Is that Mayonnaise?

Story by

Adoit Pradhan







My second week as a freshman in a rural mid-western liberal arts college! Coming from Nepal, Indiana was a different ball game. The trees seemed strangely greener, the lawns were well-manicured, the roads were paved smoother, and the buildings were a lot cleaner. I remember the sounds that felt very foreign, the colors that were unfamiliar; and the smells, the smells that kept reminding me that this wasn’t home. This was different, and new, and exciting, and unnerving. And so on that evening, as the setting sun streamed through the huge windows of the campus dining hall, I asked the guy in front of me if the white paste in one of the food containers was Mayo. It didn’t seem like mayo, as it was whiter and looked smoother and creamier. But I couldn’t think of anything else that looked similar, and was not sure if it would go well with the food on my plate. Hence, the question, “Is that Mayonnaise?”

The response I got was a gentle shaking of the head, and a little grin. But it was a jolt to me. I felt like a fool for not knowing what it was. And alas, that feeling surfaced regularly over the next couple of years. Ordering food in a restaurant was the scariest proposition. What were the sides that they listed in rapid fire succession? Should I ask them to explain each one of them? What was this thing that people referring to as greens? Is Chipotle sauce good, should I even try it? And the cereals, so many that I still don’t know most of them.

It was a great leap to come from an all-familiar culture to one so completely alien. I thought I knew a lot; after all I grew up watching TV shows and movies from the US. But they had forgotten the details. The details that I had maybe seen and heard about vaguely, but did not understand. I was an outsider, trying to fit in a world I barely understood. I was in a rush to become one of them, in a rush to become a part of it all. I wanted things to be familiar again, and I wanted to be comfortable with it all. But it took time, and a lot more than I realized back then.

The same uncertainty was also present in my academic life. Writing was the first adjustment, simply because of a stricter focus on structure. Even though my grammar was fairly good, and had taken writing classes in high-school, I realized that I did not have a strong grasp on many grammatical rules, leading to many little errors. I learnt that academic writing was different than fictional/creative writing, which I was more familiar with. Also, learning all the rules of citations took a while, as I made numerous mistakes even while following the guidelines. Then there were the spelling differences between British English  and American English. For half a semester, I thought my Economics professor could not spell the word check, as I was used to cheque. I have seen that most international students take some time to adjust to the writing requirements.

Mathematics was different too because the terms used were different. The trigonometric functions had slightly different names, and were pronounced differently. Calculus in particular used different terms, even though the process was the same. Economics used familiar terminology, but the examples often times required a little more research on my part. In one of my first classes, the professor used marshmallows as an example and I had no clue what it was. Reference to many movies and figures were made that I was not familiar with. Ebenezer Scrooge was brought up in Economics quite a few times, but I had not seen A Christmas Carol so wasn’t sure what the reference exactly meant.

Being an international student is not always easy. Language can be a challenge to many, as can food. And academics will sound unfamiliar too. Some students seemingly get in the groove right away while others struggle, but everyone has to make adjustments. However, one always has to remember that it gets easier! My early semesters in college mirror my first experience with what turns out is a common American condiment. I did not know what it was, and it felt bad. But once I got used to it, I enjoyed it. It just takes a little time.

And of course, the answer was not Mayonnaise… it was sour cream.

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