but I was so frustrated by that experience. It was as if I had never learned English before! I was considered to be good at English in China, yet I almost felt the worker at the airport was talking to me in another language.
My mind was blown again when I ate at an American restaurant for the first time. I had no idea that most of the words I had learned for food were about fast food.
It is true that we international students take the TOEFL exam before coming to the U.S., and this exam seems well-balanced in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. But it still doesn’t fully prepare you for what it’s like to be immersed in a language.
Why academics turned out to be the biggest struggle
It was inside the classroom where I really had trouble at first. I could understand lectures for the most part, except for certain accents that I had not been exposed to before. However, participating in classroom discussion was very hard.
What a small, discussion-based class might look like (Creative Commons Photo: Marcos Ojeda)
I was so shocked by my American classmates’ thought-provoking and nicely-phrased comments that I did not even try to speak out – not because of a lack of ideas, but because of a lack of confidence in my English. Since we have many interactive, small-sized classes at my school, not being able to participate in classroom discussions disappointed me very much.
[More about surviving academics in English]
Writing papers was also difficult, which was a problem because as a liberal arts major my life is always occupied with writing—lots and lots of writing. In my first semester, 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.
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