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Monday, March 05, 2001

Cultural hindrances on campus

Stop and take a look around. Look at the people who walk past you. Look at the people who sit in the same lecture hall. Look at the people who share that corner booth.

Then notice whom they are with. Chances are, they are of the same race.

Whether we are American, Asian or African, we have a tendency to interact with people who come from the same background. There are exceptions but they seem few and far between. As a result, all across campus, we have small homogenous groups.

But I wonder whether this is the way things should be. The university actively promotes diversity by attracting non-white Americans and international students. For the most part, this has worked well — numerically. Socially, much needs to be done to integrate the different groups.

One reason I came to the United States was to interact with Americans. I tell my friends repeatedly, "I didn't travel halfway across the world just to mix with other Singaporeans." Unfortunately, I find myself doing that too often. After all, we speak the same 'brand' of English, behave in the same manner and share the same tastes.

This helps me feel more comfortable in a strange land, but at the same time, I want to explore this land and its people.

I believe that, deep down, many international students share this sentiment. So what is stopping us from achieving our goals? From what I observe, there are two main reasons: openness and something I call the 'hometown mentality'.

In general, Americans are more outspoken than international students. A good command of English is not as important as the ability and willingness to speak up. I can't speak for all foreign students, but as an Asian, I don't have a glib tongue. Asians are generally conservative, so it takes a greater effort to speak up, especially if our English sounds unclear and we're afraid of sounding silly.

It also doesn't help that we are from a different country. Nothing is more difficult to penetrate than a common background, the 'hometown mentality'. This is true for both Americans and international students. You are more likely to want to be with someone from your hometown because of the comfort of familiarity. This struck home at class one day. I was talking to an American when she suddenly started talking to another American after realizing that they were from the same town. I was further alienated when they started talking about the people who lived there.

It is rather daunting coming from a town with the same population as the UW campus. But there are 6 billion people in the world, or about 150,000 times the UW enrollment!

When we consider that a fraction of these people study at the same university, let alone the same class, then we have a wonderful opportunity to learn about and appreciate another culture. This, I believe, is the ultimate goal of diversity.

So take a moment to say "Hi" to that international student sitting alone in the corner. You may be surprised at what you learn.

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