Preparing for college is a taxing process. We stress so much about the things that seem so important at the time: planning our outfits for the first month or so, setting up a four year plan, stalking other incoming freshman we may want to be friends with, figuring out what time the café is open. Some of us are concerned about missing friends and family, and others can’t wait to get away from home. Yet hardly any time is spent thinking about the multiple ways in which our cultural identities will be challenged. We all come from different cultural backgrounds that have their own sets of obstacles and openings, whether they be ethnic, political, regional, social or any other form of cultural distinction. For me, it was my ethnic cultural background that was challenged most when I came to college.
Are you used to thinking about your skin color, eye shape, or hair type as something that is different or ‘exotic’? Are you used to having your race or ethnicity be one of your main identifiers? Do you know if you’re ‘white’ enough to fit into this college community? These are questions that came up for me and other students of color, among the first few weeks upon leaving home and arriving in college. Why weren’t we taught to prepare for that? For those struggling to maintain, accept, and redefine their identities on this campus, you are not alone. Culture shock that strongly impacts your cultural identity is real; I call it the Multicultural Student Complex. Here are a few examples based on my personal experiences.
1. Language Barriers
Language barriers come about differently for everyone depending on any number of factors. For an international student, it may simply be that they cannot express themselves and communicate as effectively because of language barriers, whether or not they are conversant in English. For others, they may feel that they can express themselves better in their native tongue, or just enjoy speaking it, but can’t find opportunities to use it unless they call family members from home. Sometimes we express ourselves better in something other than the English language and this can prove to be a significant obstacle for some. And some find it unfair that even when we’re multi-lingual, we are still expected to have high levels of speaking and writing proficiency in our second language. Knowing two or more languages is a blessing and a curse. It can be tough just because we may not feel adequate enough in either language, so when writing an academic essay, we second-guess our ability to sound intelligent.
From fry bread, to homemade empanadas, to samosas, and mom’s mashed potatoes, we all have favorite foods that just aren’t as readily available to us anymore. We might be tired of mom’s cooking when we’re at home, but within a few weeks, mom’s cooking is all we want. Many of us make up for it by cooking our food at school and sharing it with roommates and other friends to create a sense of community and, just for a moment, create a sense of home. But then again, some feel ashamed or uncomfortable doing this because they feel different, don’t have the utensils, or simply don’t know how to cook the food.
3. Cultural Holidays
Holidays are supposed to be a day of festivities, family, community, and spirituality. However, celebrating a holiday when you’re away from home can be disappointing. We get Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, which is great for the students that celebrate these holidays, but what are we supposed to do when we don’t get the day off for our specific holiday to go home and celebrate with our families? Figuring out a way to celebrate away from home is tough emotionally. We have to somehow find ways to create a festive atmosphere and find groups of people that are willing to celebrate with us. Some of us travel to pow-wows around the area, or find other community members of the same background to celebrate with. Others create events on campus to try to bring awareness to the University. Last year, the University celebrated the Indian holiday of Holi, the festival of colors, for the first time. Students can also put on cultural dinners through CDI to teach the campus community about their holidays. (Diwali, the festival of lights, another Indian holiday, is coming up on November 2.)
It’s exhausting when a sense of community doesn’t exist around us, so we find clubs and organizations that can help. However, many of these groups face resistance and lack of interest when they try to create a club based on cultural backgrounds or experiences. Many of the multicultural organizations on campus have a strong history of opposition, while others that are currently starting up are now realizing how difficult it is to create a space for those who are seen as different. It’s also important to recognize that most of these spaces are centered on activism, event planning, or any other number of logistical things that go into an organization, but many just want a social space.
5. Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation insults people of color and different cultural backgrounds because individuals capitalize on a cultural aspect that is not their own. This occurs when someone uses parts of a culture that isn’t theirs in a harmful way, or makes pieces of another culture seem trendy. It is particularly harmful to appropriate when said culture is still experiencing prejudice, or has a history of violent opposition and oppression. Cultural appropriation promotes racist stereotypes and often times only white people can get away with using these pieces of culture while those who come from said culture are ridiculed for doing or wearing the same things.
6. New Freedom
The idea of new freedom can be the most difficult to adjust to, since leaving for college also means leaving behind many restrictions. When we finally arrive, we begin to experience freedoms we never had at home, including dating, being able to wear whatever we want, not having curfews, or being able to party. With this freedom, however, comes the extreme guilt of doing something we know our families back home would never approve of. But do we, and should we, allow this to hinder our newfound independence?
It can be frustrating when someone can’t pronounce our names correctly. Even more so when someone asks if they can call us something other than our name because they don’t want to make the effort to really learn to say it in its proper form. A lot of us come up with more ‘American’ names that we identify with so we don’t have to go through the daily difficulty of sounding out our name to every new person we meet. When we meet someone who can say our name, we may want to do a little jig. It’s a shame we don’t run into those kinds of people more often. Not all of us are sensitive about our names; some have gotten used to it or don’t care, but it’s important to ask someone if they have a preference of what they’d like to be called.
These are only a few struggles that people with a Multicultural Student Complex experience. It is important that we recognize and appreciate people with different cultural backgrounds and support them as they continue to create a space for themselves on this campus. Some of us are very privileged in the sense that we don’t have to think about any of these struggles. Recognize this privilege as you move forward, but also recognize that just because you can’t identify with something, doesn’t mean there isn’t a large part of our student body that is struggling.
[Image courtesy of Joseph Serrano, Redlands Bulldog photographer]