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.

“I feel like Americans don’t have their own authentic food,” said Yitan Wang, a 19-year-old Bryn Mawr sophomore from China.  “Maybe hamburgers and fries count, but… the materials are different, they’re from different parts of the world.”

Wang’s question echoes the struggle many international students face in trying to define the American identity.

“Since the country is so big and it is a melting pot, it often gets overwhelming to understand what America means,” said Hanna Sohn, a 21-year-old Bryn Mawr senior from South Korea.  “It seems more like a chunk of a land rather than a culturally bound country to me.”

Most international students find that the lack of one true “American” anything is their favorite part about the United States.

The melting pot

“What I like most about the U.S. is that it is a huge melting pot and it has the capability to embrace other countries’ culture,” said Ting Xu, a Bryn Mawr sophomore from China.  “Though discrimination exists, its mainstream culture still ties closely to tolerance.”

Samantha Rim, a 20-year-old Bryn Mawr senior from South Korea, said, “It was interesting to see the diversity in this country, especially how different people were. There wasn’t a certain standard people had to follow, and people seemed to be however they chose to be.”

Diversity and tolerance was a major feature of the experience of many international students in the Bi-Co.  But does such tolerance extend beyond the college campus?

While 56 percentof international students disagreed with the survey statement “In America, racism is very evident,” 44 percent agreed with it.

“There is a lot of racism between American Asians and American Indians and such,” said Saniya Mehra, a 19-year-old Bryn Mawr sophomore from both Hong Kong and India.  “It is really heightened here. I feel like London and Hong Kong are truer melting pots.”

Ignorance of other cultures and racism were top choices for what international students disliked the most about the United States.

“Institutionalized racism is evident even at Bryn Mawr. We are so close to Philly which has a prominent African American population, yet they are very under-represented at Bryn Mawr,” said one anonymous student on the online survey.

Houhou “Gogo” Wang, a Haverford junior from China, experienced a fair amount of culture shock herself while spending a year in Iowa as part of a college exchange program.

“When I was in Iowa, I stayed with an evangelical family and I went to a Christian school so it’s very different from here.  Everyone there wanted the best for me and I loved the people and I know that they loved me, just in a very different way.  They didn’t want me to go to Hell so they all tried to convert me.”

Several students perceive this lack of awareness as symptomatic of a superpower showing its age.

“Sometimes I feel like people in America were ignorant of other countries or cultures,” said Samantha Rim, the Bryn Mawr senior from South Korea, “because they only think of America being at the top.  But as of decades ago, I feel that there hasn’t been much more astonishing developments…it’s made me realize that America really isn’t the most developed country as I thought it used to be.”

“I wish people would be more innovative,” said Wang.  “I feel like because China is so new, it just opened up for a few decades and everyone has these new ideas.  I can see this really cool company online and I look them up and I can meet up with them.  If you share similar ideas with people in China you can just meet up with them, it’s very spontaneous.  I do miss that.”

Are they really friendly?

Other students mentioned the flaws in American society as flaws in their own American experience.  ‘There is a lot of homeless people on the streets,’ said one Bryn Mawr student from Japan.  “A lot of the times you need a car because public transportation isn’t always so convenient or fast or cheap enough,” said another from South Korea.

“Here everything is so at a price,” said Eutha Gyaltshen, a 21-year-old Bryn Mawr junior from Bhutan.  “It’s more difficult to do things here, people want your IDs when you buy things.  In Bangkok, I can walk into any supermarket and buy a phone card for like… two dollars, and then I can just take it. But here in the U.S. if you want to buy one, they hand you a contract that costs you a minimum of $50 to $60.”

Even friendliness, the last bastion of American Exceptionalism, has been called into question.

While “friendliness” was one of the most appreciated things by international students on the survey, 63 percent of them agreed with the statement “Americans are only friendly in a superficial way.”

Emmanuel Mbudu, a 22-year-old Haverford junior from Zimbabwe, was baffled by American greeting customs.  “People place a different meaning on greeting people. For example, when you ask someone ‘How are you doing?’ In my country, you have to stop and actually explain, give a whole run-down of your life. Whereas here it’s ‘How are you doing,’ ‘How are you doing,” and part ways.”

American friendliness seems to be judged in comparison to that of native countries.  Ivan Sanchez, a 20-year-old Haverford junior from Puerto Rico, said “The difference in relationships was the thing that surprised me the most.  Americans usually interact in a more cold way than the people back home.”

Meanwhile, Valentina Viertel, the Bryn Mawr senior from Germany, said, “When you’re around Americans, there’s a warmth that you don’t feel when you’re around Germans.  If you’re in the grocery store, the grocer will talk to you and be friendly. And you’ll have a joke with the person behind you there.”

Overall, it seems America has quite a lot to offer, but sometimes its abundance is precisely what makes it so difficult to access.

“I think the only complaint I have right now about the country specifically is that the country is so big,” said Kim, the Guatemalan Bryn Mawr senior.  “If you don’t have a car, not everything is accessible. It is not like that close to home. If you don’t have a car here on campus, it’s not bad. But if you have one, you won’t miss out on things.”

It’s a crisis that echoes the endless shelves in the WalMart that Imeninima from Rwanda visited, or the countless options at CVS Craig from Italy was baffled by.

Despite America’s flaws, the majority of international students want to stay in the U.S. beyond their college years.  Fifty-two percent of international students who responded to the online survey said they would stay in America to work or live after college.  Why is this the case?  Probably because of the opportunity that draws many people to America in the first place.  Of those surveyed, 76 percent agreed with the statement that “There are more opportunities in America,” the second-most agreed-upon statement in the survey.

While overwhelming at first, most international students embrace the freedom to choose and express oneself as an individual.

“There is a sense of equality here, unlike other places,” said Ishani Das, a 20-year-old Bryn Mawr junior from India.  “You can have the freedom to choose what you want to do, I don’t feel like I will be judged.”

Shinhae Lee, a 20-year-old Bryn Mawr freshman from South Korea agreed. “I don’t have to worry so much about what others think of me.  I can just be who I want, I can wear ridiculous things and call it my sense of style and nobody will judge me.”

Rasha Younes, a 19-year-old Haverford sophomore from Lebanon, probably put it best; “It’s going to sound cheesy and American Dreamy, but what I’ve liked most about the U.S. is that if you actually work hard you can get somewhere. You know, it doesn’t matter where you get, but you can get something out of it. Whereas, back home you can work your ass off and not get anywhere.”

America may be home of the iced water and the ignorant, the peanut butter and the over-fed. But one thing it still is — and hopefully always will be — is the land of the free.


This story was  a reporting project by students in Bryn Mawr’s News and Feature Writing class, who conducted nearly 60 one-on-one interviews and sent an online survey to international students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, which received 60 responses.  It was written by David Roza.