The Eye

The Cultural Identity Crisis of the International/American Student

“Where are you from?” says the girl standing next to me with her suitcases in hand during move-in. As does the guy who sits down next to me halfway through the NSOP open mic. And also the girl I sit behind in the Introduction to Narrative class that I am shopping (and ultimately dropping).

My first few weeks of college were largely defined by awkward and insubstantial conversations, mostly questions that I could answer easily. Except one inevitable question lingered: “Where are you from?”

It’s hard to say, really.

I was born in Baltimore, but moved to Cairo, Egypt when I was seven years old. I lived in Cairo from the third to the ninth grade, moved back to Baltimore for 10th grade, and then returned to Cairo again for 11th and 12th grade. My time in Cairo adds up to over half of my life, so while my passport tells me I’m American, simply saying “I’m from America” feels incomplete—like I’m betraying an equally, if not more, formative part of my identity.

But explaining my whole life story is tedious and often requires a depth of elaboration that is unnecessary—inappropriate even—for a fleeting, five-minute conversation. My scripted response then becomes, “I’m originally from Baltimore, but I spent the last 10 years living in Cairo.” Close enough.

I make the transoceanic trek between Cairo International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport four to six times per year, rushing from queue to lengthy queue, clutching my United States passport, thick with one-year residence visas for Egypt. The dark blue document is unmistakeable; my citizenship is unambiguous.

My citizenship and personal cultural identification are not explicitly in conflict, but I have come to find, upon returning “home” for college after growing up abroad, that the two are also not entirely in harmony either. I internally identify as an American, and I am in some ways very much so (I was born in the U.S., and both of my parents are American). But the parts of my life I remember the most took place in Egypt.

For me and other students who grew up overseas holding U.S. passports, what it means to be an American cannot be clearly defined. By now living and attending college in America, we fall somewhere between being wholly native and wholly foreign.

In speaking with students who have grappled with living amid a continental drift, it becomes clear that the American/outsider experience comes in various forms.

Nawal Abbasi, a junior at Barnard College, grew up in New Jersey. When she was almost 13 years old, she left for Jordan to attend an American international high school.

“It was really weird going back to somewhere my mom called ‘home’ and—having been there two or three times before as a child—not being able to match Jordan and ‘home,’” she tells me.

Although to different degrees, we “American” students who grew up abroad already have some experiential connection to the U.S. On that account, the intensity of the culture shock we encounter moving to New York is far less than that of international students who were nearly entirely unaffiliated with the U.S. before coming to Morningside Heights. We can better brace ourselves for the impact, so to speak.

Priya Barchi, a sophomore at Barnard College, was born and raised in Rome but doesn’t largely identify with a specific nationality. She has dual citizenship—American and Italian. But unlike Abbasi and myself, Barchi never lived in America before college, although her childhood summers were spent visiting her American mother’s family in the suburbs of St. Louis.

For Barchi’s fully Italian friends now attending college in America, “a lot of things that Americans do get on their nerves,” she laughs, “but I haven't had the same feeling.”

Abbasi, on the other hand, tells me, “I think it was very easy for me to come in and make American friends, whereas I think, for some international students, a lot of their friends are other international students.”

That being said, we are not always on the same page as local students about some aspects of American habitude. Some things, of course, we quickly adopt out of necessity, such as the strange American way of writing dates, MM/DD/YY, as opposed to the logical rest of the planet’s DD/MM/YY configuration. The American way doesn’t necessarily become natural, but, as Abbasi explains, adjustment is necessary “just not to confuse the shit out of everyone.”

Making other changes, like using the imperial over the metric system, can be more difficult. I don’t really know what a yard is, and I still can envision a kilometer more confidently than I can picture a mile.

“Some things are more jarring,” Abbasi laments, “like bidets. I love myself a good bidet—there are no bidets.”

While such differences fall somewhere between frustrating and funny, other changes are far more significant.

Jonathan Chang, a junior at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, says that when he first moved to the U.S. in high school, he faced a period of academic adjustment. Chang has dual Chinese and American citizenship.

“First and foremost, I identify as from Hong Kong,” he tells me. “[But] if it comes up, I mention I'm from America.”

It was tough for Chang to juggle that duality, especially when he had to get used to the idea that speaking up and challenging the teacher was encouraged in American classrooms, unlike the norms of schools he attended back in Hong Kong.

Barchi, too, had to get used to distinctly U.S. cultural attitudes. “It was surprising to me to see how optimistic Americans are,” she tells me. She also says that she felt disconnected from our nation’s obsession with celebrity news and national holidays, like Thanksgiving, which she had never celebrated before moving here.

And me? I’m still getting used to the school week being Monday through Friday rather than Sunday through Thursday, as it is in Egypt and much of the Middle East.

Struggling to label myself, I am curious how my demographic status is classified by the administration. Do we international American students qualify as “international students” in the eyes of the University?

Jennifer Fondiller, Barnard’s dean of enrollment management and assistant dean of the college, explains that Barnard’s admissions office makes a concrete distinction between “international citizen” and “international student” when marketing the college and when reviewing applications. Their Only Barnard pamphlet also illustrates this distinction, stating that of the class of 2020, 7.6 percent are international citizens, while 4.7 percent are U.S. citizens educated abroad.

Columbia, too, seems to acknowledge that American students can also be “international.” Nineteen percent of the class of 2019, for example, is referred to be international students, “by home address or place of schooling.” Encompassing this diversity, Columbia’s International Student Orientation Program also underlines that any student can apply to participate, regardless of citizenship.

Nevertheless, while the University does consider me international, I still hesitate to self-identify as an international student. I have adopted aspects of Egyptian culture and language—even my new Barnard friends now know that when I say mumkin, I mean “maybe” and that shib-shib means “slipper.”

But even when I go home to Cairo over winter break to visit the three-fifths of my family still living there, that’s not the whole story. Saying that I’m American feels like I’m leaving out part of my identity—yet I would never feel comfortable calling myself Egyptian.

As a white woman in Egypt, I wanted to move back to the U.S. for college to a great extent because always being overtly foreign became very tiring. On the streets of New York City, I am less of a sexual spectacle, and I am not fetishized as a foreign. But who am I now? I am still not truly an insider.

While my family still lives in Cairo, Abbasi, Chang, and Barchi all have deeper roots in their home countries.

“English very much is my first language, but Arabic is my mother tongue,” Abbasi tells me. Chang and Barchi share that sentiment; English is their second, or at least not their only first, language. In a sense, they all feel like that their “mother country” is supposed to be their other “homeland” in a way that Egypt never was for me.

Even so, their American cultural connections distinguish them from natives. “I must admit that sometimes I do feel American, even though I fight against this feeling—I don't know why,” Barchi laughs.

Barchi says that people in Italy sometimes use her American identity as an insult. For Abbasi her friends at Barnard tell her she’s “so Arab,” but when she’s in Jordan, people mockingly call her “so American.”

Chang explains that even though he feels very at home in Hong Kong, his socialization in professional environments took place in the United States. “I missed out on the developmental cues from Hong Kong. So if I were to try to get a job there, I would be American.”

So where do we all belong? To where are we native?

There is no single, simple answer.

At Columbia, for the most part, our answers to the inescapable “Where are you from?” question seem to be necessarily abridged versions of our complicated stories. Barchi generally says that she’s from Rome, but that her mom is American. Chang says that he’s from Hong Kong, but went to high school in California. Abbasi says she’s Jordanian—but if any non-Columbian asks, she adds that she goes to school in New York. As different as our stories are, we share more common ground with each other than we do with lifelong locals.

I have definitely noticed and reveled in these identities. Having a go-to fun fact about myself—namely, “I grew up in Cairo”—takes the stress off of many seminar icebreakers. On multiple occasions, halal cart drivers have been so amused when I whip out my Cairene Arabic to ask for bottled water that they offer it free of charge.

Trying to reconcile the continental drift between our homes can be a cause of confusion for ourselves and for others— but being an international American student has brought us closer to the world at large. Nowhere feels too far away.

Barchi, too, appreciates her cultural diversity. “There are beautiful and enriching aspects of both cultures,” she says. “You get to pick what you prefer of each.”

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