By Heather Leiphart, Student Reporter
On the morning of the first day of classes, a wide-eyed freshman wandered past the GATA Fountain, almost late for class, and asked for directions to the Biblical Studies Building from a nearby student. She had chosen to stay home and spend more time with her family instead of attending Welcome Week and did not know her way around campus. Like most freshmen, she was nervous and excited about beginning life at ACU, but unlike other freshmen, her family was 9,000 miles away in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Of the almost 5,000 students enrolled at ACU, senior Quyen Do is the only student from her country.
“In my point of view, whether or not you’re from America or you’re from Zimbabwe or Jamaica, to me everyone is international,” Do said. “It’s not like there’s the world and then there’s America; as long as you’re not Vietnamese, you’re international to me.”
Do, vice president of the International Students’ Association, is one of many international students who have found their identities at ACU as a minority within a minority.
One size doesn’t fit all
As a science major, Do is used to grouping. It is a natural part of her research. Grouping human beings based on race alone, however, does not make as much sense to her.
“I think the only similarity I have with other Asians is that we all use chopsticks. We all have black hair and black eyes, but even the shape of our eyes is different,” she said with a laugh. “Just because we are Asian doesn’t mean that we have similarities.”
Grouping international students with American students of the same background yields even greater differences, said Brenda Daniels, senior biochemistry major from Bogota, Columbia.
“If you put me next to my first-generation Hispanic American cousins, you will definitely know which one of us isn’t Columbian,” she said. “Just being American makes a big difference; Hispanic Americans have American culture.”
Although the differences are great, it is difficult to meet an international student who finds these racial categories a significant problem. Most students agree general grouping is harmless, but are upset when mislabeled too specifically.
“It doesn’t bother me when people think Hispanic American or Hispanic,” Daniels said. “But it does bother me when people see that I’m a Hispanic in Texas and assume I’m Mexican, or if I went to Florida, people would assume I’m Cuban.”
Erika Ito, senior graphic design major from Tokyo, said she is offended only when people from China, Japan, Thailand and Korea are labeled together as Asians and not separately recognized.
“Everyone has differences, even with people who are the same race,” Do said. “I guess as you broaden your horizons, you don’t really group everyone in the same category anymore.”
The melting pot
The U.S. boasts a unique blending of cultures, which allows for this peaceful overlap of ethnic groups, Do said.
“Some international students think that America is a white-dominant society, but I’ve been here for five years, and I realize that America is a melting pot,” she said. “Anyone can find a part of their culture here.”
In this melting pot, international students strive to find a delicate balance between transitioning to the American culture at ACU and retaining their own cultural norms. Some students immerse themselves in the American language and way of life, while others seek a comfort zone of people who speak their own language to avoid culture shock, Daniels said. She prefers the former.
“It’s important to understand the American culture and be aware of it because I am here; to me that is the point,” she said. “But for my future kids, I’ll try to keep things the way I was brought up. Even though I’m getting used to [the culture], the way I was raised is the normal thing for me.”
Do has lived in the U.S. since she was 16 years old and finds a different approach to the cultural blending in her life.
“I can’t think back and say which trait of me is strictly Vietnamese and which is strictly American,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m developing this way because I’m being influenced by American culture or because I’m trying to figure out my own identity.”
For international students wanting to create this blend of cultures in their lives, Daniels said the best advice is to be open-minded.
“Set your differences apart and be willing to learn and take advantage of the opportunity that you have of being in a different country and a different culture with many different cultures around you,” she said.
A common thread
Even in the midst of so many differences, one experience shared by the majority of international students is the language barrier, which they consider a challenge that brings them together.
“Most of my friends are internationals, not necessarily Asians. We don’t have cultural similarities but we all have in common that English is not our first language,” Ito said. “Even though we can’t always understand each other, we understand the difficulty.”
Daniels said she prefers to spend time with Americans so she can practice her English.
“When I see Hispanics now, I tend to go away from them because they want to say things in Spanish to me, but I already know the Spanish I need,” she said. “To me, the point of being here is to learn English.”
Chase Brazell, sophomore history major from Athens, also sees a difference between race and ethnicity that is shared by language.
“I relate to international students the same because I expect them to have a slight accent and need a learning curve; whereas minority students, I see them obviously more American,” he said.
Learning the language plays a key role in the transition to a new environment, Do said. Confidence can make this transition easier.
“When international students aren’t confident, they speak softly, which makes it even more difficult for people to understand,” she said. “I think having good English skills was the main thing that helped me learn the culture.”
Wanda Hudson, senior business major from Trinidad and Tobago, agrees language difficulty is one of the biggest indicators of culture differences. English is the native language of her country, and she said this is the reason her culture is similar to American culture.
Paying it forward
Four years after her panic-stricken detour at the GATA fountain, Do is preparing to graduate and receive her biochemistry degree. Although she still is the only student from her country, she has found her identity at ACU and largely attributes that the International Students Association. She and other students in ISA now help new international students find their way at ACU.
“I think it’s really hard to first come to a country and try to make friends yourself, but instead if you come there and there are people who are more than willing to be friends with you from the beginning, you gain that courage and try to branch out more,” Do said. “Making friends with international students at ISA has been one of my favorite memories as a student at ACU.”