It was early in 2017 in Mexico City and Alejandra Ramos was on the cusp of making what could be the most important decision of her life.
She wanted to study in the United States. She had planned for this for so long that when the University of Southern California offered her a place in its master’s program, in a different time, there would have been no question about her accepting it. But this was not that time.
The United States had just voted in a president who had made criticism of Mexico a central point of his campaign speeches. His anti-immigrant rhetoric was striking a chord. Hate crimes against minorities had seen a sharp spike, and many Americans supported the president’s proposed ban on travel from mainly Muslim-majority nations.
So Ramos hesitated to make a choice she had longed to make her entire life. “My family was scared that Americans would treat me badly for being Mexican or that I would be detained by immigration at the airport,” she says.
And she wasn’t alone.
Between 2016 and 2017, according to a study, applications from foreign students to American universities dropped significantly. Many believe the decline was – at least in part – a reaction to the political climate in the United States.
But Ramos decided to risk it. “Doing this master’s was something I’d decided since September last year. I quit my work, I searched for a freelance job, I searched for scholarships and loans and I saved all the money I could to come here. So I couldn’t regret anything. I made too much effort to come to here to quit,” she says.
So she here she was in Los Angeles in the summer of 2017 to pursue a degree in journalism. And that was when she began to realise that facing immigration officials was the easy part. It was now that her real struggle began.
Two months on, Ramos says all she wants is to go back. “It’s funny because all my life I wanted to study abroad or to live outside Mexico and now that I am not there I want to be there.”
She says all that she and her family had agonized over – xenophobia, violence – are not the real problem. What fazes her is that she still feels like an outsider. She misses the food at home, and the people. She misses being able to connect with the kind of humor she was used to. And most of all, she misses being able to put her emotions and her desires into words. “I miss the language. I find it difficult here to express myself. I found out recently I can’t even be angry in English,” she says.
Whether fears about the drop in international students in the rest of the country have been borne out or not, USC continues its trend of bringing in more students from across the world. This year’s freshman class has among the largest population of international students in the university’s history. But what is life like for them after they get here?
Greeting the neighbour. Boarding a bus. Ordering a latte. Buying groceries. Exchanging awkward small talk in the elevator with an acquaintance.
Millions of Americans wake up every morning and breeze through these insignificant but necessary interactions of life that to them are at worst an inconvenience. But many of the hundreds of thousands of international students in the US say that for them, each of those interactions is a tiny battle in a day that is a minefield strewn with other such battles they must fight for dignity, for self-expression and for survival.
When Stefani Urmas was preparing to leave Finland in the summer of 2017 to pursue a master’s degree in the United States, he knew navigating through an English-speaking world wouldn’t be easy. What he wasn’t prepared for was a constant fight against the erosion of his personality.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a 12-year-old boy trying to clumsily express himself and it doesn’t feel good at all,” he says. “In Finland, I consider myself an extrovert and I’m very expressive and talkative. And here, where I need to use a different language and it’s very difficult to find the right words and expressions, I feel like I’m an introvert.”
Other students agree. Chinese citizen Meijun Li, for example, says she find it difficult to connect with other students through humor because she must stammer and think furiously to get through a sentence. Others faced a loss in parts of their personality in stranger ways.
“When I speak in English, I don’t know why I always try to be polite. ‘Would you please?’, ‘would you mind?’, ‘thank you please’. But in Chinese I won’t. Maybe because when I speak in English, I always feel unconfident (sic),” says Ying Guo, another student from China.
A MINEFIELD FOR MISUNDERSTANDINGS
In a way, overcoming the barrier of language is a battle fought by all foreigners who come to America’s shores having learnt English only as a second language. But international students face a unique challenge because for most of them, their entire purpose for being in the United States hinges around communication – in classrooms, in lecture halls, in discussion groups. They cannot get through work and then engage with the outside world only at their comfort level. They must participate, interact, immerse themselves in America.
And at every level, that is fraught with potential for misunderstanding and perhaps even humiliation, whether that be in asking a classmate to pass a ‘napkin’ and saying ‘kidnap’ instead or using gestures common in their own country that may be wildly inappropriate in this one.
LEAVING BEHIND THE UNTRANSLATABLE
Part of the problem is that some bits of different cultures cannot be translated into English – the concept itself does not exist. And when language and culture are left behind, so is identity.
Karina Saidi, a Russian-Lebanese student who lived in the United Arab Emirates, recalls having to stop herself in the US every time she used the word ‘Inshallah’, meaning ‘god willing’ – a task made difficult because the Arabic interjection is such an indispensable part of casual conversation at home.
“There’s a cultural and social idea and experience embedded into that word that you wouldn’t necessarily understand otherwise,” she explains.
Others chime in with their own culture’s version of the word that can’t be transferred to English, from Chinese proverbs to Finnish idioms to Italian hand gestures.
Part of the reason for America’s hardening stance on and the growing climate of fear and suspicion around immigrants in general and international students in particular is the narrative built around them. In the popular imagination, they may as well be invaders, coming into the country to quickly establish their dominion over every aspect of American life and commerce.
In reality, foreigners, and foreign students in particular, are absorbed for the most part in negotiating a social system that was not built to accommodate them. And the key to becoming part of the system is through a style of conversation and a language that feels unfamiliar – even bizarre – in its expressions and intonation, and yet must be grasped by them quickly if they want to fit in to American society.
The focus is usually on how strange ‘foreign’ accents are to Americans – and the stranger they are, the less likely the students are to be assimilated into society. But perhaps it’s worthwhile to look at how equally alien the American way of speaking is to the foreign students who must learn to understand and make themselves understood in to survive.