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Straddling the Culture Fence

February, 2012
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dsc03245As I packed my bags and got ready to leave campus for the winter holidays, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy about the days ahead. Although I would be returning to the same place I returned to every winter break for the past four years, it would be the first time I would arrive without the usual fourteen hour flight. I imagined my feelings at the time to be similar to those of a parent forced to choose which child is their favourite. After all, the place I called home during my years in Shanghai was no longer my only home, but choosing to return to Canada rather than Shanghai this break made it seem as if it was my only option. I found myself harbouring much envy as I watched my new American friends depart one-by-one to their respective hometowns, free of the internal dilemmas I faced.

Being from an international school background puts one in an interesting position at college. On one hand, we are not really American, having been blessed with many opportunities and experiences overseas that American students have never been exposed to. On the other hand, we are not truly international, since we are not completely unfamiliar with life in America. As a result, internationally-raised American – or in my case, Canadian – students often find themselves straddling the fence dividing the “home-grown” American students and the “real” international students. Although it may be easy to separate the international students from the American students, the internationally-raised American students are much harder to pick out.

So exactly how do we differ from everyone else?

dsc03102Based on my first semester at college, I would say a good place to start is self-awareness. Among our international communities, we hold the belief that our schools and the unique environments they create provide students with precious opportunities to learn about different people and different cultures, which in turn makes them more open-minded and adaptable. I would say that this is too narrow a belief. After having experienced the process of transitioning into college alongside international and non-international school students alike, I would say that as young people thrown into a new environment, we are forced to be open-minded and adaptable. What the international experience provides is the opportunity to exercise these skills early on in life, arming students with greater knowledge and awareness of their abilities – an awareness which other students may not have.

Heading off to college and having to adapt is largely inevitable, and for the most part, we all eventually succeed and come to enjoy our experiences in our new homes. Undoubtedly, this shows that we are all adaptable, whether international or not. As internationally-raised students, however, we have experienced the process of moving, transitioning, and adjusting countless times before we head off to college. Contrastingly, for many students who have lived in one place their entire lives, whether that be in America or not, the move to college will be the first real move they have ever experienced. While many of these students question themselves and doubt whether they will ever truly feel at home in college, internationally-raised students understand that the process of transition takes time and that they will be faced with numerous challenges before they come to be truly happy. Unlike many other students, they are not as fazed by the doubt and impatience that only aggravates home sickness and slows the transitioning process. Being aware of our ability to adapt helps greatly throughout the transitioning process, making international school students much less likely to jump to conclusions like, “I will never fit in or be happy here.” Instead, tougher times are faced with patience. In fact, the phrase I hear most often from international school friends who are finding their transition to college tougher than they anticipated is, “I’ll wait it out. Hopefully it will get better with time.” For many, this patience is already starting to pay off as they find themselves slowly becoming familiar with life at their respective colleges.

This self-awareness, however, does not in itself ensure a seamless transition into college. Although we are equipped with the skills necessary to make the transition into college, the process is oftentimes still not as smooth as we wish it were. One of the biggest challenges faced by many international students during this transition is culture shock. Although many international school students identify themselves as Americans and speak flawless English, they have lived outside of the country for so long that the place seems almost foreign upon their return. Instead of the purely American culture that American students have grown up in, we have grown up in a culture that represents the amalgamation of our “native” culture and various host cultures. Upon arrival back in America, we are sometimes surprised to find ourselves completely lost in the new slang, new fashions, and new habits that have emerged since our departure.

dsc03157The Daily Princetonian, a popular publication on the Princeton campus, featured an article written by an American student from a Singaporean International school discussing exactly this issue. She described her first semester of college as “an investigation into how to be a real American” involving a three-step process: picking up the lingo, perfecting the dress code, and experiencing the traditions. As I read the article, I was surprised – although I likely shouldn’t have been – to find our stories strikingly similar. We learned the same new ways of interacting with others (responding to social missteps with a simple “you’re fine”), adopted the same new habits of dress (slapping on rain boots at the slightest hint of a drizzle), and experienced our first real American Thanksgivings. Along with all the gifts that an international education had given us, it also left us with the challenge of relearning how to be American (or in my case, simply North American). The author of the article, Rebecca Kreutter, one of my fellow freshman, portrayed her experiences to date to be largely positive and is clearly embracing the process of re-assimilating into mainstream American culture. This is not true, however, for all international American students. Some have a tough time reconciling “American” values with their own, while others feel that assimilating means giving up unique parts of themselves. Others simply find the process to be more complex than the three-step process outlined by Rebecca. This illustrates an important difference between international school students and American students or other international students; we are no longer firmly rooted in a single culture, placing us squarely between American students and international students on the continuum of cultural perspectives.

One effect of this “third culture” background of international school students is that they are acutely aware of the effects of culture on thinking and have had experience navigating cultural circles different from their own. At an institution as diverse as Princeton, this skill is very important to both academic and social success. Those who fail to effectively navigate this diverse environment may end up confining themselves to very limiting, self-segregated groups. International school students are generally very successful at embracing this diversity and at interacting positively with individuals with backgrounds and opinions that are different from their own. I would, however, hesitate to assume that this translates directly into international school students being more open-minded than other students. Just as there are some Americans who believe the American perspective is superior to other cultural perspectives, there are international students who believe the perspective of certain cultures are superior to others. In either case, one ends up closing oneself off to other perspectives and cannot be considered open-minded. I would, however, suggest that coming from a third culture background makes one significantly more comfortable considering the views of those from backgrounds different from our own. I see this most often in the classroom environment, especially in humanities courses, which frequently require students to consider the effects of culture on various topics.

dsc03303At the end of the day, however, what I found most surprising throughout my first semester was a single similarity between international school students and all other students – American and international alike – that I didn’t expect to find; the strength of our relationships with our old communities.

When you spend eighteen years of your life in one place, you expect to develop very firm relationships in your community. Once you leave, you expect to visit and be visited often by nearby friends and receive care packages, phone calls, birthday gifts, and random pieces of advice. You expect to carry those strong community ties with you no matter how far you wander or how long you’re gone. When you spend only a few years of your life in one place, however, you don’t expect to develop the same depth in your relationships. The time frame simply does not allow for it. You expect to move on faster and be cared for less. Or so I thought. One of the greatest surprises I experienced during my first semester at college was that I was wrong.

The Shanghai international community surprised me by following me all the way to New Jersey. Leaving Shanghai did not mean leaving the community. I found it alive and thriving on the Princeton campus, in the form of one SAS alumnus who has made a very special and much appreciated effort to be a source of support during my transition into college. There have also been many other alumni who have shared meals, experiences, and simple but meaningful words of encouragement with me. I found it alive in the streets of New York City, in the form of hastily planned reunions, first-ever Thanksgiving dinners, and late night excursions to Times Square. I found it alive online, whether through Facebook, Skype, or email. Most importantly, I found it alive in the acts that prove that no matter the distance, friends will forever be friends, with or without Shanghai to hold us together geographically. My American friends received love and support from family and friends from their old communities when they returned home over the shorter breaks during the term. As international students who mostly chose to remain on campus, we found the same love and support from the same communities of people, just much farther from the places we called home. Without a doubt, the strength of our relationships with our old communities surprised me in the best of ways, a sentiment shared by many of my friends from other international communities like Hong Kong and Beijing, as well as from American communities from California to Texas to New York.

dsc03340This eventually led me to realize one simple thing. No matter how different we are in terms of our backgrounds, as students we are more alike than different when it comes to the most important of things. We all have dreams, goals, and aspirations for a better future. We all know the value of hard work, determination, and self-reliance. We also know the importance of taking time to relax, being realistic, and working together. We all have strengths and weaknesses, face triumphs and defeats. We all have families, friends, teachers, mentors, and peers. We all strive to do our best and stand up for what we believe in. We are all people, walking – or perhaps running and stumbling – towards the future together.

Now that I am back in Canada, I am starting to see that maybe instead of being envious of those with only one home, I should be sharing in the joy of being able to return to at least one of my two homes. Instead of looking for the things that set us apart, perhaps we should be searching for the things that bring us together. After all, members of our own international community in Shanghai may sometimes seem far more different than alike, but at the end of the day it is the things that hold us together that always prevail.


By Jessica Meng Jia Hao,

Shanghai American School, Pudong, Class of 2011


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  1. February 12th, 2013 at 14:17 | #1

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