International Student "Dis"orientation

The first time I saw a condom, it was on a banana during a Sexual Health Educators skit. My home country is very conservative, so things like that really aren’t the norm. I was horrified by the public display of sexuality.

From the moment I stepped onto the plane, I knew things would be different. It was my first time on an international flight and everything seemed so big. The clothes that just moments ago seemed so warm offered me no resistance against the biting cold in the plane. I thought to myself, “Why am I leaving home?” My answer involves the bananas that now frequent my dreams, because after my initial surprise, I realized that I was actually learning stuff. Those SHE skits had managed to teach me in the space of an hour what six years of stilted sexuality talks back home had failed to teach me: sexuality is not a bad thing. And so even though I have nightmares about condom-wearing bananas, it’s all right because the bananas always have their condoms on right.

International student orientation (ISO) began on Thursday, August 21 with a barrage of icebreakers that did little to dispel the awkwardness that comes with meeting new people. By this time, I had just learned my first word of Russian: Привет (priviat). It means “hi,” which is essentially all we were saying to ourselves in any language for the first day or two. I remember realizing how similar all the people and places were to those from home, and thinking, “Well, maybe we aren’t so different.”

However, I had to reconsider when I realized the food was inedible. For my first few days, I subsisted entirely on fruits and vegetables. I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss over cheese was about. Even the pseudo-cooked meat that everyone called medium rare looked like it had blood in it. I was in for an even bigger surprise when I met my first atheist. I am a very religious person coming from a very religious country, so atheism seems very strange to me. I was shell-shocked when I met people who said that they had never prayed before.

My confusion must have been apparent to them as my world suddenly turned upside down.

Those three days of orientation are arguably the most substantive days that we international students have had so far. We learned about everything from the drinking culture at Amherst to crossing Route 9. The only things left out were bystander intervention training and sexual respect talks that we got during the new student orientation. The last event of ISO was a catered dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and even though it was my first time eating sweet and sour chicken, I thought the food was amazing. Maybe this was why we were all so comfortable that evening, but for the first time we talked to each other freely. We filled the restaurant with rapturous laughter as we fumbled with our chopsticks and talked about our countries.
By this time I was already realizing that culture shock wasn’t restricted to a finite period or domain. It could be anything, from the absurdity of the reversed date formats to the constant supply of electricity. It could be the use of non-metric units or strangeness of making out with drunk strangers at parties. For some, it could be something as significant as a shift in the attitude towards sexual orientation or the symbolism behind the presence of condoms in bathrooms. It could even be speech patterns and prayer patterns or the complete lack of them. It could be a cultural obsession with cheese or the differences in our definitions of cooked meat. The list goes on indefinitely and includes identity issues like individualism as opposed to collectivism. Every day we are faced with another subtle nuance of a new culture.

Provost Peter Uvin was on to something when he said, during the international student orientation, that he knew he had become American when he started dreaming in English. Will the culture shock have ended when international students start saying “Yaas!” or writing our dates in reverse? Will we have become American when we like our steak medium rare? I don’t really know, but one thing I am certain of is that it never really ends. My conclusion is that culture shock is essentially what we make of it and so as my people say, hapu ihe e dere na moto banye moto — leave what is written on the car and enter the car.