The first time Columbia College first-year and international student Elliotte Lee watched an American movie, he was six years old and still living in South Korea, where he was born. His father owned a VHS tape collection of the Star Wars films (“Well, from episodes four through six,” he clarifies, as if to ensure I don’t accuse his father of owning the prequels). Watching the expansive space operas that took America by storm, the young Elliotte was hooked. Today, he describes that moment as his “first induction into the American pop culture.”
Much like Lee, many international students have grown up with American movies, music, and Internet conversations. U.S. pop culture is, in many ways, a global culture. It creates for us a collective consciousness that contains within it everything from Kim Kardashian to nuanced debate about race and the Oscars.
This great unifier can, in some ways, prepare international students for Columbia and New York, but, in other ways, hinder their engagement with the environment around them—both here and at home.
Iris Frangou, another Columbia College first-year, describes her life at home in Athens, Greece, as one steeped in American mass media. She talks about an active engagement with American TV shows, movies, music, and magazines. Her pre-Columbia conversations with friends at home ranged from “discussing American politics” to “more fun, lighthearted conversations [that] often have to do with TV series.”
This pervasive, global nature of U.S. pop culture can often provide an effective guide for international students, as they attempt to find their footing in a foreign country. Socially, pop culture provides them with a bank of shared understandings and experiences with people who have lived in entirely different social and political contexts. For instance, Larissa Guimaraes, a Columbia College sophomore from Brazil, refers to the inescapable pop cultural conversation as a “refuge.”
“When I had a hard time to connect with someone or meet someone new, I would definitely go for topics of things that were trending or things that I have seen in the Internet and that everyone is talking about,” Guimaraes says. The shared knowledge about American celebrities, cinema, and music served as a social crutch for her.
Frangou agrees, but she emphasizes that over time and with habituation pop culture moves away from being a conversational life raft. “At the beginning, it was a very quick and easy means of meeting people and forming relationships,” she comments. “As time progresses, it still is part of the conversation but it’s less forced, more natural.”
Lee, too, talks about how pop cultural conversations—movies, in particular—form a key part of his conversations with friends at Columbia, much more so than at home. He attributes this increased prevalence to the people around him. His reliance on pop culture is sometimes a deliberate choice resulting from shared interests.
“I mean, this Columbia community is so diverse and it has really good appreciation for art, films, et cetera. … I just find myself naturally talking more about them along with my friends,” he explains.
Beyond facilitating social interaction, however, pop culture can also serve as a bridge between worlds by providing international students with some exposure to American trends, ideologies, and lifestyles.
Columbia College first-year Bharatha Rankothge explains that the disparity between his home in Sri Lanka and college here in the U.S. was mitigated by what he saw in the media around him. “From the TV shows and movies, books … I had a distinct idea how it will be in [the] U.S.,” he says.
However, the United States’ near total immersion in pop culture can also mean significant conversational alienation and isolation for foreigners—even those who have been acquainted with American media to a degree before arriving into the country.
Columbia College first year Jaewook Ryu, who describes his exposure to American pop culture before coming to college as “moderate,” talks about it as a significant barrier to his social interactions here. “Honestly speaking, it’s really hard to transition from my Korean K-pop culture to American pop culture. … I try to understand it but I still can't,” Ryu explains. “So, my conversations—most don’t go that way because I don't have a lot to say.”
Guimaraes explains that although some popular trends and products “get to Brazil as fast as they get here,” she was taken aback by pop culture in the U.S. when she arrived. Before coming to Columbia, she remembers believing that the two national pop cultures would be in sync.
“Everything that was very popular and ubiquitous at the time back home would be the same that was trending here,” Guimaraes says she recalled believing. She discovered that that was far from the truth; as an international student, she felt that she was consigned to constantly fall behind on American pop culture.
“Every day there is this new acronym that’s going on and this new hashtag and this new, I don’t know, video, and this new very popular singer that [is] sometimes completely not appealing to me,” she explains. “I think it’s a dynamic of process of always … trying to catch up to it. … I would say that as part of the difficulties that I have found as an international student, one of them is that I can’t always relate to those things.”
In addition, the United States’ singular fascination with its own media culture can sometimes also make it harder for international students to engage with what they do relate to.
With a half-pained and half-wistful expression, Rankothge describes the “almost nonexistent” interest here for rugby, his “singularly main topic of conversation” back home. Instead, he resigns himself to watching the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl. He admits that he watches American football in order to fit into specific sports-related conversations, although he also says he doesn’t feel pressured to tune in.
Rankothge also describes brief moments of feeling excluded by American pop culture—whether feeling left out of the Star Wars hype or missing out on humour. “I think some of the jokes here are lost on me because of the cultural and political context mostly,” he explains.
The rift that emerges between some international students and their friends back home is not necessarily the consequence of distance or their exposure to a new cultural discourse. Despite being engaged in a new pop cultural environment, most international students attribute any disconnect they feel to causes other than that pop culture.
Guimaraes says that she has found it possible to create new conversations about pop culture in her social circle at Columbia organically. Sometimes she exposes her friends to trending cultural moments from Brazil. “Even if they [her friends] don’t know about something, I can show them and they will … eventually talk about it.”
Frangou similarly says that despite the distance between her home and Morningside Heights, her pop cultural conversations with friends back home share basic elements in common with pop culture dialogue at Columbia. “There is a significant degree of overlap in terms of the conversations I’ve had with close friends back home and close friends here.”
Both Guimaraes and Frangou cite their unique experiences at Columbia as the key factor behind any disparities between them and their friends back home. But the divisions that emerge between them and their friends abroad arise primarily from academic and social experiences they have on campus, rather than their immersion in an American pop cultural environment.
“[The] disconnection that I often feel is more about when I talk about my lifestyle at Columbia or about my subjects at Columbia, or when I make a joke about … some Lit Hum book, a joke about the Iliad,” Guimaraes reflects.
“There is a certain degree of deviation, which I think is due to the fact that we lead different lives here at university,” Frangou agrees. “We receive different stimuli, even though the American pop culture that surrounds us is the same.”