Lost In Translation

A look through the eyes of international students living in a second-language world


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?



“Sometimes I feel like a 12-year-old boy trying to clumsily express himself.”

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.


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.


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.


Why John Oliver’s Jester Is Now The True King Of News

In the midst of mocking Kanye West or the shape of his own eyebrows, the comedian is upending journalism.


My favourite journalist is a man who hates being called a journalist.

“It’s not journalism, it’s comedy—it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second,” The Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver said to The Daily Beast when the show first started out.

In August last year, he and his team devoted an entire segment to talking about journalism, and he made it very clear he felt “stupid shows” like his were mere imposters, weren’t close to the real thing. “Whenever this show is mistakenly called journalism, it’s a slap in the face to the actual journalists whose work we rely on,” he said.

And he’s right.

He and his team certainly don’t go chasing down political secrets down the corridors of DC, or risk their lives to talk to people in the midst of war. They don’t have to follow source after source down blind alleys to dig out the truth, or stand in knee-deep water to interview a mother who’s lost all her possessions to a flood.

All Oliver and his team do, really, is aggregate the news. They sift through hundreds and thousands of hours of reportage on TV and read through the work of newspapers, local and national and even international, and draw attention to what they think is important.


But here’s why I think we shouldn’t draw a clear line between his show and ‘real’ journalism – and also why I admire him and his team’s work in the show.

For one thing, it informs. It educates. It empowers ordinary people to understand the forces influencing their lives, and it even helps them do something about it, such as when he urged his viewers to let the FCC know they wanted net neutrality. Isn’t that the primary role of journalists?

That he does all this while weaving in jokes about the shape of his own eyebrows or mocking Kanye West or waving around puppies should not take away from the very real impact he has had on the public and on American legislation and regulations, an impact that has even led to the coining of the phrase, “the John Oliver effect”.


What’s more, the line separating his show from journalism is becoming blurrier with time, as his team delves deeper and deeper into their chosen stories, and begins to investigate their issues and find their own sources. They have placed phone calls and burrowed through piles and piles of documents and tax records to dig out the truth about how much the Miss America pageant really contributes. They have conducted vox pops, carried out a long correspondence with televangelists and set up their own church to probe how they exploit the vulnerable, and placed ads in Fox News to educate President Donald Trump. They spoke to and brought in a gay rights activist from Uganda to talk about American influence on that country, another man who served time in prison and now lives a life with dignity to talk about the rehabilitation of prisoners, and an Iraqi translator to talk about how the US is making it difficult for translators to seek asylum even though they risked their life for the country.

Most remarkably of all, John Oliver travelled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden about government surveillance, and to India to speak to the Dalai Lama, who told him about problems and dilemmas he faced that no one else has covered yet.

Each of these interviews was incredibly difficult to get but very very important to inform the American public. That’s an awful lot of journalistic work for a team that supposedly isn’t doing journalism.


If what John Oliver is doing isn’t real journalism, then perhaps there’s a thing or two that real journalists have to learn from him. In my opinion, American journalism is a little too narrow in its perspective, a little too absorbed in America itself to care about the outside world. And this is bad, because not only does the US have tremendous impact on the rest of the world, but the rest of the world impacts it too. Moroever, there are lessons to be learnt in the issues and problems of other societies. At a time when almost no news outlet in the US paid heed to the Indian general elections in 2015, the largest exercise of democracy in the world, Oliver devoted his very first episode to it. He’s also covered the issue of Brexit, the refugee crisis sweeping Europe and the FIFA scandal – all issues that greatly influence the rest of the world even if they haven’t been the focus of American journalism.

Is it objective? Of course not. But perhaps now more than ever, American journalists need to recognise that true objectivity is impossible, and attempts to achieve it end up benefiting the wrong side. Perhaps now is the time to understand that journalists need to call politicians out and say they’re wrong when they are, whether it be through fact-checking and exposing their lies in headlines, or calling Trump a racist grandpa in a comedy show episode.

Oliver himself addressed the absurdity of unnecessarily ‘objective’ coverage in his episode about climate change, in which he pointed out that the media were doing the public a disservice by using one voice for and one voice against the issue (“Bill Nye the Science Guy and some dude” is how he described it) in their coverage of the issue, because the truth is that there is a huge imbalance in the number of scientists who believed in climate change and the number who don’t – 97% to 3%, he pointed out. To illustrate this, he actually brought in 97 climate scientists to his show and made them stand on one side, and three climate deniers on the other side – a true and vivid representation of the ratio of scientists who believe in climate change to those who don’t. It’s a visual that’s been burned into my mind’s eye since I saw it, and I’m sure into those of others watching, and no one who saw that episode would ever again be fooled by a ‘real’ news article’s ‘objective’ coverage of climate science again.


And that’s the part about John Oliver and his show that I think makes him stand out. By rejecting the label of ‘journalism’, Oliver can do more than ‘real’ journalists do and communicate issues in unconventional ways, such as filling his room with people in lab coats, or breaking down government surveillance by making Edward Snowden explain it in terms of ‘dick pics’. And by not calling his show a news program, he can touch upon issues that aren’t necessarily newsworthy at that moment, or that haven’t changed very recently, but that deserve in-depth attention anyway. It’s the secret of every Shakespearean jester. The less seriously they take you, the more rein you have to subvert power and tradition.

And because the show prioritises the audience’s enjoyment, because it simplifies issues and explains them in terms of easily relatable jokes, without letting go of complexity and context, people across the world tune in week after week in between their favorite movies and shows and Youtube prank videos and pay attention the way they never would to ‘real’ news shows.

In his own goofy, irreverent way, John Oliver is upending journalism.

(Credit for photos: hbo.com)