The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit a piece to the Opinion section, click here.
When I first came to the United States, I went through the disorienting process of completely re-learning my way of life, from crossing a sidewalk to holding a conversation. Sophomore Heidi’s mental folder coming into the U.S. high school experience had the following knowledge: High School Musical, Twilight, Full House, Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” music video, and a few mental screenshots of Anderson Cooper’s face on our television screen back home in Busan, South Korea. As I drove to Deerfield Academy for the first time, I imagined red lockers, couples kissing in hallways, and teenage pregnancies would be marks of my daily life. But, they weren’t.
Deerfield defied the boundaries of my supposed understanding of life in the United States. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, or what to think — and no one taught me. I struggled to adjust to the time difference, American food and slang, and most of all, the social nuances. One incident in particular stands out in my mind.
“I would like to apologize for my behavior tonight. I really didn’t know that I wasn’t allowed to say that word, especially in the context of song lyrics. I made a mistake, and I am so sorry.”
Although I cannot recall the exact message, this is more or less what I sent to my hallway’s group chat after uttering a racial slur in a song during a hallway karaoke jam session my first year in an American boarding school. No one responded, and I genuinely feared that I had just lost all my friends.
You may ask, “how could you not have known that you were using a racially charged word?” I know it may be hard to believe, but the intricacies of American cultural and racial competency were not obvious to me — a Korean girl who had never lived in the United States before. I had no prior knowledge of the word’s harm when I belted it out as part of a rap verse: as an international student with no previous knowledge of the word’s history, I did not know how my usage of it could hurt other people. In my uneducated eyes, the word seemed no different from the others in the song lyric, at least until everyone singing with me went dangerously quiet. It is large cultural gaps in knowledge like this that need to be addressed better in International Orientation (IO).
What I needed before that night was for someone to teach me the social norms and relevant American history needed to not make that mistake. But even at Princeton, IO does not sufficiently teach international students about American life and, specifically, its history of race.
IO is a great program, and I learned a lot from it. Hearing different, non-U.S. cultures recognized and celebrated in the Roll Call of Nations, seeing the stages of cultural adaptation acted out by International Center (IC) leaders’ dramatic vignettes, and dunking on American food together with fellow internationals after dinner at the Tower Club was altogether affirming and fun. Until, that is, the incontrovertible reality crept up on me on closing night.
We learned basic skills, especially those necessary to survive in the United States, as well as the art of learning about different cultures in conversation. Crucially, however, we weren’t really taught cultural competence skills nor relevant norms. Although I was lucky enough to have accrued these skills from my three years at an American boarding school, I knew that many of the international students I met at Princeton, who were living in the United States for the first time, were currently just as clueless as I once was.
American teens grow up with the expectation that they should educate themselves on the cultural differences of racial groups, which makes sense as citizens of a country with at least five different racial categories (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander) in its demographic makeup, at least per the U.S. Census. Contrastingly, many international students come from countries that are far more racially homogeneous, or simply have completely different racial dynamics than the United States. South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world, and the racial politics, informed by the lack of racial diversity, can be, as described by the Korea Herald, “complicated and nasty.” Of course, South Korea’s homogeneity is no excuse for the general cultural insensitivity pervading its media, but the fact of the matter is that its national attitude toward foreigners is different from that of the United States.
The racial dialogue I mainly heard growing up in Korea was on other Asian nationalities, with subconscious biases and complex cultural relations existing in a non-U.S. context. South Korea is not alone — there are many homogeneous countries, and even more that have dramatically different racial dynamics or taboos depending on their histories.
Indeed, history is crucial to understanding culture and taboos, and most international students won’t have the same level of education on U.S. history as domestic students. The word I uttered in that karaoke session is taboo because of its historical roots and harmful connotations — something I had known virtually nothing about. While I gained that knowledge at Deerfield, if I had continued to study at my international school prior to coming to Princeton, I likely would not have had that exposure.
IO shouldn’t stop at teaching about topical and logistical issues, such as visas and paid work. It must integrate an actual session on race and the history and culture of racism in the United States into its programming. In addition to helping the international community see what our place is in Princeton and the United States, as well as how to integrate without losing our international identity, this crash course on the racially charged history of America and cultural nuances and taboos would leave us international students much more prepared to handle day-to-day life in America. We would be more knowledgeable about our responsibilities to our new community, and how to be respectful to others within it: both are necessary since we are a part of it.
Guest contributor Ukyung (Heidi) Nam is a first-year intending to major in English and video staffer for the ‘Prince’. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.