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.

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.

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.

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 Beautiful Traditions: My Christmas and Thanksgiving in America

by Sarah Bosha - Posts (4). Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 10:13 am

My family on Christmas

My family on Christmas

My American Thanksgiving was a truly wonderful experience and gave me a glimpse into what the holiday means for Americans and those living in America. I was privileged to have two Thanksgiving feasts with all the traditional foods, turkey, apple pie, green bean casserole, and the works! The first was at my church the week of Thanksgiving where the whole church sat down for a meal cooked by the ladies’ group. The second was a more intimate affair with my pastor and his family in their home.

What I loved about the Thanksgiving holiday:

• Turkey and apple pie are wonderful foods; either I ate food made by really good cooks or I just love food, but I am thinking it’s the cooks. The overindulgence of Thanksgiving is quite enjoyable and the truth is you can’t help but be overstuffed after digging into a lavish Thanksgiving feast!

• The significance of sharing with those without, including people far from homes or their families, is the best part of the holiday. Communities, churches and individuals don’t just make a huge meal and eat on their own, in a way they seek out those with whom they may share with so that the true meaning of the holiday is celebrated. I remember seeing multiple signs at churches for free thanksgiving dinners to all.

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Where to Travel for Christmas: Washington, DC

by Javaria Khan - Posts (6). Posted Wednesday, December 26th, 2012 at 10:52 am

One year ago: December 2011. A girl’s bags are packed and she is literally “ready to go,” just like John Denver was. She is leaving her home, her family to go miles away, halfway across the world, to the land of dreams, the U.S.A. Yes, she is scared. Yes, she is nervous. However, there is this small part of her which is jumping with excitement. And the reason for its excitement is not a normal one: after 19 years of Christmas in Pakistan, she is excited to finally witness the holiday in her dream land. Today, I, that girl, have come full circle, back to Washington, D.C. for that same holiday.

When my plane landed at the Washington Dulles airport on December 27 last year, I won’t lie, I felt a bit lost. It was a new country, with new people and it was just so cold. But as I rode away from the airport, every house that was decorated with Christmas lights and reindeers and Santas would just make me so happy.

Decorations on a house in Queens, NY (Photo: Reuters)

Decorations on a house in Queens, NY (Photo: Reuters)

A house all decorated for Christmas (Photo: AP)

A house in Alabama all decorated for Christmas (Photo: AP)

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Getting Into the American Obsession with Running

by Sunny Peng - Posts (5). Posted Friday, December 21st, 2012 at 12:00 am

Running at night (Photo: Reuters)

One of the first things I noticed when I got to school in Virginia was how many people ran outside.  They seemed to be everywhere, at all times of day or night – people jogging through the main quad, students walking around in exercise gear, traffic jams as runners tried to navigate through slower-moving students on their way to class.

I was not a sporty person before I came here.  My high school life was pretty hectic, and when I had time away from schoolwork I was too tired to work out.  Even when I went to college in China and had a bit more spare time, working out was not part of my regular routine.

Coming to university here totally challenged my belief that working out is something you only do when you have lots of free time.  I hear my friends say, “I have so much work to do,” and then a minute later, “I’m going for a run.”

One of my housemates is incredibly busy during the day, so she started getting up very early to make time for running.  She is not obligated or forced to, but she wants to.

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The Surprising Thing I Learned about the GRE

by Guest Post - Posts (71). Posted Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 at 9:42 pm

This guest post comes from Yun Ye, who is not only interning at VOA this semester, but also applying to graduate school. She recently attended an information session for her top choice school, and came back with a new perspective on the role of the GRE in admissions.

More and more Chinese students are attending graduate school in the U.S. – 88,429 at last count, an increase of 15% from the previous year – and how to get into the dream school is something weighing on the minds of many Chinese students.

Among my friends in China who, like me, wanted to pursue higher education in the U.S., the conversation was often about what schools we were planning to apply to and how we planned to get in – and when we thought about how we planned to get in, we often thought about our test scores.

In Chinese education, grades are the most important thing to a student. When I was at school, I remember striving for an excellent grade had been almost everyone’s goal. With that mentality, when my friends and former classmates started applying to U.S. grad schools, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to get a high score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is a standardized test required for admission at most graduate schools.

People who got a good score on the GRE would share their study experiences on online forums, which others would read in the hopes of emulating their performance.  Chinese students preparing to study abroad get very familiar with forums such as “,” “Taisha” or “Jituo.”

I also know people who spent a lot of money on classes to prepare for the GRE test, and people who dedicated a couple of months to studying; some people even took half a year to study.

I’m sure all that studying will eventually pay off in their scores, but I learned something valuable when I visited graduate schools recently in preparation for my own applications: the GRE score isn’t as important as my Chinese classmates made it out to be.

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Anil Explains Why You Should Never Be Embarrassed to Speak a Foreign Language

by Guest Post - Posts (71). Posted Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Recently Sunny shared her story of arriving in the U.S. for the first time, and suddenly feeling she had forgotten all the English she ever learned – asking for the phone seemed an impossible task.  Anil wrote in to share a similar experience.  When he arrived at J.F.K. airport this fall, coming from Turkey to attend a graduate program, he was overwhelmed.

For a while Anil says he avoided communicating with people and joining in with activities because of how he struggled with his English, but then something happened that got him over his fears:

I can clearly remember that day. I felt like I had to do something, as usual, and I jumped from my couch.  I gave myself a simple purpose for hitting the road: buying some raisins for my oatmeal (if you are an oatmeal fan, you already know that oatmeal and dried fruit are perfect matches. If you are not, I suggest you give it a shot. After that experiment you will understand me more clearly).

After I started my journey to the shop, I was just happy to be outside.  I said “good afternoon” to some folks and I received some smiles.  I was thinking that a day could not be more awesome.  I entered the store and I started searching for raisins in an aisle of dried fruit. But they weren’t there. I was so disappointed, but because my task was finding raisins for my next day’s oatmeal, I decided to ask a staff person.

I found a staff member and walked up to her.  “Hi, how are you? I have a problem.” After a second she asked me, “Yes sir, how may I help you?”

I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t remember the word: raisin.  I felt my face was burning, but I also knew I had to cope with the problem.  Suddenly, I found an exit door for my situation.  I decided to try and describe raisins.

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Reflections on America’s Gun Culture

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Monday, December 17th, 2012 at 6:39 pm

A woman puts a photo of a child on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook Village of Newtown, Conn., as the town mourns victims killed in a school shooting

A woman puts a photo of a child on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook Village of Newtown, Conn., as the town mourns victims killed in a school shooting

“Shootings in high schools and colleges are unfortunately very ‘American’ things in my mind,” Nareg once wrote on this site. “Maybe it’s because of the media coverage, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of such tragic incidents with such regularity in other parts of the world.”

Nareg was reacting to a 2010 incident in which a student at the University of Louisville was arrested after pulling a gun at a meeting with faculty. Luckily no one was hurt in that incident, but it certainly wasn’t the first gun-related incident at an educational institution – universities are still reeling from the 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people – and, as we found out last week, it’s far from the last.

On Friday, December 14, the U.S. and the world were shocked by news that 20-year-old Adam Lanza had opened fire at a Connecticut elementary school, killing 20 young children and six women.

“I heard the news of this unfortunate event on Friday afternoon as I was coming from my final exam for my first semester in an American college,” said Phillip, a Zimbabwean freshman at Bates College. “I wanted to cry for the loss of the young lives. I wanted to cry for the loss of the creativity, intelligence, talent and enthusiasm for life in those young boys and girls.”

He also said he began to think about the gun culture in America, as did many other international students.

“I arrived in August, just a few weeks after the shock of the Colorado massacre [in which 12 were killed and dozens wounded at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises"], and yet this ugly and tragic issue has come around again so soon,” reflected Tom, who comes from England and is studying at the University of Maryland.

“I have to admit, one of my earliest concerns when coming to America was my vulnerability to gun crime.”

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5 Free Online Events on Studying in the US: Dec. 17-21

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Friday, December 14th, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Once again, 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: lots for prospective MBA and law students.

As always, 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 – And please share any online events you’ve found that we haven’t.

Coming up:

December 18

MBA Watch: Live Q+A with JHU Carey Adcom
More details: 

mbaMission: Long-term Planning
8pm US eastern time
More details: 
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What Exactly is American School Spirit All About?

by Tom Collier - Posts (6). Posted Wednesday, December 12th, 2012 at 6:35 pm

What is behind all this school spirit?

When I first arrived at the University of Maryland, and for many weeks after, I was bemused by the number of students who walked around dressed from head to toe in clothing with our university’s name on it, and by the volume of merchandise in the university bookstore that features our mascot, Testudo the terrapin.

The weeks went by, and every day you could guarantee that at least 50% of the students on campus would be wearing at least one garment of University of Maryland attire. It wasn’t just the students – I saw their parents sporting large ‘M’ bumper stickers on their cars, and even younger siblings wearing Maryland red.

The university that you choose to attend in England is something to be proud of – most of us worked hard to get there and try to make the most of the experience – but at the end of the day it is just a university: a place to earn a degree, to meet friends, and to introduce you to another way of life.

Here in College Park, going to the University of Maryland is not merely an academic or a social choice – it is a way of life.

I remember one of the first orientation seminars I had when I arrived in Maryland, during which they played us a video showing a sea of red-clad students singing along to the Maryland victory song. They didn’t seem at all reserved or self-conscious to be professing so publicly their love for their educational institution.

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Lily Suggests How to Make Friends as a Shy International Student

by Guest Post - Posts (71). Posted Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Earlier this year Rahela talked about how lonely she felt during her first year studying in the U.S. “I felt lonely because I could not make a friendship,” she said. “It was hard to share my feelings and experiences with other students.” Lily wrote in to say that she relates. But she also said she found out that part of making friends is just letting relationships form naturally. Here’s what she suggested:

I am an international student studying in Illinois. My first experience in the United States was somewhat challenging. I had a difficult time coping and interacting with the students around here. For the first time being about 5000 miles away from home, I shed tears like no other.

I am a really shy, reserved person and I do find it hard trying to make friends. One thing about this is that the Americans will find it hard trying to get close to you because you are really not open to them. But I later realized that it takes time for them to really know you, and one just has to be natural – no pretense and feeling of pride – and you will find them flocking around you.

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A Major Dilemma

by Simbarashe - Posts (7). Posted Monday, December 10th, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Last year, as a freshmen, I read novels, performed acid base titrations and memorized obscure formulas. I grappled with Hobbes and Locke, solved integrals and balanced equations. I crisscrossed from Chemistry to Calculus to Anthropology to Economics to African-American Studies to Politics, all in the hopes of winnowing down the chaff of possible majors to a fine grain from which I would then select just one to weave the tapestry of the rest of my life.

That was a bizarre analogy, but you get the point. I’ve been trying to figure out what to major in. Now that I am in my sophomore year, I am going to have to get around to it very soon. At Oberlin College every student has to declare their major during the second semester of their sophomore year. For me this will occur even sooner because of the number of credits I transferred from high school.

One of the reasons why I did not choose to study in own country was because I wanted to postpone choosing a major as long as possible. In Zimbabwe you must know your major before you apply to college—in fact, you apply to a specific department within the university and not to the university in general.

In Zimbabwe, students are often encouraged, or rather strongly compelled, to study subjects that will lead them to careers in something “practical” (and lucrative) like law or medicine. Because I had specialized in the sciences in high school, had I remained in Zimbabwe chances are I would be well on my way to monitoring mice in a lab.

One option for my future... (Photo: Reuters)

What my future could have been (Photo: Reuters)

But I wanted the opportunity to explore the options before committing to something for the rest of my life, and I have certainly done that – in the past year and a bit I have tried out pretty much all the things I theoretically thought I might like to choose.

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The US in Words #4: Spreading Myself Too Thin (How I Do Everything… Almost)

by Paula - Posts (11). Posted Saturday, December 8th, 2012 at 10:58 am

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

Spreading oneself too thin – Making more commitments than can be fulfilled

As I write these lines I’m thinking about the oral interviews I have to hold for my 60 Spanish students, the novel I have to finish for my literature class tomorrow, the finals I have coming up in a week, the Skype session I’ve been promising my family (but haven’t actually gotten to yet), the grocery shopping I have to do, the Christmas tree I haven’t decorated yet, and my plans for the upcoming winter break. And I’m thinking I may be taking on too much.

Paula at her desk

At my desk, working hard

The truth is I am (deliberately or not) sacrificing aspects of my life in order to make the most of my time in the U.S. One of the things I’ve given up is cooking – I usually enjoy cooking fresh meals, trying out new ingredients and preparing healthy dishes every day, but I had to say good-bye to freshly cooked food in order to be able to keep up with the fast American way of life.

Another thing I’ve left behind is sleeping. Yes, sleeping. I still get about six hours a night, which is a lot less than I used to need when I was at home. But it seems to be enough for now; at least I’m not nodding off during the day.

What is troubling me most is that I don’t have much time to speak to my family, boyfriend and friends. It’s very difficult to find moments that suit both sides; we are in different time zones and we all have different schedules. I wish I could spend more time sharing my ups and downs with them, since they are the people that most understand me. Besides, talking to them is what keeps me rooted, what reminds me who I am and where I come from.

Don’t get me wrong, I really love my job, but it’s still hard to get my students’ papers graded and go to the gym, grab a bite with friends or travel for the weekend. If I had to use an expression to describe my situation now, I’d say I’m swamped with work, but I don’t want to miss any of the fun.

There are a few strategies, though, that have helped me strike a balance. One I learned at a conference many years ago was using Covey’s Time Management Matrix. What Covey suggests is to list all the activities you normally have to do – all the activities, including using Facebook, watching TV, lingering or doing nothing, showering, everything. Once you’ve listed them all, you divide them into categories by importance and urgency, and then you perform the tasks according to those priorities. This strategy has allowed me to concentrate on things I have to do, while making sure I still can have little indulgences of unimportant things throughout the day.

Another thing that I do is write a to-do list every night so I know what I have to do the next day. I don’t omit any details, so I have clear expectations of what I should get done by the end of the next day. This is quite useful for me since it makes me think of how long a task might take me before I actually set out to do it.

Still, after prioritizing some tasks over others and making sure I’ve gone over what I’ll have to do the next day, I still end up going to bed really late. I don’t regret spreading myself so thin, though. I think all the strain and hard work is totally worth it to get the most from this experience of being a Fulbright Scholar at a university in the United States.


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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.