December 3, 2015

GUEST BLOG | An International Student’s Plight

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“Wow, you speak really good English. Did you learn it over there?”

Me thinks: “Why shouldn’t I? … Over where?”

Am I the only one who cringes when someone “compliments” my English proficiency and asks whether I only learnt English when I came to America? Why would I not be perfectly fluent in one of the predominant languages in my country? If you are guilty of this “compliment,” please don’t do it again (snaps fingers in Z-formation). I am shocked that people at a prestigious institution such as Cornell are blissfully ignorant that the English language is not only limited to the four corners of America. The rest of the world can speak English too! I’m Zimbabwean; I’ve lived there all my life in Africa and have travelled to other African countries such as South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia. I have never met anyone there who wasn’t bilingual with most being polyglots navigating between their native tongues, English, Portuguese, Arabic or French. It is highly insulting when people “Ooh” and “Aah” at my apparent abilities. You don’t see me marvelling at your ability to construct simple sentences, so why should it be a traffic-stopping moment when an international student raises their hand in class and eloquently puts their point across?  

At first, I did not mind the seemingly innocent questions about where I’m from. This is the first time some people have actually met someone from my country or even heard about it, so it’s only natural that they would be curious. But I have since become frustrated when everyday I am reminded of the stereotypes associated with my homeland. Each time I speak up in class or simply walk down to Appel I am representative of my whole country and continent. How I behave will affect how people perceive my culture. I have become an unofficial diplomat with the task to break down ridiculous stereotypes. What I find more frustrating is that people actually seem disappointed when I inform them that “No, I do not ride elephants to school or own a pet lion.” This leads me to my personal favorites:

“You’re from Africa? That’s so cool! How did you get here?”

Me thinks: “I swam across the Atlantic.”

“I’m listening to Beyonce. She is a really popular musician here.”

Me thinks: “You don’t say!”

“Do they have pizza in Zimbabwe?”

Me thinks: “Nope.”

“Did you buy all your clothes here?”

Me thinks: “Yes. I was butt naked during my 26 hour flight to America. Only got a pair of jeans and a shirt at a duty free store at JFK.”

Sometimes it takes all the self-control I can muster to bite down a snide remark or not punch some people in the face. Teenagers all over the world watch TV too, goof off on facebook and go to the movies and the pizza place. We are not exotic specimens whose way of living needs to be put under a microscope to be understood. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying don’t be curious about other people’s cultures and countries. I love talking about my roots with anyone who is genuinely interested but if you are looking to “Ooh” and “Ahh” at me or my fellow international students like we are abstract pieces of art on display, please keep your ignorance and unsolicited compliments to yourself.