September 12, 2022

MKRTCHYAN | The Small Inconveniences of International Students

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After I got accepted, it didn’t take long for me to leave home for Cornell from Armenia. Definitely not long enough to mentally get ready for everything that was about to come. That was my first time traveling alone as none of my family members had a VISA to accompany me. Hence I was alone, standing in the airport, holding the ticket to start my first solo adventure — a journey of  about 24 hours, two flights, one lay-over, an uber drive and a bus ride to Ithaca. Needless to say, that was my first time traveling to the U.S. too, and I had no idea what any of the places listed on my tickets looked like.

My first inconvenience as an international student was before I even had my first flight. As a responsible early adult, I watched videos of students moving into their colleges to get an idea of what I would potentially need to bring. However, when students in those videos were buying pillows and fridges, I was standing at the front of the check-in line at the airport with my overweight suitcases, deciding which item I valued more: my favorite Armenian chocolates or another pair of shoes?

Fast forward 24 hours from my departure when I finally made it to Ithaca, I realized that I was without any working SIM card or bank account. Back then, I didn’t know that all three of my credit cards from banks back home wouldn’t be accepted by so many places here. So there I was, in the middle of nowhere that I knew, without data on my phone to look up things on the internet. And without the SIM card that was so necessary for logging into my Cornell student accounts and accessing my courses. 

But the issues didn’t stop there. Starting life as a student in college brought along a whole host of other social issues.One barrier for me that I did not anticipate was the language. I attended an international boarding school where everything, including the everyday language of communication and the classes, was in English. Yet my first RA meeting happened, and the only thing I understood from that meeting was that I didn’t understand anything. The RA spoke quite quickly, and with an American accent I hadn’t encountered before.

Once I was at Cornell, all my friends started to text me about meeting up. It took me a while to realize that I am not supposed to answer the phrase “How are you” because it acts as a placeholder for “Hello.” I still do. Silly Lily still tells you how she actually is when faced with that conversation opener. So, if you are not ready to stand there for a solid three to five minutes and have a full heart-to-heart chat with me, please consider using the word “Hi” instead of the phrase “How are you.” Speaking of small talk, what is the right amount of information to give to someone so as to appear polite while also not overwhelming them with your problems and concerns? I’m still trying to figure it out.

And don’t get me started on dating as an international student. After a couple of failed meet-ups, I started to look at the dating culture in the U.S. because I realized how enormously different it is from back home. To give you a rough description, back home, people date one person with the expectation that they will marry. Quite different from the U.S. where people “try out” a couple of dates before starting to “casually” date, or should I say, “seeing each other?” 

Finally, there are the assumptions and expectations that are put on people here. And I am talking about the food places now. At restaurants and cafeterias, there is so much pressure to know exactly what you are ordering when you arrive. There has not been a single time when I have ordered for myself. I have either asked people to order instead of me, or I have asked for recommendations. In fact, how am I supposed to know what to order if I have never been there before?  The way people dress also stems from societal expectations. In Armenia it’s common to dress up every day for most events. In the U.S. I have been asked several times why I was so dressed up when I was wearing my usual, casual clothes. I realized how strong the social pressure to blend in is in every culture.

At the end of the day, I think we all want to be understood and included, and that is why, for me, the most inconvenient social aspect has been not understanding the cultural and social references and, therefore, not being able to participate in the discussions or jokes. This is when you sit on a table with friends and everyone starts laughing over what someone said, but, and you don’t understand why.

The bottom line is that everyone is going through so many small inconveniences that other people don’t know about. Just be kinder and more understanding to your international friends when they are left out and don’t understand what is going on. When they don’t have a place to stay during the holidays. When they feel lonely during the Thanksgiving break. When they don’t have a SIM card to call. When they don’t know what to order. When they seem “nice,” “cool” but also “weird” because they reply to your “what’s up” text every time. And if you are an international student, I want to remind you that there are communities at Cornell that could become home for you. Look for your cultural clubs, reach out to Global Learning Center for resources and join the International Student Union. There are people who have been in your shoes.

Lili Mkrtchyan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Tea With Lily runs every other Monday this semester.