A week ago, I received a message from a friend, asking me, “Is it great to study in America?”
Since the definition of “great” varies from person to person, there cannot be one answer to that question. Instead I made a list of things I wish I had known before coming here from the perspective of an international student who is graduating soon.
- You learn everything like a child, again.
To a tourist, being in an strange place is a temporary adventure. To someone who would like to start fresh, moving to a new country would be a life-changing opportunity. To someone trying to earn a degree, learning about new social etiquettes again and again everyday in a country whose language is not your mother-tongue is not super fun, at least in the beginning.
Take the restroom, for an example, in most Asian countries, we use both water and paper in the restroom. However, don’t be surprised when you are stuck with a big roll of paper in an American restroom.
- There is a large language barrier between American and international students.
We all know it will happen. Still, only when you’re standing in front of your American friend struggling to process the long sentence she spoke can you understand the awkwardness of a language barrier.
Connection is built on similarity – an element that is not easy to find between two people from two different cultures. Each year, international students pay triple the tuition of national students to study in an America institution; they are obviously motivated to connect to American culture. Some may be quiet because of their accent (Yes, some people make fun of Asian accents and that’s not funny) or simply because they don’t know what to say.
Not everyone will understand this, so when they see a quiet international student, they may simply assume that the person is not so fond of talking. Therefore, it may take time for one to blend in and feel comfortable in the community. That is somewhat of a process.
- Not every American man is nice and gallant.
“In America, men value pets the most, then children, women and at last, themselves,” my father, who never once came to America had been telling me that ever since I was born.
He has this perfect image from the movies that every Western man is a James Bond who will always be ready to sacrifice themselves for the women in need. And yes, I have met men who have kindly helped me when I never could have expected. But not every American man will protect women, some even threaten them.
I was sitting at a park to finish my book. A man sat down and asked me if I could give him a hug for it was his birthday. He was a complete stranger. Hence, I politely said no and wished him a happy birthday. It would have been a funny encounter until the guy went super saiyan and threatened to attack me for refusing to hug him.
- Finding a job is hard. Being able to afford your total expenses is next to impossible.
It is illegal for international students to work off-campus. If you are fortunate enough to find a job on campus, you will have to fill out a pile of forms, get a confirmation letter from the International Education Program (the letter needs to have your advisor’s signature prior to that) and go to the Social Security Administration so they can verify your “alien status” and get a social security number by mail. As long as fate is still smiling upon you, that card will arrive on time. In case it doesn’t, technically you cannot get paid whether you have been working or not.
There are families from Vietnam who go to great lengths, such as selling their house, to have enough money for their children to study abroad.
With $10, my parents in Vietnam could buy ten sandwiches since their salary is much lower than American labors’. On the other hand, with $10 in America, I could buy less than two sandwiches. It is difficult to raise a child in America with a non-American salary.
You will not be able work and cover your expenses yourself. You are only allowed to work part-time, and with a salary of about $750 a week, you can at best cover your rent (shared room), phone/transportation bill, textbooks and food/drinks. For you to focus on your education, your family should be able to cover your tuition and expenses (approximately $21,000 per academic year) and still have some extra left in case of emergency.
- You learn to appreciate what you had and are having.
For now, your mother is no longer a 3D walking body next to you. She has become a small figure residing inside your iPhone’s screen or laptop on each Friday or Saturday evening. Her voice is no longer here to remind you to clean up your room and eat your veggies. Some days, it is a distorted sound with each syllable scattered all over the line as you curse at your slow Wi-Fi. At times, you catch a glimpse of someone’s shoulder on the street who reminds you of her. Of course, you know it can’t be her. Still, somehow it startles you a bit.
Your everyday life at home is now a collection of stories that is retold by your friends through your headphone only after the stories have ended. You are no longer a part of their lives or something that was once your life. You are a spectator who is listening to what they decide to tell you. You thought about what your life could have been if you stayed at home. It doesn’t mean you want to stay at home, you just want to imagine.
Your ideas and thoughts may now be different from the childhood friend who grew up with you as you have been exposed to foreign ideas.
Yet, you know that you are progressive and growing each day.
It is now that you feel acquainted each time you hear someone speaking your native language on the bus. It is now that you learn to be proud of your ethnicity and understand how much your parents have sacrificed for your future. It is now that you see how easy your life was. It is now that you feel grateful for each moment you had and realize you must create new memories with your life at the present.
- You are encouraged to be curious and imaginative.
In many non-Western countries, students are taught under the idea that everything the teacher says must be the truth. It is considered disrespectful to question the teacher and go against the belief of older generations.
In America, teachers encourage students to ask questions and to be curious about what they learn. With curiosity, there comes imagination. When one is free to imagine a future that is outside of the box, they are confronted with new possibilities and self-abilities that they never knew they could have.
Teachers not only teach by textbooks and powerpoint slides, but through their experiences in the outside world, sharing their insight into academia and their personal character. By doing this, the students are inspired to develop their own individuality as well.
For me, studying here has never been a long, boring task where students are set as up as robots who read and write because teachers tell them to.
- You realize your prejudices and learn to break them.
Prior to my moving, the only way I could learn about America was through the movies. In these movies, black people were depicted as thugs, thieves and criminals who live in poverty. However, this is false.
The first time I got lost in America, after learning that I just moved here, a black woman offered to walk with me to the nearest bus stop. She waited until I got on the bus safely. Then, smiled at me and said, “Goodbye, my sister. I hope you will have a really nice day. Take care.”
I have never received a kinder gesture from any stranger.
When you are staying in your comfortable little box, you know what is inside that box. While it is safe, you barely know anything about the real world. Your knowledge is limited to what your circle of friends and what the local media chooses to tell you. To confront your prejudice, you have to experience the world by yourself.
- You are free to be vulnerable.
I was completely in shock when a classmate of mine openly shared about her depression to the entire class. In that moment, I thought, if my mom were here, she would have said, “You shouldn’t tell that to people, it will make you look bad.”
Many Asian women, or at least the ones I know, are taught to be obedient towards the male figure. They have to flatter those around them, stay pretty and faithful to their husband despite his actions to maintain a good reputation for their families.
We pull our shield up, smile and pretend to be happy to avoid anyone thinking that we are ‘weak.’ Yet, there is so much bravery and strength in admitting that we are vulnerable.
What is weak about asking for help when you need it? In what sense is being upfront about overcoming or struggling with a difficulty equal to being weak? What are humans supposed to do but share our experiences?
- After a while, you will be disappointed in your American dream, and that is fine.
The idea of the American dream gives us hope of a free country where we can renew our lives. It gives us the belief that we can be a better version of ourselves. I hope that dream continues to grow in you as it does in me. Despite all, the truth is that you’ll be disappointed after a couple months.
The level of your disappointment will depend on your expectation upon landing at the airport.
Regardless, disappointment is not a negative feeling.
Through disappointment, we learn to rely on ourselves and grow up. Your dream is not what it seems. You make your decisions on your own and that level of responsibility is just scary. I understand it. It’s terrifying to know that you can no longer go back to your comfort zone. At the same time, disappointment pushes you to stand up and learn from your failure as you have no other options.
I have no idea whether it would be great for you to study abroad in America or study abroad at all. However, I promise that after you finish your education and you get to reunite with your family and friends, when you think of the days you spent here, you will feel proud of yourself. You may even want to come back to America. It might be for one day, a couple of days, weeks, months, years or for some people, the rest of their lives.