I carry my basket of seaweed, rice crackers, plum juice and lychee candy to the register. I am the only Caucasian in the Hannam Market, which is five minutes from my southern California college campus.
“Kamsahamnida,” I thank the woman who is ringing me up. She looks up at me, surprised to hear me speak her language. Beaming, I collect my snacks and head out to my car. I’d often sped past this Asian grocery on my way to Barnes & Noble, but I never thought I’d become a regular.
The day I met Laura, my college freshman roommate from Sabah, I could hardly catch her words; she had a strong, Chinese accent, and spoke a British-influenced Malaysian slang. But as I got to know her, I found myself welcomed into a wonderful unexplored world—not in her distant homeland but in my own neighborhood.
Through the international friends I made in college, I became more aware of my own identity as I learned to appreciate the diversity of my campus. Laura and Dahye, a friend from Seoul, not only shared their culture with me but also helped me see my own through new eyes. Dahye had never climbed a tree—at home, girls always wore skirts and heels. Laura had never run through the sprinklers—in her rainy region, there was no need for them. As for me, I had never tasted cuttlefish (a type of mollusk) or pickled cabbage. When your friends are international students, someone always has something to share, so adventures are abundant. You’ll learn to love and may even cook ethnic foods, but there is so much more.
As I showed my new friends the local landmarks and attractions, they, in return, showed me all I had overlooked in my own city. Most of my international friends are from East and Southeast Asia, so suddenly, the Korean market, little boba shops and manga stores poked their heads out of obscure shopping centers. I snapped their pictures in front of the Hollywood Sign and they made me pose for photo stickers in K-Town.
Don’t ever be afraid to ask about an international student’s country or language. When I first learned I would be rooming with a Malaysian student, I was excited but also nervous that my curiosity would somehow offend her. My fears were groundless. My new roommate welcomed every question. International students often build close-knit friendships amongst themselves and it can be difficult for them to feel comfortable in American culture unless someone shows interest in who they are and where they came from.
Your international friends might have distinct expectations of ownership, privacy, and time—and these differences can sometimes cause friction. Just remember, those differences are rooted in their cultural identity. In rooming with Laura, our speech patterns mixed. I learned little phrases in Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and even Hakka, while American slang and idiom began to show up in her speech. Laura, Dahye and my university’s International Student Association have enriched the diversity of my college years immeasurably.
As you search for a college that will serve your educational goals, also consider the campus sub-cultures and even the study abroad programs available. Don’t skim through your college years without immersing yourself in the diversity all around you.
Sarah McMillen is ?an English major at Biola University (www.biola.edu).