Some people say that if you come to the United States only to visit the big metropolis such as New York, Miami, or LA, you don’t really know what America is. You don’t really know the Americans. As a Brazilian who has lived in New York and also in a small town in Ohio, I have always been a firm believer of that saying. However, after coming to my MBA I realized one does not need to be in a huge capital to completely miss the American lifestyle, it could happen right here in Columbus- and that could be a good or a bad thing, depending on what kind of experience a person is looking for.
During my junior High school year I was an exchange student in a small town in Ohio. I lived with American families and there was only one other foreigner in my school. I got to live an all American lifestyle, making a pledge to the American flag in the mornings, having American food for all my meals, going to church on Sunday mornings, and really engaging in the life and responsibilities of any typical American teenager. So in many ways I can say I got to experience everything from the perspective of an insider. But of course my obsession with nailing peculiar “American details”, or my pleasure in listening to people who lived during WWII, JFK, Space Race, or just my History teacher telling me history from a completely different perspective than what I was used to, reminded me at all times that no matter how immersed I was, I was still the outsider in a trip to observe.
In New York my experience was completely different. I was older and more independent, and even though I lived with an American, I would spend the greatest part of my days with people from different nationalities. I would eat whatever I wanted and go wherever I wanted, and while that kind of gave me a more multicultural experience, it also allowed me to stick closely to my own culture.
When I came to Columbus, even though I was expecting to interact with many foreign people, I assumed my experience would compare more to my first time in the U.S. And for a little while, it did. During my first weeks in Columbus I temporarily rent a bedroom in the house of an American girl, in a residential neighborhood. Upon walking out of the house, my part Yankee, part redneck soul still felt surrounded by the atmosphere that rings the “You are in America” bell to me. The America of the Americans. However, a few days later I finally got my own place in an apartment village. I got a house by the pool though, not an apartment. House searching had been a very stressful time for me, and I remember going to my window on the first afternoon in my house and just being glad that for a moment I could finally relax and enjoy a drink overlooking the pool…I was not on vacations, and I was surely not in California, but that looked like a very clear picture of the American dream. Except one thing was odd in that cliché scenario: the pool was packed with Asians.
Soon I started noticing, after walking around, that most people in that complex are Asians. An 80% estimate, I would say. I have always been extremely involved with the Asian community back home and many of my closest friends are Asians, so for me that was interesting. I could not help noticing though that ever since I moved to that house things changed a lot. When I walk outside of my house I see Asians. I ride the bus with Asians. I get to school and I find a diversity of people from all around the world. And then I go back home, or sometimes get to hang out with my mixed group of school mates. One day I realized that even though I am still in Columbus, the world where I live now is completely different from the world I was inserted in during my first two weeks here- and that being just a few miles away! I was expecting to relive my High school experience, or a mix of my High school experience with my NY days, but it has been a whole new chapter and a whole new story. And for me, that is ok, and more than that, it has been an enriching ride- after all, in the context of my apartment complex, I am still an outsider observing cultural differences.
Evaluating my own experiences, however, I was led to think about some of the foreign students who are experiencing the US for the very first time. Just like people who only travel to touristic places in major capitals, these students might live here for several years and never really know the America through an American perspective. Many of them are usually surrounded by people from their home countries, speaking their own language and eating their native food, so I assume their perspective of things are very different from mine. I realize for many staying close to their own culture is a personal choice, it definitely eases the adjustment process. In the end I guess that is just something that I have been reflecting about and thought I’d share so that new students moving here get to maybe put some thought into what kind of experience they want for themselves. While school is certainly important, we surely take a lot from the experiences we have outside of class. And of course, every experience has its ups and downs, and there is no way to completely control our environment. For those like me who are just completely fascinated by surprises, that’s what makes it even more exciting.