Listening to international students talk about their experiences in the United States was very interesting and eye-opening for me. Honestly, I found it so cool to hear about my country from four different perspectives. Coming from China, Iraq, Slovakia, and France, the four international students on our discussion panel revealed some insights that I had never realized before.
It seemed that all four of the international students agreed that Americans smile way too much. Now, I have heard that before, and maybe it’s true. I know that when I make eye contact with someone — even a stranger — I’m probably gonna give them a friendly little smile. I never really thought twice about it until the panel of students really started discussing it. One girl from France commented that when she first arrived to the States, she was constantly paranoid because everyone smiled at her. She thought they were all in on some joke and that she had been left out. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine that someone could think that way, growing up as I have where to not smile is to be rude. But what really made me question my smiley nature was when one student said that to smile at a stranger on the streets in Iraq would be seen as so odd that people would wonder what is wrong with you. Hearing about their insights into the matter made me realize that there are so many small things ingrained in my culture that I never question, but that I should definitely be aware of when I travel abroad — especially if something as innocent as smiling in the US can be taken to mean something entirely different elsewhere.
My biggest takeaway from the panel was the idea of international students as informal ambassadors of their countries. Each student talked about how so often they have had to dispel stereotypes and myths about their countries. I’ve never thought that I might have to adopt a similar role myself. The thought of having to explain/justify/represent the actions of my country is crazy to me. After all, the United States is so diverse! How could I, as one person, possibly represent the whole of my country? And yet that is something I need to prepare for when I go abroad. Right or wrong, I could be a quasi-ambassador for the US to others and that seems like a really big responsibility and privilege.
I am so incredibly grateful for the Global Engagement class for providing me with these opportunities to grow and challenge my ways of thinking. It feels like each time we meet I learn something new about myself or my country in the process.