William Zhang and Jason Choi | Fitting in, branching out

Frosh off the Boat | For internationals, socializing can be as foreign — and exhausting — as American football

· February 19, 2014, 6:16 pm   ·  Updated March 3, 2014, 9:15 pm

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I h ave never watched American football.

Perhaps that is why I find it difficult to assert my opinion in heated dinner debates about birds and wild horses. But sports are the least of my concerns when it comes to adjusting to a new culture. The transition from a Chinese, all-male Anglican Episcopal school to a large American institute is unusual to say the least - having arcane affinities definitely does not help either.

As a fledgling writer, I am not wide-read enough to talk extensively about literature (confession: I have not read any Dickens, and I hate Austen); as an aspiring tech entrepreneur, I am hardly informed enough about programming to hold the interest of my more tech-savvy friends; as an amateur musician, I upset most of my peers’ delicate constitutions with heavy metal music.

In a way, my feelings of inadequacy are of my own volition. In high school, it was my ulterior agenda to stand out from everyone else by insidiously dabbling in all fields. Play in a two-man band, tyrannize your debate team, run a philosophy society, join the archery and fencing teams, sing in the choir, and before you know it, you are a jack-of-all-trades (and consequently, a master of absolutely nothing). You become a resume . You have successfully stood out among your peers and been accepted into college - now it is time for the whole thing to repeat again.

My attempts to fit in are further hindered by our commoditization of socializing. It took me one whole semester to figure out networking events are not the most reliable of places to make lasting friendships. Doing your best to feign interest when you are actually just waiting for your turn to speak is an exhausting undertaking.

For a self-diagnosed introvert who now shares his room with another person and his hall with fifty others, constant interactions - from filling awkward silences in panel discussions to making small talk about my every acquaintance’s latest midterm - can be taxing.

That is why I can be seen commanding the attention of a dining table on some days and playing mute on others. But that is in no way an indication of any negative feelings, only a need for catching my breath. I still want to reach out to you, shamelessly advertise my column to you and be friends with you.

Maybe some day I will even watch American football with you. -JASON

U nl ike Jason, I happen to be a big fan of football. It turns out, however, that I just happen to enjoy the wrong version of the sport.

Having grown up in a semi-western environment and attended an international school, I was under the impression that I was pretty “westernized” and would have no problem adjusting. As a result, I found myself caught off guard. In reflection, even seemingly inconsequential and superficial differences, such as the fact that the word “football” is somewhat of a misnomer in the United States (it should really be called something along the lines of “hand-egg”), that Americans don’t study “maths” (a red squiggly line just appeared under the word as I write) or that the only affordable and edible Chinese food on campus comes from food trucks (try Yue Kee), have a much greater psychological impact.

Through this underestimation, I can attest to the frustration brought on by this period of adaptation. Like Jason, I would sometimes find it difficult striking up conversations or connecting in social situations, and meeting another international would often mean an instant connection, with an unspoken understanding of each other’s plight. I can only imagine, then, how difficult it must be for those students who didn’t grow up with significant exposure to American culture or don’t speak English as a first language.

If underestimating the impact of cultural shock was my first mistake, my second was definitely the way I handled it. I suppose it is only human nature to seek a source of comfort and familiarity when thrust into a position of vulnerability, and as a result, I found myself mainly in a closed social circle of Hong-Kongers. Culture is undoubtedly an important driving factor behind the formation of social cliques, but I found myself reluctant to expose myself to unfamiliar aspects of my new cultural surrounding. This is a phenomenon I have noticed among many of my other international counterparts, where the chatter of Chinese or Korean is all too often overheard in groups and clusters.

Since reflecting on this problem, I have been making a conscious attempt to venture outside of my comfort zone, to explore Philadelphia when time permits and make conversation and hang with individuals I might otherwise not dare to. And hey, now that I think about it, if I’ve flown over 12,000 kilometers (yes, kilometers) to the other side of the world to study, it would be a wasted opportunity not to . ?-WIL LIAM

William Zhang and Jason Choi are a Wharton freshman and a College freshman, respectively, from Hong Kong. They can be reached at willz@wharton.upenn.edu and jason.choi.ht@gmail.com. 

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