Coming to America

For students from overseas, America can be a confusing but wonderful  place

By David Roza

When Sylvie Ella Imeninema first arrived to the United States from Rwanda four months ago, the first place she went to was a Walmart in Birmingham, Pa.  “It was bigger than the biggest supermarket in Rwanda,” the 20-year-old freshman at BrynMawrCollege said.  “The size of things here, even the serving size, it’s all 20 times bigger.”

Imeninema’s encounter with the Walmart is not unique. It is a fitting microcosm for the experience of many internationals students’ upon arriving in America, a nation that offers a wide abundance of food, clothing, and opportunities to choose from, but provides little guidance on what to choose.

It can be an overwhelming time for many students, including Claire Craig, a 19-year-old  Bryn Mawr sophomore from Italy.

“Walking into the CVS was really weird because pharmacies in the U.S. are like supermarkets,” Craig said.  “Back home, pharmacies are only for medicine; you can’t buy candies.  If you go to CVS, you can buy candies stationary, gift cards, chairs…There is so much. I can’t understand it.”

International Student Banquet and Flag Dedication 2008Though Craig might not be able to understand Americans, Americans can try to understand Craig. To find out about their experience in America, we conducted dozens of interviews and did an online survey of international students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. International students who make up nearly eight percent of the student body at HaverfordCollege and 19 percent of the student body at Bryn Mawr.  Together, they include 345 students from over 60 countries.

The opinions of these students were just as diverse as their nationalities, but there were a few things upon which most of them agreed, such as how abundant, varied, and just plain strange the food is here.  Of the  international students who filled out the online survey over 80% agreed with the statement “The food Americans eat is unhealthy.”

“If you think about popular food in the U.S. it’s junk food, when there’s a lot of healthy food available,” said Yungqi Chen, an 18-year-old Bryn Mawr sophomore from China.

“The earliness of meals and the weirdness of the food was somewhat of a big step freshman year,” said Andrew Szczurek, a 20-year-old sophomore at Haverford. “I was like, ‘What will I become without baguette and pains au chocolat?’ And then when I got here I was like ‘Oh my God, is she really having this much bacon and fries?”

The opinions on food are countless.

“[Americans] do not seem to understand the concept of room-temperature water, they put ice in everything,” said Sanya Aurora, a 21-year-old Bryn Mawr junior from India.“The food has too much bread, too much cheese.”

Many Chinese students complained about the prevalence of over-or-under-cooked vegetables and the enormous hunks of meat served in the DiningCenter at Haverford.

“I was so shocked by peanut butter,” said Valentina Viertel, 21-year-old Bryn Mawr senior from Germany.  “And I’m still so amazed by it. It’s not really popular other places.”


The land of too much

Other students complained that American food is served in ‘Too big servings,’ or ‘with too much sugar,’ or as, ‘too much fried food,’ or in meetings where it’s not necessary to have food’ but perhaps it’s just the taste of home that international students miss the most

“I’m not really used to the food here; not saying it’s not good, but it’s not as good as in my hometown,” said Qin Yang, an 18-year-old Haverford freshman from China.

“Our dining hall is boring but you can still get stuff. For me, it was a hard transition because I didn’t grow up eating that food so I was obviously homesick freshmen year, really homesick,” said Shosini Bhattasali, a 22-year-old Bryn Mawr senior from India.

Many international students’ perception of American food is flavored primarily by the limited choices of the few dining facilities on campus. However, some students like Soyoung Kim a 21-year-old Bryn Mawr senior from Guatemala are resourceful enough to reach outside of campus to fulfill their culinary desires.

“What I like the most is that it [America] is so comfortable,” said Kim.  “You get access to anything if you really want to. Like in New York, there’s food from every single country. If I want Guatemalan food, I know I can find a restaurant in New York. The same goes for products – it’s really comfortable.”

The lack of any authentic “American” cuisine is a cause of distress for some students. Continue reading

Air Rat steps out

The life and times of the street artist named Air Rat

By Sam Fox

At first glance, Air Rat looks like the kind of guy you’d like to bring home to your parents. He has a neatly-trimmed beard and a “Mad Men” style coiffure. Today, he is wearing a pea coat over a matching blue button-up, and he is offering to buy me a cup of coffee.

We have met at a Starbucks in Old City–his suggestion–so he can show me pictures of his various art projects and then take a tour of his street art in the area. It’s a shame it’s raining, he says, because he would have liked to “put up” some pieces during the tour.

Sitting down at a table by the window, he pulls out a laptop and begins flipping through a selection of images culled from the 4,500-photograph gallery on his phone. As he turns his head towards the computer and types, tattoos wink in and out of view: between his fingers, behind his ears, and poking out from under his shirt collar. They are the first signs that he might not be so square, and once you learn to look for them, they keep showing up.

When asked what mediums he works in, he says “everything.” This is not far from the truth. He paints, stencils, sculpts, makes wood cuts, crafts stickers, and reappropriates trash.

The artist’s alias comes from a solo show he did a number of years ago, which featured cartoonish pigeon sculptures. Some of the birds were clear, others had glow-in-the-dark skulls. “Air rat” is slang for pigeon, so the artist legoanimation1decided to adopt the name for his own pigeons, and, later, for himself.

Air Rat identifies with pigeons because of their “roll with the punches” attitude. Though the artist has faced a number of legal, physical, and financial obstacles, he persists in his work much like the hardy, ever-present bird.

Right now, Air Rat is passionate about two main projects: one involving glass etch and the other involving Legos. Both projects move between the street and the gallery.

One of his first glass etch projects was a kitschy Ouija board, which earned him encouragement from other artists to pursue the medium further. Next, he completed a series of 40 hand-etched glass bottles that serve as aquariums for beta fish. A more recent project involved candle votives, which, when lit, project dancing shadows on their surroundings.

These functional, gallery-suited pieces are complemented by more informal work. If he is in a bar at 2 a.m. and nobody is there, he might run into the womens’ bathroom and do a quick piece on the mirror. He has learned that these pieces often get posted on Instagram later–unless he is interrupted mid-etch by a closing-time employee.

Since glass etching is so destructive, a Buddhist friend has given him advice for fostering good karma: only etch things that have already been etched. Air Rat says this goes against the graffiti artist ethos of doing whatever you want, wherever you want, but the idea stands to help him in the future. He has received plenty of angry phone calls for his etchings. In response, he even got a tattoo of a bottle of etching chemicals, wrapped with a banner that says “So Sorry.”

Air Rat’s Lego project involves casting resin replicas of Lego minifigures and gluing them in “little nooks” around the city. He has teamed up with photographer Matthew Kendig, who documents the installations as they change within the volatile, human “playscape” of Philadelphia. Thanks to passersby and shifts in weather, figures fade, get melted, dismembered, and taken. Fifteen of Kendig’s photographs have been assembled into a “one-page book” for a show at the Church Gallery in OldCity. The two plan on continuing the project with other galleries, but these ideas are still in the works.

After reading a pictorial history of the Lego minifigure, Air Rat discovered that Lego made a series of minifigures in the image of the founder of the Adult Fan of Lego association, as a tribute to the man’s popularization of the toy. Perhaps, Air Rat dreams, one day Lego will make an Air Rat Lego. Either that, he muses, or the toy manufacturer will sue him.

Both the Lego project and the glass etchings represent Air Rat’s two main artististic visions: developing a connecting theme and struggling against transience.

Though he is critical of most other Philadelphia street artists, he looks to stikman as a sort of model for these visions. Even though stikman works with stickers, wood cuts, and other materials, his work is always recognizable because of the character he uses. The artist also introduced Air Rat to the idea that all art is “ephemeral,” a word Air Rat now uses constantly, with urgency and reverence.

Love of the ephemeral

“Everything I feel like I’ve been doing has been an attempt to beat that idea [of ephemerality],” he says.

Street art is frequently removed or painted over soon after it is put up. And even when the art lasts, the structure on which it is plastered eventually gets torn down or altered. In order to combat the ephemeral nature of street art, Air Rat began taking pictures of his work and posting them on Instagram. And yet, as one of his friends pointed out to him, Instagram is just as ephemeral as the street. Pictures of art get lost in the hundreds of other images people receive on a daily basis.

The trick, Air Rat realizes, is to find a medium that makes a lasting impression. In each of his projects, he remains in search of a “fountain of youth.”

The pursuit of these lofty goals has been a long time in development. Continue reading

Asma’s dream

Afgan women

Afgan women

By Saira Kitagawa

This is a story about Asma, an Afghan women age 24 from Kabul who came to live in America. Like so many other immigrants who migrated before her, she too sought a better life. Seven years have gone by since she first arrived in this country as a teenager, but her dream still remains the same: To go to school.

Asma was 17 when she first stepped onto land in America. However, she was not alone. Her husband, an 52-year-old American Afghan man named Abdul was beside her and she was pregnant with their baby girl, Hamida. (The names of the persons in this story have been changed to protect the woman we call Asma.)

Her marriage was arranged by her aunt in Kabul. According to Asma, being set up with an older husband was not “a new story for the Afghans”. However, her aunt had tweaked “a little” about his age and she recalled the experience as “frustrating”.

“I was told that he was younger!” said Asma, looking annoyed with wrinkles on her forehead.

Asma wore a bright pink coat and her wavy black hair, lightly shaded with red. was tied into a low pony tail. Her jeans were a nice dark color and she looked stylish, just like many other young mothers today. However, her dark eyes looked tired and looked a lot older than her years. She had a wary look that added tension to the air.

Asma’s father and mother were both originally from poor villages in Kandahar and Jalalabad. They had seven children and they thought it was the best option for their eldest daughter to leave Kabul and grab a new life with Abdul, who was “looking for a wife”. He was an Imam at the Mosque of Shaikh M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadeen in Philadelphia and had lived in America for a long time with his family. His English was perfect and they thought he was good enough to make her life better. Next thing she knew, she was married and off to America, the land of liberty and freedom.

“It was good when I came here,” said Asma, as she started fidgeting her hands. “People treated me as a human being. People would be nice and respectful. I like my country but it’s strict towards women. Here, women can go to school easily…women can say what you want to so…in my country, women can’t do these things easily.”

Although she gained her freedom as a human being, tragically, her life with Abdul was not what she expected.

“When we came here, he started pushing me,” said Asma. The fingers that had been fidgeting now were clutched tightly together. “I liked to go out and study alone. I wanted to be with my friends. Be social. Have a normal life. Some men don’t like this. He didn’t say but he didn’t like it. No.”

Two years ago, she filed for divorce.

“I had enough,” said Asma giving a big sigh, looking tired and looking at her five-year- old daughter who had just came down to sit next to her. Her eyes and hair was exactly the same dark color as her mother and her light grey dress had a trim of short black fur on it. Continue reading