A few years ago, my girlfriend’s parents hosted an exchange student from Finland, who gave me this view of what others thought of Americans, from an outside point of view: Americans are egocentric, closed minded, and don’t understand different cultures, yet they have all the knowledge in the world available to them, and just need to understand how to properly educate themselves. As an American, I was under the assumption that I did know almost everything that there was to know about different cultures aside from their languages. I thought that nothing was better than American culture, no other country could compete with what America has to offer, they didn’t have triumphant histories like the American Revolution, and they were merely third world countries. I was one of those egocentric Americans, and I’m not going to lie, when I started going to the multicultural hours at Medaille College, I thought that what I would learn there wouldn’t affect me in any way. Man, was I wrong.
As I write this, I have just completed my third session there. In those three sessions alone, I have learned a little bit of some different languages, how traditional holidays vary from ours, games that are played together, and histories of different cultures. In the group, there are students from South Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, and Burma!
To be honest, I also thought that most Asian countries were pretty similar, if not pretty much the same. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Going into the conversations, I realized that their education would differ from my own, not only because of the cultural differences, but I also realize that there are many countries with better education systems than that of the United States. I also expected their technology to be better than what we use here in America. Asian countries are known to be technology hubs, while America is known to be a little slow on the uptake in many instances as far as technology goes.
As far as language goes, I found out that I’m pretty horrible. I am having trouble grasping even the most basic of terms and gestures such hello, welcome, goodbye, etc. However, I also found that I am helping them better their understanding of the English language. For example, I taught them how there is a difference between the use of hello and hi. They did not know that hello is formal and hi is slang. They’ve tried to teach me sayings and how to write characters, and I can just say right now, I won’t understand any of those for a long time. Perhaps if I talk to more people from those cultures, or talk to them more frequently at least, I’ll be able to grasp both the sayings and characters better!
While I was there I did notice that the language barrier came in the way a few times, but each time it did, everybody took that as a learning opportunity. For example, many of them did not know how to use adjectives and metaphors to describe things. By naming different adjectives and metaphors, I was able to understand what they were talking about and helped them to understand. In turn, they would teach me how to say what they were describing in their native languages. This has happened several times, and to this point, I have mostly interacted this way with the Korean students and the Vietnamese students.
I cannot really think of any times that the language barrier was a burden on conversation though. There were a few times when, due to their accents, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. However, I would merely ask for clarification and they would repeat what they said. If after that I still couldn’t understand, others would join in and try to help me clarify.
On the subject of holidays, I was surprised to find out that they were very unfamiliar with the biggest “holiday” in February in the United States, which is Valentine’s Day. They were very curious as to what the holiday was all about, and could not really think of anything in their culture that would equate to it. The girls especially liked the idea of Valentine’s Day, while the guys agreed with me that it seemed like a made up holiday. Nevertheless, I found it very surprising that they were new to the holiday.
One of the things that we did to pass the time was play games. I don’t know if these games were special to their countries or if they were just games that they made up, but I had never heard of them before. Nervous as I was to get involved in the games, they pulled me in and I had a ton of fun! Some of the aspects I didn’t understand because I didn’t know their cultures and languages (some games were based on coordination and language), and even though I struggled, they helped me through.
I also learned a bit about pop culture. The Korean students that I talked to agreed that K-Pop was the dominant music in Korea, although not all of them listen to it. I also learned that many of the students are into Anime, which is the dominant form of all entertainment throughout most Asian countries. I am familiar with some anime, and just assumed that it was all the same. Little did I know that there are many subgenres of anime, and depending on where you’re from, you are exposed to different types of it. They told me that they had a decent amount of exposure to Western forms of entertainment, yet were interested to hear what I listen to and what types of shows and movies I watch. I don’t really listen to mainstream music (mostly punk and metal), I told them I would recommend the music I listen to, but it’s not for the faint of heart or easy listening!
Overall, I was extremely surprised and delighted to find out just how outgoing the students were, and I love interacting with them now. Again, I have already went to three of the meetings, and definitely plan to ask them to hangout outside of class time and school the next time I see them. Not only am I finding out how closed minded I was before, but I am also finding out how much there is to learn about the rest of the world. It seems as if here in the US, I have been in a sort of “bubble” all of my life, and I’m ready to explore the world. It has always been one of my dreams to backpack through Europe, and now through hearing all of the experiences of the foreign students (their travels, moving, etc.) I’m realizing that backpacking is more of a goal and a when will it happen situation rather than a dream and a will it ever happen situation. I might even try backpacking through some other countries now, seeing as I’m already making new friends! I can’t wait to see what this experience teaches me, and I hope that I am teaching them a little bit, too!