Oftentimes when the term “international student” is used, people think of an outsider. While outsiders may be hard to define with words, everyone has a pretty similar image in their minds. We picture someone who is from a different country or a completely different culture.
If we go by the above definition, I’m not an international student at all. Both of my parents were born and raised in Bangladesh, but I was born and raised in New York. I’m American, not only by the status of my passport, but also by my lifestyle. America’s education system is all I know. I’ve never attended foreign academic institutes, just public schools and then a university in the US.
However, in the sense that an outsider is someone who is new or who doesn’t otherwise completely fit in, I sometimes feel like an outsider, an outsider in a country I was born in, a country I have lived in all my life. I am a woman, who is Muslim and Bengali. I have brown skin, so already I’m not a “typical” American in the minds of many people. Yes, the United States of America is a country of immigrants, and it’s a country that I love dearly. But that does not erase the fact that we, along with every other country in the world, have a hegemonic system built into our social structures and many people’s view of the society. Consequently, it is easy for many Americans like me to feel out of place when the term “typical American” is used to describe citizens who are white, Christian, and so on. It is easy to feel out of place when you don’t look or feel like the “average” American.
I feel like I too am “inter-national” in the sense that I have my two feet in two completely different settings. On one hand, I am a citizen of one of the most powerful countries in the world. On the other hand, by ethnicity, family, and the language I speak and the customs I follow, I “belong” to a poor and overpopulated country far away from here. I know how it feels to be out of place, to not fully understand something.
International” students often have to deal with experiencing two completely different cultures, which has its pros and its cons. Like many immigrants or first generation Americans, they start living and experiencing two cultures and identities.
While it is wonderful to experience two different cultures, to live those cultures every day, sometimes I wish I could fully just be one thing. It would eliminate the confusion and anxiety in my mind. Sometimes I feel I am just too American to be fully Bangladeshi, but too Bangladeshi to be fully American. Oh how wonderful it must feel to be somewhere and feel like you totally belong there. Belonging and feeling whole is often a big complication that arises with immigrants, or children of immigrants—as well as international students as academic sojourners. That complexity involves living in a state of confusion because we don’t know what to do, or who we truly are. It sucks when you realize that you know English better than your mother tongue. I know how it feels when you try so hard to respect and honor your traditional traditions and customs, yet get called westernized by your family. We as humans naturally want to find wholeness, and it is difficult when you are identify with two polarizing cultures.
So as I straddle and balance being a part of different cultures, I identify or at least empathize with international students around me who are on foreign visas and trying to adapt and succeed in the university.
In a sense, international visa students show local students, especially those who straddle cultures like me, how to navigate and succeed while being an outsider, while being divided. When I think about the positives of my own dual identity, I often see it as a positive thing. I speak English and Bengali. I’m comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, and also in a traditional salwar kameez. Which is why, despite the confusion this sharing of cultures causes, I am so grateful and blessed to be a part of two cultures that have given me so much. Often when I am confused, I take parts from both and mix them together. It could be said that us children of immigrants have made our own hybrid culture. From all the differences, we could learn more and adapt more efficiently. We have a broader and more open view of the world. If international students learned to not just see themselves as outsiders but as individuals with diverse experience and knowledge, they too could be proud of themselves. Self-confidence is important for success, especially when one is not fully accepted by defined by challenges.
I wasn’t always fully aware of all the differences that I now feel on a daily basis. But I soon started realizing after an even that truly changed the world- 9/11. September 11, 2001 was the first day of second grade for me. I remember dreading getting up that morning because it would mean the end of summer and going back to school. But I had no idea the horrors that day would bring, and the even more terrible aftermath it would cause. When I was sitting in class, and they were announcing the attack on the towers, I had no idea what it meant. For me the Twin Towers were just two tall buildings in Manhattan that I visited once when I was younger. However, when my dad picked me up from school early and we were sitting down on my worn blue couch watching the TV repeatedly show the towers falling, I felt a dread in my stomach that things were going to get bad. I was young, only 6 days from turning 7 years old. I had no idea the terrors it would cause in people’s hearts and minds, and the backlash that would happen against Muslims here in the US and around the world.
Being a Bengali Muslim isn’t just some random fact about me, it’s my identity. It’s what I am, who I am. And I’ve always been protective of that identity. That need to protect comes from the fact that ever since 9/11 I’ve always felt like I had to prove something. That all Muslims aren’t bad, that we have nothing to do with the attack on the Towers, that Al Qaeda is not in any form or shape reflective of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. I always felt like I had to defend my religion. There were times when my classmates would make bomb jokes and I would smirk, giggle a bit, but on the inside I was cursing them. All of this made me look deeper into Islam, so I could prove that I’m part of a beautiful religion. The need of mine to defend Islam and Muslims sparked an interest in me to learn, to be aware.
All of this has aided my academia because it has sparked my interest in a variety of things. I became a lot more interested in my own religion. I googled different aspects of Islam, read the Qur’an, learned as much as I could. Not to say I’m done learning, because learning is a never ending experience. Everything that happened fueled my interest in being a better Muslim, and more importantly, a better human being. I became aware of the fact, that we do not live in a post racial world at all. I became aware of the atrocities that happen all over the world in the name of war, religion, revenge. I am most grateful for my need for education, for digging deeper into stories, for my passion for reading and religion and politics. I love how everything connects together. There are many times when I’m sitting in a classroom, I feel like I don’t fit in, but that feeling has pushed me to learn so much more, and for that I am grateful.
So, when I study or socialize with international students from around the world in my very diverse university campus, I related to their confusions and their experience of being outsiders—but at the same time, I also relate to their ability and desire to learn about and embrace complexity about their experience, identity, and knowledge about the world.
And that is why I consider myself an inter-national student.