You wake up 11,000 miles away from home and trade lü chà for sweet tea. It’s a novelty, but you switch back once your head starts getting fuzzy after the sugar rush.. You think about home and what you’re going to say to everybody and how you’re going to feel when you get back with those stories that could only happen here or there, and how the people back home would need to just see America for themselves to understand.
While you’re in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and living out the expatriate’s experience, though, it’s still college. You’ll keep yourself busy, juggling schoolwork and papers and connecting with people you’re not sure you’ll ever meet again once the term’s up or you graduate, depending on how long your international program lasts. The people here are warm and attentive—you’re told early on this is “Southern hospitality”—but you can’t help feeling timid and somewhat diffident talking to people who don’t sound or act like the Americans in the movies and educational videos. Your experiences begin to refine your conception of what exactly constitutes “Americanness.”
Such is the experience of many international students at The University of Alabama. I’d like to think I can relate: I am a Westerner by upbringing. I came to the university and its Honors College from California, with all my expectations and prior judgments about life in the South. But the past few months have made it evident that people down South and out West are indeed of the same American stock, even if we talk differently and get our sugar fixes from different diabetes-inducing caffeinated beverages—frappés and sweet tea, anyone?
Speaking of caffeine, the Capstone International Center and International Student and Scholar Services host what’s known as International Coffee Hour every Friday in B.B. Comer Hall. Anybody attending or working for the university, international or American, is welcome to make conversation over coffee and snacks. I had the opportunity to get to know three international students from East Asia and interview them regarding whether their perceptions of life in America prior to coming to UA reflected their experience at the university. They all arrived with some exposure to U.S. media and international news that influenced their beliefs about America.
Yuling Han, a student from China, stated that above anything else, she thought America meant freedom.
She defined a free country as one where “people can speak and say what they want, and all the people are equal, and you can have good relationships with your supervisor or your direction… that’s different in China.” She noted that in China she was blocked from Facebook and YouTube, among other websites, and had to go to the local movie theater to watch the Hollywood films that made it past the censors. Han agreed that Americans had the political freedoms she imagined they would, but was shocked by the level of economic inequality she witnessed.
“I know that America is, like, the richest country, and their salaries and everything are high and many [people] can live a good life, but some children in school don’t have money to eat, and I can’t believe that their parents can’t work and don’t have money, and they need to get free food from their schools…” Han said. “Before I came to the U.S., I thought the U.S. was rich and everybody was also economically free, but maybe it’s not the case.”
Mengning Wen, another Chinese student, corroborated Han’s statements on freedom. She added that she was also surprised by the friendliness of Alabamians. “My impression, I think, was that American people are sometimes a little bit ‘remote’ from each other,” she said. “I think in the northern part of America people really are a little distant, but people here [in the South] are really nice to each other and friendly.”
When asked whether the tenuous political relationship between the U.S. and China influenced how she was treated in America, Wen replied, “I think it didn’t affect how people viewed me, but I’m not sure in other places, because people here [at UA] seldom talked about politics.”
Aung Tun, a student from Myanmar, argued that American freedom was based in its peoples’ sense of security. “In Myanmar we are not really safe. Like, even when you are walking you can get hit, when you cross the road there is no crosswalk. Here in America things are really systematic, and I like that,” Tun said. Like Han and Wen, Tun admitted he’d formed his views on American culture through mass media.
Tun also emphasized that he loved the South’s cuisine. “The food was really new to me. Fried foods are normal in my country, but we don’t really eat it with breading… But I really enjoy the food,” he said. However, Han and Wen disagreed. “I think it [fried foods] is very oily,” Han said. “Actually, the worst thing here is the food, so I prefer to cook my food myself.” Wen stated that “the dessert here is too sweet [compared to China]. I can only take a bite of it.”
All three students characterized their time at UA thus far as an excellent experience. Each recognized the differences between their expectations and the reality of living and studying in the states, and that the American media’s neglect of the South outside of its politics and history left them surprised by the region’s idiosyncrasies, and those of Alabama in particular. “At first, I didn’t know that the South was different [from the rest of America],” Tun stated. “Now I realize that each part of America is special.”