College orientation is, in my experience, like your typical last-minute yard sale: crowded and overwhelming, consisting of a multitude of individuals who scamper for the best deals. At orientation, the best deals strike a balance. They involve searching for people who appear promising as future friends, as well as generally engaging in conversation with strangers so as not to appear lost. I took part in an event called “speed-friending” my freshman year. Predictably, it served as organized activity that filled time as opposed to successfully igniting future relationships.
Questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” quickly become overly familiar. Still, the comfort of their answers often excuses the absence of novelty. After all, the questions are straightforward and usually entail responses that have always been true. Among a series of rapid-fire introductions, these questions can bring the kind of relief that allows you to breathe more deeply.
Unfortunately for me, this was not entirely the case. Having moved to different countries every three to four years growing up, trying to determine where I was from caused me further personal insecurity. Along with the surface worries that focused on whether or not I’d make a good first impression on my peers, my internal monologue started sounding a little something like this: Should I say I’m from the city I was born in? No, maybe where I moved to first? Am I from the city that my family is living in now? Or maybe where I feel I was raised, where I was living when I entered the stage in my life that I find myself in now…
These experiences provided exciting, new activities for us international students, and for the most part we shared an interest in adapting ourselves to surrounding trends if only to appear more similar to our American counterparts. It was, essentially, an attempt to ground our ever-changing identities in our current setting, something that those of us who were nomads had been socialized to do. Still, some differences were more difficult to overcome. These became clearest during school breaks throughout the semester, when many students would return home by bus, train, or an hour-long flight to visit their families. For those of us whose families lived on different continents, however it simply wasn’t worth it to make such a trip. It became expected, then, to find a significantly quieter campus during these breaks, though you could always count on the presence of an international friend, provided he or she didn’t go off to visit an American student’s family instead.
Despite these disparities, I wanted to reconcile my individual characteristics with those of the members of my surrounding community. I wanted, furthermore, to minimize my perception of the cultural differences between my American friends and myself. I began to search for a fresh mindset with which to approach the situation. The answer occurred to me only in conversation with another international student.
“I keep being asked about my feelings towards American culture and how it differs from my own,” a friend from South Africa said to me halfway through our first semester, “but I wonder if it’s more of the transition from high school to college that really accounts for most of the differences we’re facing.”
Her words led me to consider an alternate possibility: that all college freshmen are, in a way, foreigners–foreigners to the completely new lifestyle that being a college student entails. Learning to live with a roommate, being in control of one’s educational path, and making independent, healthy lifestyle choices were new challenges all freshmen faced together, regardless of culture or nationality. Even the added liberty that came with my move to the United States, which I had perceived as a characteristic of an individualistic culture, could be reframed as pertaining primarily to my first year at college. In this way my sense of freedom was not necessarily a question of culture, but of the lifestyle I adopted in order to adapt to the new environment. In my arrival, nervous as I was in approaching unfamiliar situations, I had focused on all of the ways that I wasn’t going to fit in. But perhaps all of my characteristics that didn’t seem to meet the standard were, in fact, true only in my subjective reality: in being so self-conscious of the small behavioral differences I presented, perhaps I had blown them out of proportion.
Where you’re from is essentially a question of identity. Your place of origin, or wherever it is you call home, can become a symbol of self-identification that offers stability. As the transition from high school to college brings what can be intimidating change, one’s self-perception is deeply questioned. I’ve found, then, that it’s important to create forms of self-expression and expansion on campus itself. If I couldn’t seem to resonate with any particular place beyond campus as my home, why not make a home of out of college? Perhaps it didn’t matter so much where I was actually from than where I felt closest to—and perhaps that place could be multiple cities, schools and communities. When I was able to try on the perspective of a friend and hold it up against my own biases, I was challenged to think differently. Thus, it occurred to me, perhaps there aren’t two (or three, or four…), clear-cut groups of students existing alongside one another.
Perhaps we are more alike than different.