Sastoque: Are Americans close-minded?

Laurisa Sastoque, Op-Ed Contributor

About four months have elapsed since I stepped out of an airplane coming from Bogotá, Colombia, and embarked on the adventure of being an international student at Northwestern.

Never having studied anywhere but in my home country, coming to the US felt daunting and unreal. Would I find like-minded friends? Would I be able to adjust to foreign paradigms of thought and culture?

These questions fluttered around my mind as I unpacked my summer clothes and taped pictures of my relatives and friends on my gray bedroom wall.

Thankfully, the American experience has been quite rewarding for me. I have made lots of new friends and succeeded in becoming more independent. Needless to say, however, being an international student has been anything but easy.

Coming from abroad means that you can be perceived as an alien, or even as a threat, whose disparate systems of thought may clash with those already established in your new environment. Being an international student means that your views may sometimes be undermined or altogether ignored by native students.

To earn ideological respect you often must make an additional effort to prove your ideas as valid. This phenomenon is rarely related to the content of those ideas. In fact, I would rather attribute it to the subject — and its characteristic of “foreignness”— than to the object.

I randomly encountered this issue during an afternoon study session at the Starbucks in downtown Evanston. I was sitting with a good friend of mine, trying to digest a rather eyebrow-raising reading for my English class, but a scenario playing out on the table besides mine snatched my concentration away.

An exchange student from China, who I later learned had recently gotten his Ph.D. in Chemistry, was talking to a couple of middle-aged Americans. The couple, an Asian American woman and a white man, was enthusiastically questioning the student on his arrival to the United States. It quickly became obvious that the purpose of the conversation was to work on the student’s English level and to open up a space for him to practice.

The interaction would have been completely normal, even delightful, if it weren’t for a couple of details.

First of all, the couple did not show any interest in the student’s life back home, only on his perception of America. When he did introduce narratives related to his home country, these were quickly dismissed or glossed over.

Second, when the student was finally asked about his opinion on an issue linked to his country — the Hong Kong protests — he had only begun to explain his position when the American couple started insistently trying to press their views on him.

Third, the couple kept correcting the student’s pronunciation. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against being corrected when learning a second language. But even though his pronunciation wasn’t wrong and was perfectly understandable, the couple was set on making him sound like them. This caused frustration to spray over the student’s face, contradicted only by his words of gratitude.

It became really clear that the conversation was centered on the Americans’ views. Although it is true that learning about America should be the most pressing intention of an exchange student, the interaction did bring to light an issue that me and my friend discussed for a while — many Americans are willing to teach but are not willing to learn.

As an international student, I have found that Americans generally lack curiosity with respect to acquiring new perspectives, and instead tend to project their ideas on foreigners. Characterized by a rejection of difference and a desire to impose, one may even describe this behavior as reminiscent of colonialism.

This behavior is, of course, not exhibited by many of the Americans I have met, and that makes me feel glad about the American mindset slowly becoming more open.

Therefore, I want to invite Americans to profit from encounters with international individuals as opportunities for learning and expanding their horizons. To achieve this, Americans must develop a willingness, not to refute and reassert their views, but to engage in the type of human interaction that points towards global citizenship.

Laurisa Sastoque is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.