Hey international frosh! Welcome to Stanford! Oh, and also to the United States!
Here are some pointers for you, drawn from my experience moving 14,000 kilometers (or 8,700 miles) to attend this fine institution. And as with most advice, take mine with a grain of salt.
1. Forgive yourself if you aren’t American™.
Culture shock is a strong way to describe a shifty response to a new country. Maybe it’s the use of diction: “Shock” suggests a mind-blowing, paralysis-inducing reaction, like you’ll be utterly flabbergasted the minute you step into the dim halls of SFO. It’s more likely that “shock” will feel more like a static electricity jab, not cosmic electrocution. It’ll come, for example, when you bemoan your 38-degree fever, and people around you pause, perhaps contemplating hypothermia, and then you must quickly clarify, “38 degrees Celsius!” It might come when you ponder where exactly New England is, and whether it’s a city or state or something else entirely.
(It’s a region comprised of six states. I learned the hard way.)
Sometimes the cultural displacement will be a little more emotionally involved — like when you don’t understand references to American high school, pop culture or politics. At times like these, it is easy to feel like you’re on a different wavelength from those around you or like you don’t have the requisite credibility to dive into discourse. While these are tricky waters, the best you can do is to be self-aware of where these gaps in understanding lie and see them as a learning opportunity rather than an insurmountable social handicap. Ask questions if you’re curious or want clarification, even if it feels like nagging. All the same, don’t feel obliged to understand everything. Most importantly, forgive yourself for not being totally American about eight seconds after getting here. Moving to another country is a 10-unit class with a fairly steep curve.
2. Forgive Americans if they don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your home country.
The above advice goes both ways. Just as you spent your whole life in not-America, many of your classmates may have never interacted with your country before. Be willing to clarify misconceptions. If their misconceptions seem particularly sensitive or offensive, don’t immediately respond with anger or write them off as fatally ignorant. The point of school is education, so educate them — be thorough, thoughtful and empathetic. Recall the golden rule: Treat others as you want to be treated because you may well find yourself, at some point, at the receiving-end of a cultural orientation.
3. Don’t be afraid to play the International Student card.
Alongside not viewing your internationalism as some glaring social handicap, be sure to milk it every so often. I mean this in both an earnest and opportunistic way. In terms of being earnest, don’t be afraid to bring in an international perspective during classroom discussions. Just because one is in America doesn’t mean the rest of the world — and its politics, culture and reality — cease to exist, even if it is a very all-consuming place when you’re freshly arrived. While your classmates are bound to be worldly in important ways, their discussions and paradigms often default to American prototypes, simply because that’s where they are most credible. Your leveraging your credibility in a similar way unlikely to be unwelcome. Even in classes with a pointedly American focus, if you see an opening where a comparative, international example might be valuable, proffer it; it’ll help you, your classmates and even your professor evaluate the “negative space,” which is where a great deal of magic happens.
Besides lofty intellectualism, an opportunistic exercise of internationalism is using it to stand out. At Stanford it’s easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond, but if you’re from a different ocean, you have at least one differentiating factor. For example, nearly every one of my IntroSem applications makes some (perhaps heavy-handed) reference to my having lived abroad and experienced a completely different culture. Why do I want to learn about the “Importance of a Free Press”? Well, where I grew up, we didn’t exactly have one of those. If you thoughtfully reflect on how this will make you an edgy participant, it’ll take you far, especially when you realize just how many opportunities at Stanford are prefaced, for better or worse, by an application essay. Bottom line: Own your international student status.
4. Make American friends.
You should make American friends, many of them, so that you have somewhere to go during Thanksgiving break and escape from the despondency of an empty dorm. But don’t just do it for the room and board. Americans are cool, especially if they’re your classmates. Some international students like to stick together because the spiritual bond you form during ISO might render NSO’s hustling small talk depressing. Also, it’s heaps of fun to be around internationals and people from back home; comparable levels of confusion make for a strong glue that binds. But American friendships are a gateway course to understanding a place and truly branching out. If you came to the U.S. for a Liberal Arts Education™, and all the breadth of learning it entails — make sure to strike a breadth of friendships.
5. Make friends from back home.
Now, I know this isn’t easy for everyone because, in the undergrad population, some countries are more represented than others. However, don’t worry too much about seeming too non-adventurous or clingy if you are getting on with mostly other international students or people from the same country as you. Don’t be hard on yourself about it — sometimes it’s necessary to stay in a comfort zone when everything else is in flux. I especially suggest finding upperclassmen from back home, so they can endow you with visa, travel, health and general life hacks.
6. Get familiar with takeaway boxes.
American portions can edge on insane. I grew up being told to finish all the food on my plate, and this is thoughtful, conscientious advice — unless you’re at, say, Crepevine in Palo Alto and are presented with a crepe bigger than your upper body. Don’t waste food; rather, become accustomed to takeaway so you can work some magic with leftovers and the kitchenette.
7. Use Amazon (with moderation).
This may have just been me, but when I first got Amazon Prime (there’s a free six-month trial for college students!), I was hooked. I got everything, from my fridge to toothpaste, from the online super-retailer. Amazon has a huge presence in the U.S. compared to other parts of the world, and I highly recommend making an account. It can be a great logistical and financial help for international students who have limited luggage allowance. All the same, all good things should be done in moderation. In other words, don’t succumb to buying then hoarding non-necessities in your petite dorm room, only to hate yourself when it comes time to move-out.
8. Get a flu shot.
Flu season in the U.S. creeps up pretty early in the year and can take a solid chunk of your classmates out. The flu can be fatal, which is not something my conception of “flu” previously entailed. I thought that you pop some Panadol and get on with life until I got to the U.S. The good news is that Stanford provides free flu shots, usually at various dining halls during flu season. While the shots aren’t 100 percent effective, they’re certainly better than nothing. Get one!
9. Call your parents or people back home.
Family and friends (probably) love and miss you. They appreciate knowing that you are alive on another continent. As such, look up “World Clock Meeting Planner” online. It might come in handy if you don’t want to interrupt their REM sleep. In a few months time, they will surely mock your “American accent,” but, oh well.
10. Have fun!
As far as reasons for emigration go, attending Stanford University is a pretty sweet one. Enjoy making it your home for the next four years!
Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.