Casual relationships and friendly conversations are part of the American culture. We’re generally politically correct (PC) and find it easier and more comfortable to hang out with people who share our political, philosophical, and even cultural values. We can joke without accidentally stepping on other people’s toes, and to be frank, it’s just less hassle to associate with like-minded people. But, we welcome meeting new people and even gravitate with curiosity to check out international people, be it students on campus or acquaintances at parties. So why do 40% of these international people feel isolated and lonely here in America colleges?
We’re lazy. It takes a tremendous effort to communicate with people who don’t speak English fluently. We need to listen carefully to decode their thick accents and to garner whatever we can from their words to comprehend what they are trying to say. This takes a lot of work. To do this for a few minutes as you exchange niceties, is fine. But to have a conversation with any depth, about say politics, philosophy, or even describing a new concept requires too much effort for most people. International students have trouble understanding jokes because they don’t have the history or contextual background or vocabulary. When American students want to hang out with friends, they usually don’t invite their international acquaintances simply because it’s exhausting.
Take me for example. I’m 100% Japanese American (3rd generation) but I don’t speak Japanese. Yet, every time my friends have Japanese friends visiting America, they expect me to jump on board and be the “hostess with the mostest.” So while I’m cooking and cleaning to prepare for a dinner party, I am also supposed to engage with guests where small talk takes intense listening skills and triple the time that I may not have because I’m juggling 5 other things. Hmm. No.
I also found this true with my deaf friends. I grew up and went to school with several deaf students and we share a wonderful bond because of our high school memories. It’s been several decades since we were in high school and we get together every once in a while. After our visits, I’m grateful for the time together but I’m exhausted by the brain power it takes to communicate with them – especially since I’m rusty at reading lips and interpreting their speech. It makes me feel terribly guilty writing this because I pride myself on my color- and disability-blind philosophy.
As I watch American teens squirm every time I suggest that they invited an international high school student to join them while they shop, go to the beach, or just hang out, I realize this phenomenon is happening at the high school level too. At first, I pressured American high school students to entertain these international teens, but then after much resistance, I stopped doing it. I was doing what my friends were doing to me. Not fair.
Foreign students on high school and college campuses are feeling isolated, no matter how large their class sizes are or how integrated their demographics. Sadly, I don’t see American students making social changes that will incorporate these students to bridge the gap. I believe that the international students will need to be brave and join clubs and groups to become part of the American culture. After all, they’re here to learn and the best way to understand our culture is to jump right in. I think then the international students will immerse themselves in conversations and become fluent much quicker – bridging the gap and making American friends.