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Over Seas: Great Expectations

How American stereotypes and realities match up for international students

 by Ljiljana Ciric  published on Thursday, April 6, 2006

It's tough for international students to get used to life in America.
Tiffany Tcheng / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
It's tough for international students to get used to life in America. "Everyone is so nice here, but sometimes it looks fake," says Lucas Sumantri, a business undergraduate from Indonesia, pictured here (left) with Ramazan Kilinc, a grad student from Turkey.
 

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Many Americans move across the United States to study at different universities. College students can feel homesick and lonely at first, until they get used to the environment. For international students, it can be twice as hard both living away from their families and facing a culture very different from their own. Expectations of international students before and after coming to study in America are not always a match.

Jana Minov, a music graduate student from Serbia, says that the first thing she noticed in America was people smiling at her and saying "hello" in the streets.

"It was a nice change, people smiling, asking how you are and saying thank you all the time," says Minov, who came to ASU last August.

Minov says that during her first month in the U.S., a grocery store clerk asked her how she was and she took the question seriously. As soon as she started answering it, Minov says that the clerk simply turned to the next person and asked the same question.

"I pretty soon realized it's just the American lifestyle and I got used to it," she says. "They don't seriously mean it when they ask you those questions, those are just expressions they use."

Lucas Sumantri, a business undergraduate from Indonesia, agrees.

"Everyone is so nice here," says Sumantri. "But sometimes it looks fake, like there is some kind of hidden law that everyone should be nice and polite."

Sumantri, a 20-year-old who started at ASU in fall of 2003, says that he can't quite understand all the excitement about underage drinking among American college students. In Indonesia, the legal drinking age is 18.

"I got drunk in front of my parents when I was 13," says Sumantri. "I don't see the big deal about drinking here."

Another characteristic that international students say they noticed is a lack of geographical knowledge from their new American colleagues. The answer to a question such as "where are you from?" usually leads to blank stares.

"When I say that I am from Serbia, Americans mostly think that it's part of Russia, or they would confuse it with Syria or Siberia, because it sounds similar," says Minov.

S. M. Mahbub Murshed, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Bangladesh, says that at social gatherings, Americans ask him questions about his country, but they usually don't go in depth with the conversation.

"They lose interest pretty soon, and we switch to other topics," says Murshed.

Ramazan Kilinc, a 28-year-old political science graduate student from Turkey, says that people often ask him if Turks speak and write Arabic -- they don't. They speak Turkish and write with the Latin alphabet, says Kilinc.

"They assume that because Turkey is a Muslim country, and they associate it with the Middle East," says Kilinc. "They associate all Muslims with Arabs even though less than 20 percent of 1.2 billion Muslims are Arabs."

Kilinc says that he noticed as a teaching assistant for some of the undergraduate political science courses that young Americans do not easily engage in political discussions.

"Students are very apolitical here," says Kilinc. "In Turkey, we always debate about politics and world issues."

For Kilinc, one of the hardest things to get used to was food in America. While one can find a variety of different ethnic food in restaurants, the fast food chains are unavoidable.

"For my religious beliefs, since I am a Muslim, it was hard for me to find adequate food at first," says Kilinc. "But, I definitely became a fan of the fish menu at Burger King."

Minov admitted to gaining extra pounds instantly when she came to America last year.

"What I was eating was never an issue in Serbia, but when I started gaining kilos here it made me think about what is good for me and what is not," she says. "I think Americans are obsessed with food, especially fast food."

As with any other country where you plan to stay for a while, it takes some time to adjust to the culture and lifestyle.

"In Bangladesh, if you're not Bangladeshi, everyone will notice and look at you out of curiosity, but here it's so easy to blend in as a foreigner," says Murshed. "I really enjoy the diversity here."

Reach the reporter at ljiljana.ciric@asu.edu.



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