A deep chasm with no bridge crossing over

We are a party of innovation. We do not reject our traditions, but we are willing to adapt to changing circumstances, when change we must. We are willing to suffer the discomfort of change in order to achieve a better future. — Barbara Jordan.

I walked fast with a cheerful face hoping it was a beautiful day for me. Finally I found it — Lindbloom Student Center. I was standing there, holding my lunch box and seeing lots of people sitting in those tables in the cafeteria enjoying their lunch time. It was crowed and looked fun I felt. But then, a question came up to my mind: “Where should I take a seat?” That question made me wonder to another thing when I was looking around: “It sounds strange! Are people grouping to sit with each other?” It seemed like students gathered together by their similar identities. What I saw was that most international students assemble together at the same places, while most domestic students gathered at the other places. “What are they doing? Why do they do that? Yes, this is a place which contains the variety of people from many different countries, so why do international and domestic students not sit together? Are they afraid of exchanging their cultures with each other? Or for other reasons that I don’t know?” a bunch of questions just showed up to me. I was rooted to that spot for a while with a pond of people around me.

I did not have many friends yet, and I did not see anyone that I knew to go to and sit together with. I still remember that my English at that time was really bad. Not only could I not speak English fluently, I also had a very strong Vietnamese accent. Me speaking English was like a cat speaking in a duck’s language, which was like I created a new language for humans, not English at all. I was self-conscious about my accent, but it would just bring me more obstacles if I concerned about that much, as I think being afraid of it just made me unconfident and unnatural in speaking English. That’s why I tried to feel more relaxed, and tried not to make me feel stressed out as I knew it just because I was like a kid for the first day in a primary school without parents, and I believed I could improve it day by day.

Looking around, I saw a very close empty seat, so I just went ahead, grabbed that available chair and sat down. There were three people who sat around me and they were all Americans. With a hope that I could make more new friends and know more people so that I could easily get integrated into a completely new environment, I found a way to start the conversation with people who sat at the same table with me. I made an appealing smile, then said hi, introduced my name and asked them their names like the way Americans usually do to start the conversations with new people. I was really happy when they also smiled back at me and introduced themselves in a friendly way. I continued to talk more with them, but it seemed they didn’t know what I was talking about because of my weird language. They talked to me, but I could not catch them all up as they spoke just like a flash. I have never heard anyone speak real English like that when I was in Vietnam, so it was really hard for me to get used to with it in the first and very short time having been in America.

I talked to those American students by what I understood but it kind of like we were talking about two different things. They talked about a certain thing, and then I talked about a different thing. I knew they did not get what I mean but they still showed me their politeness by nodding their head which was very nice of them. But after that, because we didn’t match each other, everything turned back that they talked with each other, and I just looked at them, not even saying one word, and felt like I was marginalized. My heart was empty and cold. I tried to talk to them but I could not make it. I tried to fit in with them, but it was really hard. It was a fact! A fact that language really turned me into a fish out of water.

Since that time, I felt I was falling into a big gap, the one between domestic students and international students, which is really hard to heal. And it made me think of the question I had before: why do people sit grouped together by their identities? I had the answer for it now. Different languages are one of the reasons for establishing the boundary between international students and domestic students. I found out language was hindering me from getting closer to people and integrating into my new community. It is the most obvious factor that creates a gap between two types of people; it is a deep chasm with no bridge crossing over. That is why international students often find it easier to congregate together, as they can easily understand, express what they think, and share their stories with each other. They will not feel embarrassed when talking to each other as they know all of them are international students so mistakes in using their second language is a normal thing, while there is always a fear that appears in their minds whenever they talk to domestic students. They are afraid of not being understood or being laughed at by domestic students because of the mistakes they might make. International students are also afraid that they will break out in a cold sweat because the way they express their ideas is abnormal and somehow sounds weird and different from what Americans do. There are tons of anxieties that hinder them from getting close with domestic students. I am talking about that as a third person who considers it, but actually that was how I felt and what I thought about the difference that creates the gap. I really wished there had been a bridge to close the gap for not only me, but also many other international students to cross over.

Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together. — Jacqueline Woodson.

My experience about a no-bridge-crossing-over chasm did not simply stop there. For another day, it was an early morning and the sky was still really dark so I took the bus to go to school. I sat at the back row of the bus, and at that seat, I could observe everything on the bus. I saw Brian, my classmate, she was sitting over there on the other side. She also saw me. She gave me a beautiful smile and said hi to me. I happily said hi to her. Since we didn’t sit close to each other, we just could make a brief greeting. The bus got to school. I got off and walked ahead to the library. I suddenly saw Brian over there. I went fast to catch her. With a smiley face when she saw me, she said “Hey Jane, how are you going?” I was surprised and had a thought in my mind “What? What is she talking about? She and I were just on the same bus to school, so why does she ask me like that? Or has she forgotten that she just saw me on the bus?” It was such a ridiculous thought I had when I heard what she said. But whatever, I confidently replied to her question “I went to school by bus.” What was I thinking at that time? I thought “How are you going?” meant “How did I go to school?” It was not even close in the meaning. Actually, that was the very first time I heard another way of greeting that Americans use. What I learned of greeting in English when I was in Vietnam was always very simple: “How are you?”, so it was really unfamiliar to me that made me not recognize what she meant even though it was super-common. When I answered like that, she thought I didn’t hear what she said, so she asked me again but in a different way “How are you today?” I talked to myself: “Ohhh, then I got what she meant.” It was so embarrassing to reply to a very simple question with a very silly answer, I thought. Later, we separated to go to different classes.

While my mind just kept thinking about my ridiculous action, I saw another American classmate of mine standing in the front door of the library. He saw me and said “Hey! What’s up?” That time was even worse than before, as he spoke really fast that it turned into “Whassup?” I had to stop there and think for a while, then I realized it, I looked up in the sky and saw nothing: “Hmm… I don’t know. I don’t see anything.” OH MY GOD what I just said made my face turn red when he laughed at me. I did not know what was going on, but I understood that I just said something wrong that made him laugh really hard.

Just one morning, but I got two embarrassing stories. My embarrassing stories were all about “small talk”, which is etiquette in America. People will apply it like a customary code when they see each other. It was really new for me when I first came to the United States as there is no such code like that in Vietnam. It took me a long time to get used to it in order to act and react with a natural reflex when seeing other people. Therefore, the way of acting and thinking is also pretty much different between American and international students. Particularly in this situation is the dissimilarity of custom and culture. That is another factor that creates a deep chasm between domestic and international students. It affects non-native speakers since different cultures will lead to misunderstandings among people that make international students feel shy and uncomfortable when they communicate with domestic students.

Those experiences are all related to the discourse of each own person, particularly what I mean here is my own discourse, or wider, is international students’ discourse versus Americans’ discourse. James Paul Gee, an author of “What is Literacy?” defines discourse as “an “identity kit” which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act and talk so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize.” Living in different areas will build up different social-cultural primary discourses. People acquire the primary discourse through their life time living with their family and living in their area. That what they possess, so when people move to a new area, there are so many new changes which are different from their perspectives, their beliefs, and their thoughts. Therefore, it is natural that international students will see many different things that they are not used to at all. That is they have to get acquainted to a new environment, learn new things to establish their own secondary discourse. That is the reason why they often think and feel hard for making new friends, domestic friends, in a new community. It is obvious that international students will get nervous easily in setting up the communications or building up the relationships with domestic students; it is just because the concerns about how new discourse would accept them always exists in their mind. Hence, the chasm between two hills is made. The hills seem not far from each other, but no one could know how to cross from this hill to another. It’s neither because of domestic students nor international students. It can be considered as a natural rule of life when people step up to a new place. I believe that the solution is just time. Time will help me, or many other international students to learn our new discourse, to get used to and know how to get integrated into a new community.

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