Not All That Foreign is a biweekly column about life as an international Yalie by Irene Colombo (BF ’25).
International students inevitably share many experiences when moving to college. Yet among these lies, a shared feeling produced by what are often diametrically different experiences: culture shock.
For many internationals, by virtue of the powerful force that is globalization, American culture has seeped into some aspect of our lives long before we moved to the States for college. Though maybe superficially, chances are we have witnessed, or even have experienced some facet of American culture; be it through a Disney Channel show, an educational program, an American food chain, or even Bama Rush TikTok.
These marking, yet fleeting impressions offered us gross exaggerations and tunnel vision in many of our considerations, concerns, and hopes for life in the States. While reality often falls short of the expectations many internationals have, it also presents itself as a kaleidoscope that excites and surprises, but also overwhelms and shocks.
At the beginning of the school year, I found myself in the midst of all the new international faces on campus during OIS, the Orientation for Yale College International Students. No longer a first-year myself, I was able to sit back and observe the ways in which first-years navigated their first week in the U.S.. That same jumble of excitement and confusion that I had experienced permeated the air.
As we all sat in Davies Auditorium, a panel of international upperclassmen dispensed their advice for acclimating to American culture, social life on campus, and the big do’s or don’ts of Yale and the U.S. in general.
Topics ranged from PC culture to adjusting to the early meal times and becoming fluent in iMessage over WhatsApp. Perhaps one of the most salient and controversial questions raised by the first-years was how to greet a new acquaintance in the U.S.. As an anonymous wise soul once told me, “Americans are particular about their personal space.” By the end of the panel, my fellow southern Europeans in OIS had realized that kissing hellos isn’t terribly well received. So how does one go about it? A hug? A handshake? A COVID-safe wave, six feet apart?
OIS provides internationals with such a wonderful support system from the very get-go of their Yale experience. It’s no surprise that so many internationals express gratitude for the close-knit community quickly fostered during OIS, as well as for the safety-net that it provides during the first month at Yale and beyond.
Laura Wagner, BF ’26, an international student from Brazil, mentioned how helpful OIS was in helping her navigate life in a country so different from her own: “It was comforting to see how widespread some of the issues with acclimating were, and that other people were perceiving the same pronounced cultural changes,” explained Wagner. “We bonded by talking about them and sharing tips on how to handle this new environment.”
Pranava Dhar, TD ’25, from New Delhi, India, also expressed similar feelings. “A huge part of acclimatizing to the US for me was the accent barrier. At home, I’d never thought of myself as speaking ‘accented’ English,” said Dhar. When he got to the States, things changed. “I found out very quickly that I had to either speak more slowly or repeat myself a few times to be understood. Paradoxically, the diversity of international accents at OIS helped me feel more comfortable speaking English.”
Although incredibly helpful in terms of facilitating internationals’ transition to Yale, there are way too many possible sources of culture shock that manifest for internationals in an infinite array of ways, which no OIS counselor, advisor, or cultural anthropologist could fathom considering. So, in the past few weeks I’ve been picking at international students’ brains for some of the best, funniest, and most unique culture shock memorabilia they have collected throughout their time in the U.S..
Ana Sofia Viejo-Barragan, PM ’25, from Mexico, laughed at her recollection of the first time she ever saw an American school bus. “I had always thought the yellow school buses were fake,” she told me. When I asked her why, I immediately realized where her thought stemmed from. We looked at each other, eyes squinting in intense thought, trying to figure out what the name of the cartoon we were both implicitly referring to would have been in English: “The Magic School Bus!” we said in unison.
Aranyo Ray, SY ’25 from Kolkata, India mentioned filling up bottles with tap water as a feature of American life that initially perplexed him. “In India we would never dare do that, we always have filtered water,” said Ray. “But once, I asked my roommate where I could fill up my brita and he casually suggested that since it wouldn’t fit under the sink, I should fill it up from the shower head.”
Francisco Almeida, SM ’24, from Portugal, recounted his first trip to a supermarket in the U.S. and his dismay at finding out that that his five dollars in cash would not be enough to buy the Oreos he wanted, despite them being listed at $4.99 (courtesy of the rigorously unincluded sales tax).
Slowly but surely, the surprise, the confusion, and the frustration fade into normalcy.
You stop noticing the yellow school buses driving by, you don’t think twice before taking a sip of fresh showerhead water, and you always end up bringing some extra cash to the store. If you are anything like me, you also eventually stop getting excited at the sight of the red solo cups that you had only ever seen in movies before getting to college. It’s all part of the international experience: time passes, our minds adapt, and our habits change to accommodate all those American things that had once perplexed us. And suddenly, we’re not all that foreign.