A couple of months ago, I was honored to attend a historical meeting between the Omaha Tribe Council and some members of the UNL faculty. Being one of only two undergraduate students in the room, I felt I had more to learn than say. So I sat in the meeting hall listening and taking notes as various speakers took turns on the podium sharing their insights on what was being discussed.
The speakers were all fantastic, but I was especially blown away by a middle-aged American lady whose story I found not only inspiring, but also one that I could easily relate to. As the event ended, I eagerly walked up to the lady, introduced myself and commented on how motivating her story was.
“Oh! You’re from Africa! I’ve heard so much about Oprah’s charity work in South Africa — it was very generous of her to start a girls’ school there!” she said. I smiled and mumbled a polite “indeed.”
Completely unaware of my discomfort, she went on, “Had you ever been to school before you came to the United States, or was it your first time?” I was beyond disappointed. A few minutes before introducing myself, I remember mentioning that I’d come to the U.S. for my college education. Her asking me whether this was my first time being in school made no sense because one does not start school in college.
Regarding the fact that this lady brought up Oprah’s work in South Africa, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t come from South Africa to begin with. I am from Rwanda, and although I try to keep myself informed about my continent’s current events, I can hardly manage to know every country’s minute details.
As an international student, I get asked such questions more times than I can count. My friends have been asked worse.
“Wait, is that your natural hair? I could not recognize you!”
“Do you know how to use Snapchat? OMG!! You’re from Africa! Is it true that wild animals roam freely in your streets?”
“Do your birds fly? And what about your fish? Do they swim?”
“Africa! Don’t people still live in huts over there?”
“Did your family hunt animals for food?”
The list surpasses what these few pages can contain.
“But what is wrong with asking an innocent question?” some ask. The answer is simple. There is more than one way to learn about a culture other than asking someone from that culture every absurd question that pops into your head.
How do I know that? I did the same before coming to Nebraska. Months before I boarded a plane to Nebraska, I knew absolutely nothing about the place apart from its name. However, after learning I was to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I spent a few minutes every day just browsing on the internet some basic facts about Nebraska. Upon arrival, my transition was way smoother than it would have been if I had hopped on a plane hoping to have every one of my questions about Nebraska answered by Nebraskans.
I still had lots of questions when I arrived — don’t get me wrong — but at least they did not include who Nebraska's president was because I knew it was a state and not a country, unlike my friends’ American classmates who, more than once, have asked them who Africa’s president is.
I am not sure exactly why people never realize how absurd their questions sound sometimes, but here’s what I’ve learned: People will take time to learn about a given culture or country when they see an immediate benefit out of it. If I hadn’t come to Nebraska, for instance, I doubt I would have known if it was a state or just the name of some lake in the U.S.
In a nutshell, if you are genuinely interested in learning about an international student’s cultural background, your first step should not be confessing to them that you had no idea their country existed after they tell you where they are from.
Instead, it should be investing your time to learn about it. There are multiple ways you can do that. Attend an international students’ cultural event on campus. Look up and read books that international authors wrote. If you can, spare a few minutes and do some research on the internet. Although the internet does not always have the most accurate information, I am sure you’ve learned how to look for supporting evidence in any research.
Once you go that extra mile, I can guarantee you will have a better question in mind than “did you ride to school on elephants” when you speak with an international student.
Divine Mbabazi is a junior integrated science major. Reach her at email@example.com.