Avoid generalizations

By Kimberly Ngoh, Columnist

“If you’re from Malaysia, how is your English so good?”

Meeting new people in the United States often entails the question of where I am from, wherein my response often garners the above in a surprised tone. Sometimes, it is preceded with a, “That’s so cool!” Or a, “Wait, what? I had no idea. I thought you were from ‘X’ country.”

Another usual occurrence, albeit one that mostly arises in the later stages of a developing friendship is, “You’re Chinese? I thought you were from Malaysia.” This is where I launch into how “Malaysian” is categorized under nationality, not ethnicity or language. In Malaysia, the population primarily consists of three main races being Chinese, Malay and Indian, and yes, English is a common language spoken there.

The number of international students from every corner of the globe enrolled in schools across the United States continues to grow every year, which allows for both international and local students to gain a global perspective or foster cultural awareness as they interact among one another. While most international students seek opportunities to educate peers on their culture and background, the burden of dispelling stereotypical remarks should not rest disproportionately on them.

It is understandable that not everyone has to know every single detail about existing cultures present in the world, but it should not warrant stereotypical remarks as a casual way to learn about one’s culture. Some people may shrug it off because they’re used to it, but for others, it can come off as ignorant and blunt.

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It is disappointing to know just because your country pales in comparison to one with a bigger presence economically, socially and in many other aspects, people seem disinterested in wanting to know about where you grew up and the kind of heritage or culture you practice. Instead, looks of disbelief are easily passed around when one admits to never having tried Taco Bell or mac and cheese, as if the only way of life that exists in this world is the one you grew up or are familiar with.

That being said, this same issue may pose a reason to not ask one about their culture, with being worried about how they may come off as uninformed or silly.

You could easily get away without encountering any stereotypical assumptions if you don’t plan on meeting often, but staying quiet in a long-term friendship may eventually lead to a revelation shocking enough to burst out with the “why” or “how” questions, bringing you back to square one.

The solution here is to approach these questions in a sensitive manner. It isn’t wrong that you don’t know what language is spoken in a country, or that “Asian” isn’t an ethnicity, or “Malaysian” isn’t a language. Accept that your perception may not be right and ask for clarification without assuming. It is alright to be curious, but respectful, thus avoiding the use of generalizations to understand diversity.

Adapting to a new culture and the requirements of a higher education experience in the United States requires international students to be particularly adept at overcoming challenges and remaining open-minded toward the disparity between values or practices of the new environment and that of their home country. In the same way, domestic students and faculty should resort to employing this mindset when approaching cultural exchanges.

Kimberly is a junior in Engineering.

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