I came to the United States as an international student four years ago. Since then, I have witnessed and been on the receiving end of a fair share of interesting questions and backhanded compliments (still not compliments!).
Here's a list of dos and don’ts you may wish to follow so you and your international friends won’t get stuck in an awkward silence during one of your conversations:
DO ask questions about native customs.
I love it when people are curious about my culture, just don’t wince or judge after hearing my answers.
Yes, I heat my milk and add two spoons full of honey in the morning. Yes, my relatives get up and have a loud and obnoxious “fight” over who is going to foot the bill for 12 people every time we go out to eat (the Chinese fight to pay for their companions’ meals).
It may sound strange to you, but it doesn't mean your way of doing things is inherently better.
DO NOT lump people together
One thing people love asking me is whether all Japanese women serve elaborate meals and bow down to their husbands after seeing one person married to a Japanese wife who happened to be a good cook.
Also, never assume two people are related if their last name is Garcia and are both Honduran, or ask if all Asian guys look the same. The person you're asking will just give you an annoyed side glare or that monotonous, uncomfortable, “ha, ha, ha” laugh and block you on his or her phone. You have been warned.
DO NOT make wild assumptions
I was chatting with an elderly couple who used to be schoolteachers, while waiting for a bus when I casually mentioned that I lived in China for 11 years.
Their first reaction was an obnoxiously loud gasp followed by, “So you didn’t have freedom there?” Yeah, yeah, yeah. We are in Florida, so we must be breathing freedom instead of a mixture of oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and evaporated gasoline, right?
I would have appreciated if they were willing to define what freedom they spoke of (not reproductive, obviously), but that could be an entirely new post.
The world is not black and white, this or that or us and them. Everything exists on a spectrum and that’s the beauty of it. Ask open-ended questions and see how that goes.
DO NOT claim to know everything about another person's home country
Especially when you’ve only been there for one semester stuck in a student apartment with the rest of your study abroad program, or because you hang out with the people from Japanese Student Association and anime club.
Once I volunteered at a campus event for the Japanese Student Association at my university and this one guy hung around my booth for a whopping 30 minutes and kept coming back to give me lectures on how some of the most famous sumo wrestlers are Mongolian (his home country).
Did he think I didn’t know? Sumo, although I couldn’t care less about it, is a national sport of Japan, and the wrestlers are huge celebrities. Unless I lived under a rock, I would know something about them.
Another classic line is, “How can you dislike wasabi? I’m more Japanese than you!” Nope, the authenticity of my national origin is not yours to question. I don’t think the US citizenship requires you to be smitten with apple pie.
DO join us on our holidays
I love Thanksgiving and Halloween even though I barely spend a penny on my “costume.” Roasted turkey and spooky outfits are great, but the number of days you can have fun (and food comas) shouldn’t be limited to only American holidays.
Try celebrating other countries’ holidays. You’ll be surprised how many times you celebrate New Year's in a typical Gregorian year.
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