A Cultural Change
Understanding the emotional well-being of international students while they cope with a new culture.
Written by: Meher Akshay Bundellu
“All things are difficult before they are easy.” This quote by Thomas Fuller has been my guiding light since the time I came to the US.
Oftentimes, international students eye universities in the U.S. for quality education, research opportunities, better paying jobs and, most importantly, a better lifestyle. I am no different. Since the time I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree in my home country, I was preparing for a higher education in the U.S. Although I had taken into consideration many aspects of my decision to move to the U.S., I was surprised to see that there were many other factors that I did not pay attention to, or that I should have paid more attention to. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy and grateful to be studying in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world — one with a rich background in research — shaping my career in the best way possible. What I am referring to is the cultural change that I experienced and that many other international students experience. What surprised me the most was that none of my friends and family that are already staying here, ever told me about the other side of the coin of moving to the U.S.
I come from India, a place where being together and staying together as a tight-knit family is significant to our culture and the predominant way of life. I was taken aback by the degree of independent living that people practice in America. Coming from a place where we eat our meals together and recite prayers together on a daily basis, I found myself lost and disconnected. I clearly remember visiting a popular retail store the day after my arrival and coming home with a heavy heart. The reason? I had never seen 80+ year olds do their own grocery shopping in my life. Back in my home country, just by opening the window, one can see the hustle and bustle of the city. Here, I found it strange to see almost no one on the streets. It was as if there were hardly any people to talk to. Doing your own laundry, cleaning the house regularly, making your own meals three times a day and then cleaning up after you eat can keep you very busy. To add to that, managing studies and work simultaneously can only add to one’s emotional turmoil. In many ways this was a cultural shock to me.
Indeed, I am basking in the blessings of the Almighty of having an opportunity to study in America and working hard towards my career goals. However, I also understand that this cultural change comes with the territory of studying in the U.S.
Now when I look back, I feel that this change not only taught me to be independent in every way possible, but also to be more organized. To wake up every morning and hit the ground running with everyday tasks has taught me how to set priorities for my health, my emotional well-being and, most importantly, my studies and career. With time, I have understood that this cultural change is not so much about leaving my parent’s nest, but more about developing myself into a responsible person to build a nest of my own. Truly, this cultural change has taught me one of the most fundamental life lessons of being independent.
Just like me, there are hundreds of international students, and most of them face this cultural shift at some point of time or the other. The aspect of cultural change should be given more emphasis to make others aware of it and to make their transitions easier. So for that reason, I decided to embark on a journey to connect with international students from various parts of the world and understand their perspective on this elephant in the room – the cultural change.
Sabeel Khan, a graduate student who came to the U.S. this August, lived in Dubai for more than 17 years. Because of his father’s job, his family moved across the Middle East all through his middle school. Sabeel, interestingly, did not find any major difference in the culture in which he was born and brought up inup to the culture in the U.S. He learned how to prepare meals for himself from a young age as both of his parents are working parents. Therefore, he found no trouble in preparing meals for himself, cleaning up thereafter, managing studies and doing other chores simultaneously. However, what he found challenging was not being able to see his parents after a long and tiring day. He said,”Back home in Dubai, I would return home from work to my parents. Somewhere subconsciously that made me feel loved and belonged and that also took away my emotional stress for the day. But here in the U.S., I feel that this emotional stress keeps on piling up.” Sabeel said that making good friends who are true to him helped him de-stress and feel at home. After all, friends are often the only family that we have here. Sabeel said that it was not easy for him to make friends in the U.S. He did feel that people live independent lives, and he had to make the effort to approach people and network with them. This helped him build a group of friends that he can rely on. Today, he is happier and loving every moment of being around his newfound family.
Leo Dou, an undergraduate student, came to the U.S. five years ago from China and completed his high school in Columbus. Leo lived with a host family while he was in high school, who took good care of him in every respect. Leo said, “I am shocked that the schools and colleges in the U.S. are not as crowded as the educational institutions in China. The people here are not as busy as compared to the the people in China.” Leo shared that in his middle school in China, they had 10,000 students in one grade. He was taken aback by the limited number of people here. Leo tries to keep himself busy throughout the day so that he does not feel any different from his roots. Although Leo feels that it is tough to go through a cultural change, there are ways to make the process easier. He is part of various clubs that meet once a day or once every two days. Interacting with students and working on projects in the clubs makes him feel occupied and at home. Leo ended on a lighter note by saying,”The only time when I have to be slow and not busy is when I have to interact with people. This is simply because I face an incredible challenge understanding the American accent.”
Carla Ashford, an American by birth, found my conversation with an international student on the topic of cultural change to be interesting and couldn’t help but jump in and share her perspective. Carla was an international student a few years ago for a brief period and said that the university needs to have more events for international students to make them feel at home. She feels that having events based on their cultures can drive more participation. Carla said,” My Indian friends often sing Indian songs every now and then. Having a singing contest of Indian classical songs or Indian songs in general can be a good way to bring these students together. Infact, giving them resources and assistance to form a club of Indian song lovers for instance, can bring like-minded students together. This can eventually make the students feel at home and welcomed.” Carla also said that having cultural diversity in the dining options on-campus can be very helpful to the international students. She emphasised that both the Vikes dining and the Lift Up Vikes facilities must include food items catering to the international students as well. She laughed when she said, “One Papa John’s on campus cannot fulfill the needs of all the students.”
Aayush Chaurasia, a 24-year-old graduate student who comes from a small town in India, says that one thing he cannot find here is the constant ringing of the bells of the temples. Coming from a culture where visiting the temples and offering prayers is a part of daily life, he was shocked to see that this is not the case here. He finds solace in the home temple he and his roommates have built for themselves, which was well-decorated and lit when I visited. Aayush says that it can take a while to get used to the independent life here. He overcomes the cultural shock by looking at the bright side. He said, “Life here in the U.S. is comparatively slower than the life in India. Also, what is particularly noteworthy is that the government has lots of benefits for the people here.” He feels motivated and inspired to see 18- to 19-year-olds take responsibility for their finances, an opportunity which he feels he didn’t get at that age. Aayush describes the quintessential law of give and take: you give up on family, relatives and friends and take on the opportunity to learn, grow and establish yourself. He concluded by saying that while you do get all the good things that life has to offer, in return, you pay a price. The price, in this case, is to adapt yourself to a new culture.
Speaking to these fellow students, I feel a sense of contentment. This cultural shift is impossible to avoid. The best we can do to make it easier for the up-and-coming international students is to acknowledge their struggles, be more open about our experiences, and not underestimate the emotional impact it can have on us. This will help others to overcome this cultural shift with love and care. It is only when we come together and support one another that we can make this inevitable change, the cultural change, much easier.