The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.

~

I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.

~

I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.

 

The perfect is the enemy of the good. (But why can’t we all be friends?)

When I stepped into the elevator, the floors lit up, seemingly at random.

Ten. Three. Six.

The elevator rose, then fell. Rose, then fell.

Fourteen. Two. Five.

What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to get off?

~

I recently finished the first semester of a Masters program in Higher Education Administration. Although my grades were irreproachable, I was plagued by the stress dreams typical of all my years of schooling. Obvious metaphors of flailing and failing unfolded nightly in my mind’s eye. Why? I wondered. Why was I still so concerned about achieving impeccable grades when – as an adult and a professional – I should have been content with simply acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for my career?

My first instinct was to hold my upbringing responsible. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed reams of research connecting Asian cultures with perfectionist tendencies. I also thought back to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book which describes the author’s brutal tactics to mold her daughters into star students and master musicians.

When I compare what I have read with my own experiences, certain themes do ring true. For instance, the notion that parents should ensure their children’s excellence in academics and extracurriculars is simply a given for most Chinese-American families. Even my slightly unconventional parents could not escape this larger cultural imperative. Although they allowed me a positively slothful childhood compared to Amy Chua’s daughters, it did take me a while to realize most moms and dads did not grade their kindergartener’s drawings.

Yueyue Drawing 2-2

At least I got a 95 on this one.

But frankly, something about that narrative of the hawkish, Asian parents has always felt off to me. I rarely believed that my parents were truly cracking the whip. There was something perfunctory about the way they acknowledged my grades (celebrated or scolded my performance) which suggested that, deep down, they knew none of it mattered.

Still.

It mattered to me.

A-sians not B-sians

This fantastic meme describes my inner voice more than my actual parents. Source

Grades represented a tried and true avenue of approval. And approval was important for a morose child who recoiled in suspicion from the greetings of friendly classmates.

Grades were a comforting, top-down source of order. And I found order welcome after having moved homes every few years for as long as I could remember.

At my core, I must have craved the rigidity of neat categorizations. I must have clung to the idea that one’s identity could be defined through them. You could be a certain letter grade student, or you could be sorted into one of four houses at Hogwarts. Nowadays, I suppose you could also belong to one of five factions in the world of Divergent or one of thirteen districts in The Hunger Games.

~

The issue has always been that a part of me resents this rigidity of spirit.

That’s the part responsible for my ongoing appreciation of Young Adult fiction, in which authoritarian categorizers are consistently overthrown.

bow and arrow

I would definitely offer up my archery skills for the revolution. Now, how do you aim this thing?

These days, I’m convinced that perfectionism holds me back both professionally and as a student. The anxiety I feel over routine challenges burns me out too easily.

Meanwhile, I admire those who by nature or nurture are free of this maddening trait. I stand in awe of “big picture” types and people who simply get things done without fuss (or stress dreams).

… How do they – or you – do it?

… Do you believe perfectionism is cultural?

… Is “the perfect the enemy of the good” as they say?

And if so, why can’t we all be friends? (Tell me.)

The Time I Almost Lost My Face

“Taking a selfie?”

By now, I’ve come to anticipate Z’s familiar scoff whenever he catches me turning my iPhone lens inwards. He concedes that taking a selfie isn’t a terrible idea if I can capture a magnificent landscape behind me … but he doesn’t understand why I sometimes take them in mundane settings like subway platforms, dentists’ offices, and on our living room couch.

IMG_4718

Here’s one from home. No justification, no filter.

Most of the time, my motivation for these snapshots can be attributed to a mixture of boredom and vanity. But for several months in 2015, I took photos of myself out of pure fear.

I was afraid that I would lose my face — and not in the figurative sense of experiencing mild social embarrassment (which had always been presented to me by my Chinese-American family as one of the worst possible outcomes in life).

I was afraid that after an upcoming surgery, I would literally no longer have a face I’d recognize as my own.

~

In June of 2014, I discovered a hard lump just under my left ear. It was about a third of the size of a golf ball, and I could see it in the mirror.

I was used to getting swollen lymph nodes, so I figured the new lump would subside. This conviction, together with my general laziness, meant that I didn’t get it checked out until December. When I finally bit the bullet and saw a doctor, she suggested that I get the lump biopsied.

Result: a benign tumor was revealed to be growing out of my left salivary gland — a part of my body I barely knew existed! But I wasn’t too disturbed; I thought I just needed to ease up on the Sour Patch Kids. After all, the tumor was benign and could presumably be removed.

It was only when I started investigating the removal surgery that anxiety set in.

~

My first stop was to the office of an Ear and Throat specialist. I showed the doctor my biopsy results and asked for his advice.

He poked at the lump, then sat back in his chair to ponder. Finally, he asked me my age.

“26.”

“Usually, these tumors show up in people who are 40+ years old,” he expounded. “It can definitely be removed, but the surgery is risky. There’s a chance of permanent facial paralysis.” He paused. “For you, I wouldn’t recommend removal. Looks are important when you’re young.”

I gaped at him. Sure, I valued my pulchritude — but could I really just walk around with this golf ball in my neck? “What if it grows?” I asked.

“Just measure it with a ruler every few months,” he shrugged. “Do you have a ruler?”

I thought about my plastic green ruler from Staples lying at home on my desk. It wasn’t bad for drawing straight lines, but I suspected it wouldn’t be great for measuring incremental changes in the size of rounded objects.

Bewildered, I said meekly, “Yes, I do.”

~

Obviously, I needed a second opinion, so I looked up a local surgeon who specialized in the operation. When I arrived at his office with a coffee in hand, his receptionist smiled apologetically and motioned for me to toss the drink.

“He’s very particular about food and beverages in the office, even in the lobby,” she clarified conspiratorially.

I would soon find out those weren’t the only areas in which he was particular. When I met him face to face, he addressed me with a military brusqueness.

Of course you have to remove the tumor,” he huffed indignantly. “Any remotely trained doctor would tell you that. If you don’t remove it, the tumor can grow tendrils around your facial nerve, and you would end up with facial paralysis anyway. Also, it can turn malignant, and then you’re looking at much lower survival rates. The surgery is delicate but routine, and I am very experienced. Now, let me take a look at your MRI results.”

As I struggled to weigh his words against the words of my first doctor, I reluctantly handed him a CD from an MRI lab I’d visited recently. To my surprise, he fumbled the CD and dropped it on the floor.

He tried to pick it up and fumbled it again. The CD clattered against the tile a second time.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my hands today!” laughed the surgeon.

My eyes bugged. When he tried to usher me to the receptionist to pick a date for the surgery, I stammered something about needing to check my calendar, stumbled out onto the sidewalk, and made a beeline to purchase a hot, soothing beverage.

~

I guess it’s not for nothing that they say “third time’s a charm.” The surgeon I visited next also advocated for removal, but he projected calmness and warmth and took the time to answer all of my questions.

I scheduled the surgery for June 2015. In the ensuing weeks, I prepared for the worst. I took selfies galore, read blogs by people living with facial paralysis, read about how to deal with depression resulting from facial paralysis, and read stories about patients who’d experienced anesthetic awareness (patients who had woken up in the middle of a surgery but not been able to signify their awakened state to doctors).

By the day of the surgery, I was properly terrified. Tears streamed down my face as I waited to be operated on. My surgeon was running late from another appointment, and I prayed that he’d had some time to rest and eat a sandwich before slicing open my neck.

Meanwhile, the anesthesiologist for the operation met with me separately to discuss my medical history. I asked her about the possibility of anesthetic awareness.

She cocked an eyebrow. “You know that’s not going to happen, right?

“Please,” I begged. “Could you give me something extra? I’m very resistant to drugs. One-time-Z-and-I-went-to-Amsterdam-and-we-got-some-stuff-and-he-had-a-great-time-but-I-couldn’t-feel-anything-and-also-at-the-dentist’s-office-I-always-have-to-ask-for-more-Novocaine-before-my-mouth-goes-numb-and-”

“Alright, alright,” she interjected. “I’ll give you something extra.”

~

The operating room looked like the interior of a spaceship. Humongous white fluorescent lights hovered over the operating table.

“Am I getting a tumor removed or being abducted by aliens?” I joked weakly as I climbed onto the table. The anesthesiologist chortled as she walked over to my side.

“Just relax,” she said as she fiddled with equipment beyond my range of vision. “Think about a relaxing activity. Do you like having a glass of wine from time to time?”

“Sure,” I replied as I squinted to keep my eyes open despite the fluorescent lights.

“Red wine or white wine?”

“It depends on what I’m eating. I could go for either.”

A needle slipped into my arm.

“What’s your favorite wine?” The voice of the anesthesiologist droned. “Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot…”

I don’t remember the rest.

~

Here I am, almost a year later. Thankfully, I experienced only a month’s worth of very mild, partial facial paralysis, which simply meant that my smile was lopsided for a few weeks. I did lose permanent sensation in my left earlobe and down part of my neck, but those are things I barely notice.

To this day, I don’t know if the anesthesiologist gave me something extra or if she gave me anything at all. (Who knows? Perhaps I’m the first patient in the history of medicine to be anesthetized by the reading of a wine list.)

It’s hard to say how the whole episode affected me. At a minimum, I think I’ve definitely become more aware of and grateful for my health.

As for Z? I think he’s a bit more forgiving when he sees me taking a selfie. Even if it is just from our living room couch.

couch selfie

Sometimes he’ll even push the button.

 

Picking from the Fig Tree: A Look at Choosing Majors in 3 Countries

In Aziz  Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He imparts a cautionary quote from Sylvia Plath:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether deciding where to live (the question I reconsider every other year), which career to pursue, or what major to study in college, young adults can find the vast array of life choices overwhelming. Now that I’m teaching a required university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote especially pertinent to our recent class discussions about exploring the liberal arts and choosing a major.

leaning against a barren tree

No figs here, sadly. Just a melancholy undergrad and a barren tree.

In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and – due to the immense gap between educational cultures in China and the US – many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. Only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before coming to the US. Even after we thoroughly discussed what it meant and why the core curriculum existed, some students still seemed perplexed by the concept’s raison d’être. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different were the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?

After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where my students are coming from — both literally and figuratively.

~

I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: the question of which major to pursue. I had applied to college as an undecided major, having gone through the brochure a hundred times and having been torn between a hundred different options. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding  journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.

Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.

~

When I contrast my experience to the experience the  Chinese students might have had, had they stayed and gone on to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities in the first place — the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao (China’s national higher education entrance exam). Considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass this notoriously difficult exam.

As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing at each college. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major which came with their acceptance, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.

If we circle back to the fig tree analogy, this is akin to musing about which figs might taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.

Infant academoiselle reading a book

My parents chose to raise me in the US, but what if they’d stayed in China? Who knows if I would’ve even made it to university, never mind what I would’ve studied.

~

At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.

In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.

Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their undergraduate specializations (in most cases, specializations which were initially interesting to them), without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.

It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?

~

Diderot monument

Let’s turn to France, one of the centers of the Enlightenment.

Before I’m accused of viewing the French education system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.

Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they want to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. Even though it determines which version of the bac they will take (a national exam at the end of high school which qualifies them for higher education), the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.

When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière, or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.

And if it doesn’t work out? Students can commonly change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically from their initial filière, they can also decide to retake their first year.

In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year of university (including those who failed as well as those who wanted to change majors). Fortunately, since tuition fees are only a couple hundred Euros per year, students can typically afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years of study, a normal duration for bachelors degrees worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want  — even if they can’t run around taking a bite out of every fig on the tree.

~

Outside of the formal education system, what I greatly admire about France is the deep-seated  culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table. Being a banker doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.

Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.

Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.

cassis chocolat macaron

Or  we can turn the figs into giant macarons. That might also work.

 

Matryoshka Dolls

I don’t remember where I first learned about what I’ve come to think of as the “matryoshka doll” theory of personality. Most likely, a book introduced me to the idea by comparing a character’s personality to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The character at her oldest, wisest, most generous, and most morally developed was the largest nesting doll. But inside of that doll existed the person she was as an adolescent, as a six year old, and even as an infant.

matryoshka dolls

These.

Most of the time, the largest nesting doll was able to keep the little ones under control. But occasionally, one of the smaller dolls would slip out. This explained why people sometimes felt so small and so out of control. This also explained why, once in a while, an otherwise level-headed person could be reduced to tears over something ridiculously petty or trivial. According to this theory, we’re all walking around carrying other versions of ourselves inside. All it takes is a little twist of the waist and – pop – these other versions start acting out.

After a bit of clicking around, I found a Wikipedia article referring to this concept as “the hypostatic model of personality.” Whatever it’s called, it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently as I’ve begun teaching ESL in the afternoons. Even given a small class size with a 10 student maximum, I’ve found myself tapping into different versions of my personality in an attempt to connect with every student.

~

In many ways, I have a very easy class to work with. Most of the students range in age from their late teens to early twenties, so they’re used to being in a classroom environment. In addition, no two students come from the same country, which means I don’t have to wrestle with side chatter in a language other than English.

My biggest challenge is trying to meet the differing expectations of such a diverse group. Some students want to get through as much of the workbook as possible and learn as much new grammar or vocabulary as possible. Others want to dispense with the book entirely and simply jabber about everything under the sun. Still others are just trying to make it through the afternoon — the evening and New York City nightlife is what really interests them.

And perhaps this is the mark of a newbie teacher, but I want all of them to get what they want.

Who do you need me to be?

Who do you need me to be? Just let me dig through my wigs…

I want all of them to get what they want, and I want to be the teacher who delivers what they want. That’s the unvarnished and slightly embarrassing truth. Even though I realize I’m striving towards an impossible end, I nonetheless hope that each of them will leave – in some measure – satisfied.

I would love to satisfy the sweet, wide-eyed teenager who volunteers  all the answers. There is a part of me that has been in her shoes.

The totally lost and timid student: she recalls a part of me as well.

The haughty twenty-year-old with a hangover staring at her phone throughout class? Actually, I’ve been there too.

And I can easily imagine myself in circumstances similar to the forty-year old taking a break from work to travel and to study abroad.

following footsteps

Are you coming this way too?

Of course, I haven’t been in the exact shoes of any of these individuals; I can’t really know what they think or feel. Still, I try to relate and to adapt classroom activities accordingly.

At the end of the day, the proof of my efforts has been coming back to me in the form of student evaluations.

“The class was OK,” wrote some.

“It was good,” wrote others.

And then there was that one note. “Even though she is a new teacher, she has much capacities.”

(When I read that one, every version of me smiled.)

My Father’s ESL Teacher

During one of my breaks in college, while rummaging through boxes in my parents’ home, I made a surprising discovery. On the back of what looked to be a scrap piece of paper, I found a short text written by my father. It had been written for an ESL class he took in the ’90s, shortly after we moved to the US.

I could only guess what the writing prompt had been. Perhaps, “Write about regret.”

In the text, my father narrated the story of how child-me had asked my parents for piano lessons. Apparently, many of my Chinese-American peers at the time were already learning piano. Given our family’s precarious finances, however, he’d had to say “no.” He wrote about how deeply sad he’d felt denying his child.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the text contradicted my own vague recollections. I’d always had the idea that it was my parents who had pushed me to take lessons, and that it was who had stubbornly refused. What I remember for sure is my dad’s proud statement on the topic. “You’re different from the other immigrant children.”

Had his pride been a guise? — I wondered, after reading the text. Like flocking birds, other incidents suddenly converged in my memory.

What about the time I was 6 and expressed admiration for my classmate’s white, patent leather shoes? My dad had sniffed derisively, “You can hardly move around in those things.” My admiration had then turned to the girl’s smooth, unmarked skin. At the time, to my great embarrassment, my own limbs were covered in raw scrapes and old scabs.

My dad had simply shrugged. “Who wants a perfect looking daughter?”

Scabbed and wearing frills

Don’t let the frills fool you. See if you can spot the scab.

~

The name of my father’s ESL teacher was Robert. I remember this because my dad frequently talked about him after class.

Robert, frankly, seemed like a saint to me. How could he deal with my father’s halting English and endless questions about vocabulary and grammar? Eventually, my family moved and my father stopped taking ESL. I became his de facto authority on English, even though – as I got older – I resented the never-ending task of editing my dad’s every email, his every cover letter as he applied for job after job.

Teenage me sulked, sighed, and outright shouted at my dad for his errors. He never seemed to get it right. To all the abuse, my dad simply responded, “Your English is so good.” The more impatient I was, the more convinced he was of my competence.

The prouder he grew.

I was nothing like Robert. From time to time, my dad wondered aloud what his former ESL teacher was up to.

~

I’m now in training to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages. My course (called the CELTA) finishes at the end of May. As part of my training, I teach an adult class once a week, and – while the pressure can be intense since I am observed and graded – I have to say it is a whole new kind of pleasure.

The students hail from Venezuela, Turkey, Japan, Tajikistan, and every corner of the world. They range in age from college students to retirees. Their motivations for studying English are just as varied. From a professor in sports economics wanting to bolster his research skills, to a girl learning to sing pop songs … I am frankly amazed at all the reasons folks give up 2 1/2 hours on a weeknight to better their English.

I try to picture my dad’s ESL class. His classmates. Robert.

My eyes follow the arc of desks and rest on my dad himself. And I finally see him through Robert’s eyes: a young man (unemployed, terrified) … with a kid and a wife trying to make it in a whole new world.

It is then I realize — there is no language on Earth that can carry my gratitude.

Introversion and Culture (Or, That Time I Built a Fort in my Boyfriend’s Apartment)

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an introvert. Interacting with others never came easily to me. Nonetheless, over time, I’ve learned how to fake it, e.g. how to make a compelling speech in front of an audience (thank you, high school Speech and Debate); how to exude warmth towards customers (thank you, tech support job in college); and how to muster good humor when meeting people socially (thank you, red wine).

I guess I’ve improved enough at projecting a comfortable persona that some might not even believe I still struggle. On a recent Friday at the office, when I admitted I’d be staying home that night “just me and my introverted self,” my colleagues snorted, “You’re definitely not an introvert.”

Crawling into a hole

Actually, yeah — I could stay in my woman cave forever if I didn’t have to work…

While the rewards are great, performing socially is tasking, and I haven’t always been as capable. When I first joined Speech and Debate, one of the more experienced club members noticed my tendency to avoid eye contact, so he blocked me in a corridor until I could meet and hold his gaze. (We stood in that corridor quite a while.)

Nowadays, I would have no issues entering a staring contest, but I still require lots of alone time. This even applies to time away from those closest to me. For instance, when living in Z’s studio apartment a couple years ago, I built a “fort” out of clothing and chairs just to have some personal space for the day. I wasn’t the least bit upset — just needed a private area to read a book and have some snacks.

Friends under a virtual tree

Adolescent me loved escaping into online games. I could look fabulous in a corset, while wearing pajamas in real life!

Some might find these tendencies off-putting, but they’re part of who I am. Introversion is a spectrum; of course there are going to be people who fall towards the ends. Given my own nature, I have a great deal of empathy for international students coming from countries that view introverted behaviors as the norm. Arriving in the US where extroversion is glorified as well as materially rewarded, these students have a tough cultural adjustment to make.

I am thinking specifically of the students in the English support program I work for, most of whom are Chinese or Indian. Though they come from privileged families, many were brought up in a way that they don’t seem self-confident by American standards. They’re often hesitant to speak up in class, though class participation is a major part of their grade. They may shy away from chatting with professors, though relationships with professors can be key to later internships and recommendation letters. For many, career fairs are particularly nerve-wracking — not only because of the language barrier, but also because they were taught never to boast about their accomplishments. Some, having been raised to keep their problems private, are even afraid to speak with us advisors.

A couple of incidents I’ve witnessed highlight how drastic these cultural differences can be. Once, a female student came to me in tears because her professor had made remarks to her that she saw as harsh or impatient. She didn’t understand why the professor seemed not to like her — she was quiet and got good grades, facts which had always endeared her to teachers in her home country.

The other incident involved a taciturn young man who was almost removed from his professor’s class. He hadn’t been misbehaving in the traditional sense; it was just that his silence in class “creeped out” the professor. The professor insisted that the student either go to counseling (a huge no-no in the student’s culture), or not come back to class. Though the young man was eventually reinstated, it was an incredibly frustrating ordeal.

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Situations like the above are hard to advise in, because there’s not necessarily a party that’s right or wrong. I am also loathe to make international students feel that the values they grew up with are at all inferior. Still, the fact is that they chose to study in the US, where – for better or worse – a certain amount of sociability and self-promotion are critical to success. And so I give students what tips I know to  mimic these traits … ways to approach a professor, clubs they could join to make friends, how to deliver a presentation …

Introvert

I would never have thought I could advise anybody about how to appear less introverted.

Final thoughts before I go. First, culture is not monolithic (there are introverted Americans and extroverted Chinese). Secondly, the differences between individuals will always be greater than the differences between groups (in any large sample of international students from the same country, there will be immense variation in personalities). These things said, we can’t be blind to the fact that culture plays an enormous role in shaping behaviors.

Fortunately, new behaviors can be learned and new cultures adapted to. After all, none of us can stay in our forts forever.