For the Prospective International Student (Especially Those of Asian Descent)

I am Yttrium Sua, a senior double majoring in anthropology and environmental analysis. I come from the tropical island-nation of Singapore and I spent my junior year abroad in Kyoto, Japan.

In my post, I hope to provide another perspective, to relate some of the things I have been exposed to during my 4 years in college and in the US – things I have experienced as a Pomona College student, an international student and a racial minority. These are things I wish platforms like Pomona Voices could have prepared me for before I came to college, things I hope will help prospective students realize that the most important education one can get in college comes when you are challenged, angered and proven wrong.

Today, I shall talk about English, a language Americans have claimed as their own.

Just this Fall semester, I arrived at LAX immigration customs, where I was asked to present my “blue form”. The following exchange soon ensued:

Me (to clarify): “The declaration form?”
Immigration officer (very condescendingly): “What color is that?”
Me: “Blue.”
Immigration officer: “Then why did you still ask if it was the declaration form? You gotta need to brush up on your English comprehension skills if you want to get through college, boy.”

This was an immigration officer speaking – the first point of contact many visitors will have when visiting the US. I was naturally enraged, but I did not protest, for I knew that if I wanted to enter the Land of the Free, I was at his mercy. I also knew that the color of my skin and my F-1 Visa allowed him to make that jibe at my English.

As an international student, English will trouble you to no ends, although truth be told, many American college students struggle with English too. The spelling, grammar, syntax and pronunciation of the English that you’ve been taught since you were young becomes continually questioned and invalidated, because they don’t conform to the American notion of English (as if there is a single notion anyway). It becomes doubly confusing when you come from a British-colonized country, where you are taught that British English is the de facto appropriate form of English, then coming to the US and being told it’s not the way to go.

Your American friends will look at you weirdly when you say “lift” instead of “elevator” (come on, 1 syllable vs 4 syllables, you do the math on which is more convenient) or the “boot” of the car instead of the “trunk”, and professors will circle “tyre” and instruct you to write it as “tire”.

And so, to survive, you put on an accent, learn to use American vocabulary, and change your Microsoft Word language setting to English (US). Code switching will be a big part of your life as an international student on campus. How you talk in college will be different from how you talk at home – how you talk to some people in college will vary from how you talk to others. How you behave will subsequently change with the way you talk, and you will find yourself taking on different personas in different circumstances. Nevertheless, there are resources on campus that international students can seek help from, most notably the Writing Center.

I’m not going to go in-depth about the history of English, or the non-existence of a “correct” form of English, or how English is being used as a way to create inequalities, because there are far more qualified people to do that, and I have a 700-word limit. Rather, I will recount a personal experience that happened just a few days back, during Fall Break.

Fall Break is an excellent time for students to experience the great outdoors. The OEC rents out camping and hiking gears, organizes trips to national parks and even reimburses your gas money. This year, I travelled up north with a group of friends, hitting Salt Lake City, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Las Vegas.

And here’s an interesting encounter I had during the trip:

It was under this stunning backdrop that the following encounter unfolded
It was under this stunning backdrop that the following events unfolded.

I was hiking in the Grand Teton National Park with a few of my international friends, when we met this friendly Mormon family. As hikers do in an act of solidarity, we smiled at them, and the dad immediately chirped, “Nihongo ga wakarimasuka??” (“Do you understand Japanese?”, in Japanese).
Unfortunately, none of us were Japanese. I did speak Japanese, however, so I replied “We don’t understand” in Japanese, which I guess was disorienting to him.
Dad: “Well, that’s the only phrase I know anyway.”

One common experience Asian international students have in the US often involves strangers greeting them in either Mandarin Chinese, Korean or Japanese, depending on which ethnicity the stranger believes you are based on your looks. I have often found this bewildering, because I don’t look at someone of an African descent and decide he/she is Namibian, or Zambian, and proceed to greet him/her in his/her local tongue. Neither do I look at someone of Latino descent, and think “Argentinean, right there”, or say “Bonjour” to a White person because I decided the person is French.

So why do people like to look at Asian people and decide whether they are Japanese, Chinese or Korean?

"If you look Asian and aren't Chinese/Japanese/Korean... then what ARE you?"
“If you look Asian and aren’t Chinese/Japanese/Korean… then what else IS there?”

Dad: “So where are you from? China? Or what’s that island? Hong Kong?”
Me: “Oh, I’m from Singapore.”
Dad: “Singapore! Wow….”

Singapore always draws a wow, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe that’s the reaction one gives when one is faced with something one is entirely clueless about.

e.g. “My research interest is the interaction between the fern P. polypodiodes and its associated mosses.”

“Wow…”

Dad: “So, Singapore, huh… could you maybe locate it for me?”

It is a really daunting experience when asked to locate your own country, because you have lived in it your whole life, so you have never seen the need in locating it. However, for some Americans, the extent of the civilized world stretches from the border with Mexico all the way up north to maybe Southern Canada. Even Alaska is kinda stretching it. And then countries like China are on the Other Side of the Globe, and the Middle East is in the sandy war-torn desert. So if you come from a small country, or a country in Africa that isn’t Egypt or South Africa, be prepared to help Americans locate your country.

But I’m guilty too – I once asked my friend to locate her hometown of Silver City, New Mexico for me, although truth be told, do YOU know where Silver City, NM is (unless you’re Katie Valentine ’15)?

Me: “Uh, do you know where Malaysia is?” 
Mormon dad: “Oh, umm, sure, yeah. Malaysia. Hmm… where is that again?”
Me: “Oh, it’s in South East Asia.”
Mormon dad: “OH! Yeah, yeah, I know where South East Asia is.” (Victorious smile)
Me: “Yeah, so we’re south of Malaysia.”
Mormon dad: “Oh, sure, yeah.”

His reply left me pretty sure he still does not know where Singapore is, although I’m not going rack my brain to improve his World Geography skills.

Mormon dad: “Well, I must say your English is really good.”

Every time someone says this, a part of me dies inside. I’m not sure whether it’s a thing in the US to believe only White people can speak English well, or that non-Americans cannot possibly speak good English, but I think it is important to note that many countries in the world adopt English as their first language. The British Empire was an extremely successful military force, colonizing over 50 countries over the world, many of which consist of people of various ethnicities and descent. One of the remnants of their empire, other than the Commonwealth Games and anti-sodomy laws, is English education.

Usually in this situation, I will tell them that English is Singapore’s first language, and that I grew up learning it, so I really should be good at it. One time, a Latino guy driving me to Claremont Toyota praised my “fluent English”, and told me “you’re almost speaking like an American”.

I guess the thing that disturbs me most about being praised/corrected for my English is that it shows a difference in power – I am being judged by people for the language I speak according to their standards, which means they hold the power in determining what is good English and what is not, despite English being a language with all kinds of variants all over the world. And there is no such thing as speaking like an “American”, because there is no one way Americans speak English either.

Me: “Well, English is our first language too, so…”
Dad: “Oh really! Well that’s interesting, considering it’s in Asia.”

Perhaps sensing an increasing awkwardness, he quickly introduced me to his son, who had just come back from his 2 year mission in Russia, and we had a chat about his college life at BYU Idaho.

So, to put it in short, for international students coming to the US for college, be prepared to:

  1. Be told your English is surprisingly good
  2. And then be told your English is wrong
  3. Locate your country for people

As international students at any college, you will always be the minority, and the way you speak, think and behave will undoubtedly be different from your peers. But just because what you do might not fit into the societal norms of the US, it does not in any way mean you are “wrong”. Some learn to adapt, others continue to do things their way as a form of personal protest. Many do both. Seek support from other international students and international student mentor groups, and you might find that studying in the US sometimes deepens your knowledge and pride of your home country/countries.

Of course, I should end on a positive note, so I shall say this in no way should discourage you from speaking to strangers, nor be offended and block all conversations. Rather, take it as a chance to tell people about your country, and maybe learn more about them too.

I mean, in that 1-hour hike, I learnt more about BYU Idaho than, say, the local plant life of Grand Tetons or something. Like, did you even know you are not allowed to don flip-flops or shorts on BYU Idaho’s school grounds?

All of you are hereby expelled, sorry. One million years dungeon!!!! (Source: https://www.claremont-courier.com/cms_uploads/sf.Pomona-Run-9_.jpg)
All of you are hereby expelled, sorry. One million years in the dungeon!!!! (Source)
  • Bryan L

    Well-put, Yttrium. I concur.

  • School board lady

    I mean no disrespect, and I don’t condone how a rather low level government employee treated you, a mix of ignorance and possibly resentment, but do you question your preparation for coming to the US, I mean what did you learn in history books about the land of the free. Please take this as a an attempt to help you –but the US is a land of immigrants and just about every immigrant group struggled to fit in, to become “American”. The first generation usually did the work no one else wanted to do. My ancestors came to the US starting in 1823, and they were farmers and tradesmen. They enlisted in the Union Army from the state of Illinois — an Army unit that was bilingual–German Americans. Later relatives from Ireland moved to escape poverty and religious persecution–bordering on Genocide. My Irish family took the jobs no one wanted. The next generation was fortunate to join labor unions that organized in the1920s and later. My point is that in the past, most immigrants are really not treated very well until they assimilate. These are the immigrants who built America. Their children benefited from their labor and rose into the middle class. Y, please understand, that while you believe your acceptance to Pamona is earned, a result of your hard work, in fact, you are a privileged minority who has been given a spot in an esteemed University. That a low level clerk, immigration officer should be rude to you and you will judge American society by this encounter, just shows you have a lot of growing up to do–and a lot of assimilation to accomplish. Personally, I admire what the Singapore Government has done with your very small but very accomplished nation. As a matter of fact, I introduced Singapore Math to my school district when I served on an elected school board. And honestly, some of my closest friends were Asian, from Japan and from Singapore. We, as Americans with conservative backgrounds respected and liked each other. Americans also consider your ethnic background a point of pride, I’m Scotch Irish, German, and French American. Indeed we differentiate among Japanese, Chinese, Singapore and Koreans. We differentiate based on religion somewhat too (Christians and Jews get along easily because they have a common history.) Muslims not a good history. Just saying, you need to get rid of the chip on your shoulder, jettison the minority victim identity and contribute to American society.