Stanford campus is rarely more conspicuously international than it is during Thanksgiving break. While many American students spend quality time with their families and their full stomachs, international students more rarely go home. And so last weekend, after semi-successfully attempting an apple pie, I invited whatever friends were still on campus to my nearly deserted dorm.
The conversation drifted from the difficulty of Arabic pronunciation to Merkel’s stepping down, then dwelling on the midterm elections, the geography of India and the joys of a quiet campus, among other things. However, I noticed a few friends were being fairly quiet, their faces sometimes scrunching up in confusion. Intrigued, I started paying more attention to the conversation that had before seemed normal to me.
These friends, I soon realized, were from the States — the majority of the group was international, by birth or upbringing. This had rarely happened before, as in my experience there has often been only internationals or a clear domestic majority in the group. As the discussion continued, it struck me how differently international and domestic students viewed things, relished or avoided certain topics and engaged in the discussion.
I realized that the internationals in the room assumed everyone had a background in or an understanding of a few cultures. There were other assumptions, too: that everyone spoke at least one other language and had a background in a few others; that everyone had traveled; that everyone stayed up-to-date with the news. We (I am most definitely guilty of this one) peppered our sentences with foreign words, expecting others to understand them or believing only a synonym was sufficient explanation. We regularly compared the States to wherever we come from and we almost always concluded that the U.S. definitely has a long way to go (though we recognized we were only able to complain because of how extraordinarily lucky we are). There were more things, surely, that I didn’t notice.
This was certainly part of what made the conversation difficult for domestic friends who may not necessarily have the cultural background and experience internationals sometimes take for granted. However, as I kept listening to the discussion and talked with domestic friends about what felt strange to them, I realized that the challenge was not only the assumptions we make. The very nature of our discussions, what we talked about and how we talked about it, also perplexed them.
For starters, almost no topic was off-limits. We discussed the ethics of Mao’s Great Leap Forward as readily as the hamartia of the current French President, U.S. unilateral intervention in South America, the use of wealth redistribution as a potentially viable means of decreasing social inequality and healthcare as a right. This readiness to tackle any and every subject can be a little bewildering. The scope of our conversations was also quite large — while many debates here tend to be America-centric, we talked about both domestic and international affairs in depth.
The way we approached these topics was also markedly different from what the domestic students in the room may have been used to. We very readily admitted our ignorance when we weren’t familiar with a topic, but rather than sitting that portion of the discussion out, we’d get to speed as quickly as possible and contribute what we could. Our discussions were demanding — vacuous points were immediately called out. We didn’t hesitate to defend our positions until the end, though we were willing to let ourselves be convinced and should the conversation call for it, play the devil’s advocate. And though the conversation often resembled a debate, it rarely fell into a binary of “right side” or “wrong side.” Even if someone argued an extremely controversial point, our objective was not to make them see how “wrong” they were but rather to make them reconsider their position. We were also much less likely to concede for political correctness’ sake.
The intensity of these conversations, their scope, their assumptions about a certain foundation of “socio-linguistic-cultural” knowledge and the mental energy they require is what makes them challenging and exciting. However, I do recognize that they may be hard to follow or participate in for those who are not familiar with the topics we discuss or who prefer a more laid-back, less incisive conversations.
All this is not to say that domestic and international students exist in two different worlds or that these observations apply to everyone. Of course, many of us are in a grey area, neither international nor domestic: “I’m French, but I grew up in New York.” “I’m American, but I was raised in Greece.” Some domestic students, with an interest in international relations, political science or international upbringing, for instance, might very well be comfortable in this setting, just as some international students might not be. Still, put everyone in a room, and generally you’ll be able to guess which is which.
I’m excited about this variety in conversations, however. We’re lucky to be in a place where we can see it in action and where an important part of our growth here is because of it — adapting to different conversation styles, delving into topics you never would’ve learned about otherwise, having your views challenged.
So mix it up! Be more conscious of the conversations you’re having: Are you talking with similar people? About similar topics? In a similar fashion? When is the last time someone made you change your mind? Try something new, or something you don’t do often. As the French say, “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des œufs.” Getting out of your comfort zone is the surest way to learn.
Contact Axelle Marcantetti at axellem ‘at’ stanford.edu.