We only ever see the highlights; the college football games, booze-filled house parties, and studying in aesthetic coffee shops with big friend groups. I was convinced that moving abroad would be filled with only positive experiences and that the life others were living abroad was much better than my own. Reality is a far different, far more humbling experience.
As an international student in a new country, you’ll go through several stages before you find your identity. We hope our story is something you can relate to and a guide to lead you back to your roots.
Life gets stale when you’ve lived in one place your entire life. You build a routine for yourself, you know who your friends are, and there are very few surprises in your life — you’re lulled into a comfort zone, and no motivation can get you out of it. It’s an extension of living in one place, where we lose touch with our culture before ever leaving it.
Our admiration for other countries and cultures grows as we’re drawn away from our own. We start to watch videos about living abroad, read about life there, and even research places we’d like to live. Our admiration grows into a rose-colored outlook that blinds us from anything negative. It didn’t matter if the cost of living was higher or my quality of life would be significantly less — everywhere other than home sounded better than where I was.
When you reach your destination, hundreds of emotions will swirl around in your head. All the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights are different than what you’re used to. It didn’t take long to realize how different I was from the native residents.
Once the initial, somewhat overwhelming surge of stimuli passes, you’re left feeling a little antsy. A sense of urgency kicks in that makes you feel like an intruder in this new country. You start telling yourself, “I need to erase my accent. I have to go to that party I was invited to. I need to be more American — I need to fit in.”
I don’t know if it came from my admiration for the culture or my fear of being different; whatever the case, I immersed myself in my new environment as best I could. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try — you can never be someone you’re not.
If I had a dollar for every time, I heard someone say, “People back home think I’m too American, and people in America say I’m too (insert any culture here),” I’d have… probably $10. You realize that being someone you’re not doesn’t fool anyone. As your rose-colored outlook starts to dim, you begin to see things for how they are.
For an international student studying in America, it’s a nice place to live. The people are generally easy to get along with, the portion sizes are as big as you thought, and there are lots of things to do — but at the end of the day, people are people wherever you go. What about the international students you used to look up to before moving? They have struggles you don’t see. And the Americans who have lived there their whole lives? They have flaws just the same as the rest of us.
The pursuit of perfection is a never-ending cycle. We realize that neither our home nor the country we left it for is perfect. We’re all just people trying to find a place to belong, and sometimes that means losing your identity before you find it.
After realizing that your view of your new country isn’t what you expected, the battle for your identity starts. The temptation to return home is strong; after all, you fit in more back home than you do where you are — that’s what I thought, too, until I went home.
Returning home after a few months of living elsewhere was a weird feeling. I still couldn’t put my finger on it, but everything felt different. I don’t know if everyone else changed or if it was just me — either way, home no longer felt like home. The friends I used to hang out with were busy living their own lives, and the places I walked by every day went through the smallest of renovations — life had moved on without me, and my big plan was to waste all the effort I put in to move… to go back to where I started?
This confusion was the price I paid for giving up my culture to pursue a ‘better’ one.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that I’m not my culture, and I’m not fully American either. Where I belong is something I have to figure out along the way, but who I am that’s something for me to decide — I am who I want to be. My identity is the culmination of my experiences; I can’t be defined by any label people put on me.
Now you might think that accepting your culture is the step where you finally figure things out, and everything works out. Not exactly. Accepting your culture is the first step to embracing it — it’s your job to live out your newfound commitment through your choices.
Our identity gives us a sense of belonging, which holds doubly true for cultural identity. Community is an integral part of life, and having your identity rooted in the culture at an early age gives you community as an extension of being born into it. As we get older and move away from home, our culture won’t always follow us — we must actively seek it.
One of the best ways to embrace your identity is to get in touch with your home culture in your new country. The U.S. is full of diverse cultures and communities; most are closer than you think. Nearly every major city in the U.S. has its take on Chinatown, and Latin American society is pervasive in many coastal towns in the U.S. Look around. You’ll find that home isn’t so far after all.
Some cultures are harder to find in the U.S. The great thing about colleges and universities is that multicultural clubs are an active part of many institutions. You belong somewhere — what your community looks like might be slightly different than you expected.
Just as you might have rejected your culture when you first arrived in the U.S., rejecting American culture will only make it harder for you to embrace your own identity.
- Picking up on American slang words
- Celebrating American holidays
- Getting used to ‘small talk.’
- Understanding that America is the culmination of cultures from all over the world
As we discussed, multicultural clubs are a great place to meet international students. Many clubs host annual or bi-annual multicultural events. These can be a great opportunity to once again get in touch with your culture and share it with your local communities. You’d be surprised to learn how many people would be interested in learning more about you.
Once you become comfortable sharing who you are, what’s there to be afraid of?
If you’re looking for additional resources on your student journey, StudyUSA.com is an invaluable resource. Study in the USA is your all-in-one destination for all your study abroad needs: from connecting you with your dream university, helping you find a suitable graduate and postgraduate course to guide you through the visa process, and everything in between.