So, you’ve seen us.
We were first spotted on campus a good couple of days before the natives drove in. Our emblem is that bright orange Nalgene bottle from the Davis IC, either dangling from a carabiner or tucked well into the side pockets of our backpacks. When it comes down to physical appearances, we’re not so conspicuous—Princeton happens to be an ethnically and racially diverse community already—but there’s a sinuous flux of Polish, Chinese and Urdu stirring the air. Maybe an inherent lick of an accent. That’s when you realize that we are that 12% of Princeton: the “bundle of diversity”, aka the International Students.
Let the game of twenty questions begin: How do you say “hello” in your language?
Don’t get me wrong. I am hardly an angst-ridden heretic against my own identity/identities. In fact, I must admit that such questions from students from both within and outside the continent turn out to be a great conversation-opener, generally just an easy way to break the ice with total strangers (unless you were that chronic friender on Facebook, in which case you would be pretty much up-to-date with everyone’s senior slack-offs and various family gatherings).
Things start to deteriorate when we, the kids from elsewhere, are expected to comport ourselves in certain ways; too often have I been faced with startled looks when I committed acts that, apparently, diverged from the unspoken archetype towards international students. For instance, just the other day, a fellow classmate was genuinely shocked that, despite my supposedly-Seoulite appearances and French education, I didn’t particularly have a penchant for the spices nor did I eat croissants on a quasi-daily basis. Upon the bestowal of the very moniker “international student”, there is immediately an invisible crevice formed between myself and my American counterparts. I find myself nearly expected to have undergone an “identity crisis” stemming from the nomadic lifestyle, to wonder where my “true roots”—if they even exist in some tangible form—lie, and to have received at least some form of a culture shock during my adaptation to the American way of life. Several American students whom I have talked to even confessed that the very name Davis “International” Center has an aura of inapproachability for them, which is unfortunate as this week, the Center is looking for both internationals AND Americans to serve on its Advisory Board.
Naturally, the question “Who am I?” has, over time, come to implicate international students—somehow, we are expected to bring more diversity to the Princeton community by representing different countries and cultures, and that in itself is incontestably a good thing. The iffiness arises when such diversity is blatantly preferred over a certain degree of homogeneity, integration and discovery of common factors of international students with the American community. For some internationals who have no previous experience in the States, a simple paradigm shift easily shows that Princeton is the “international”: one thing on our bucket list is simply the uptake of the “all-American” idiosyncrasies, and that begins from a hunt for something that we share in common with the natives, something we can bond over. Yet, soon enough, I find that the exoticization of my identity by my conversation partner only brings one thing: a strained, one-way interrogation that a game of twenty questions always turns out to be.