The earliest memories I have of America involve a slew of mystical reveries about how the nation on the other side of Earth works.
How did I even begin to explain America? It was immaculate. It had 50 states with so many different time zones. I heard that people eat steak there all the time. I heard that kids speak English every day. One time, an American person said “hi” to me on the street. It was—awesome.
“Mean Girls” trope aside, other parts of my distant childhood memories include: the alluring night lights of Manhattan illuminating the giant billboards; the ultimate wilderness where you find undying river streams and chirps of birds; suburban towns where you see lines of houses with the refreshing, minty scent; people losing their minds over Super Bowl parties that don’t actually involve giant bowls; football that isn’t played by foot; people messing up the temperatures all the time and pretending they’re boiling.
Or perhaps it might have been earlier, when the dazzling eminence of American music entered the arena of China’s pop craze, when TV shows like “The Office,” “Friends” and “Modern Family” reimagined cultural norms. For generations, America transformed critical discourse of law, society and government. For a queer kid, America popularized the narrative that it’s acceptable to be who you are—for the first time. For my parents, America meant love independent of parental control. For my grandparents, a fantasyland distant in the memories of the Cultural Revolution. My conceptualization of America became a thousand fragments of indelible marks of American values—its peculiar way of life and the unending Hollywood entertainment.
But as I grew up and walked the American streets for myself, my imaginations were shattered. I was confronted with the lesser-advertised version of America and the darkness in its past. For many, the story of the American dream states that if you enter this country with the best of intentions and a bare, willing embrace to its ideals, America would reciprocate with due earnestness; that if you make every effort to assimilate, America would open its arms without reservation. But America, like every other nation, is not perfect. Some efforts, however assiduous, remain one-sided; some intentions, however kind, remain lost in translation. The assumption of an unconditionally welcoming America, like the expectation that international students need to be experts in American culture in order to be deserving of a place at Bowdoin, is simply grounded in naïveté.
It is the experience of many international students to recognize a stark dichotomy—the expectation of America’s exemplary record as an eclectic aggregate of possibilities and the invariable disappointment in the realization that cultural conformity is a journey rife with uncertainty, awkwardness and dread. Since coming to the College, a friend told me that he had, for the longest time, been terrified by the prospect of speaking in class, not because of linguistic insecurities but because of the inevitable assumption that his background was the cause of any mistake or stuttering. On a separate occasion, someone told me she stopped recounting stories of her dog because of the unavoidable question, “don’t you guys eat dogs?”
The list goes on from mispronounced non-English names to students shouldering the blame of “self-segregation,” despite it being the only way to make themselves at ease. Little by little, assimilation turns into willful acquiescence and then numbness. The truth is, narratives of international students on this campus cannot be encapsulated into one monolithic notion of “culture shock”—but instead occupy a nuanced scope of race, ethnicity, creed, culture and language. The common ignorance of international narratives institutionally drives foreign students to the margins, and addressing this system of imbalance requires a profound, rewarding appreciation for multiculturalism in the most personal, intimate way. This column hopes to achieve just that.
Appreciating America, a home for at least four years, is a central tenet to any international student’s Bowdoin story. While there are those who hold the country above criticism, I believe that, like all forms of affection, authenticity lies at the heart of not only the glee, the awe, the warmth and the jokes, but also the despair, the pity, the harsh criticisms and, at times, the rage. These are the products of a trusting dependence on a nation that nourished so many of their predecessors. Grappling with an idea with appreciation yet remaining lucidly cognizant of its historical wrongs and systematic shortcomings is, to me, a hallmark of intellectual growth.
Like the psychedelic notes enunciated by Natalie Mering in “Movies,” my imagination of America still shifts and metamorphosizes in delirious dramas of melancholy and bliss. “This is how it feels to be in love,” she utters, “this is life from above.” My cherished memories and fantastical longings for America are now grounded in reality—and they are truer than ever. The opening of the Offer of the College reads, “To be at home in all lands and all ages,” but for international students, to consider an idea as abstractly fascinating as America home requires an unwavering willingness—indeed, a courage—to critique it. To be vulnerable. To be in love.