Living with a stranger, a rite of passage at most colleges and many high schools with a large international student body, is always a mix of excitement and nerves. It is exciting, because you have a chance to meet someone new, to forge among the trials of cramped dorm rooms an unshakeable friendship. These are connections that could last a lifetime.
The nerves come in because, simply put, you’re going to be spending the next 9 months living with a total stranger. You hope that your personalities synch up, that you aren’t on wildly different sleeping schedules, that you aren’t in a constant clash. These nerves can be heightened if you are an international student- they couple with the normal fears associated with studying abroad. For everyone- American and international student alike- there are ways to deal with both the heightened nerves and misperceptions when it comes to multicultural roommates.
Culture is important, but not the end-all be-all
Whether you are a German student assigned to live with an American, an American student assigned to live with a student from China, or a Korean student assigned to live with a student from England, it is human nature to run through a laundry list of cultural assumptions. I don’t even mean broad ones (“He’s probably a cowboy!”) but more subtle personalities associated with a country. These are usually both positive and negative, a mix of stories you have heard, ideas you glean from pop culture, stereotypes, etc.
And here’s the thing: culture is important. Where we come from, the area we live in, societal norms- these all play a large role in shaping our personalities. So it isn’t necessarily bad to make a rough sketch of your roommate- indeed, that’s probably inevitable. But it is wrong to think that you know a person or can assume their personality based on the country from which they come. And everyone knows this to be true. Whether you are reading in America, China, Europe, or anywhere else, you know 1) that there are cultural assumptions about your country, and 2) despite that, your family, friends, and everyone you know are a diverse panoply of personalities. The same is true around the world. Your roommate might have some specific quirks that come from a specific culture, but they are far more than that.
Don’t discount the quirks, though
That said, embrace the quirks that are unusual to you. That’s part of the joy of studying abroad or having cross-cultural roommates. You have the possibility to get more out of your roommate experience than other students- you get to make a friendship and explore a new culture. Be open to new things. Share foods. Ask questions. It isn’t disrespectful to be curious about something, if you ask from a place of respect.
Tip for overcoming issues
Start before the first meet. Most schools will let you know your roommate in advance. Send them an email, or set up a Skype chat. But also remember that you can’t judge someone based on email: nearly everyone will be formal and stilted in initial cross-cultural exchanges. So this will smooth out some things, but it shouldn’t lead to any concrete assumptions about in-person behavior.
Give it time. It’s normal for there to be rough spots, especially if there is a language and/or culture gap. But it is happening in every dorm room, as people adjust to each other. Recognize this as normal.
Talk to the international department. Remember, they’re here to help you. See if they have any literature on the new culture you’re experiencing, or if they can answer questions about American habits or Chinese manners. It may be easier to talk to someone you aren’t living with. That said…
Talk to your roommate if there is a problem. A big issue many people have is a different idea of “personal space”, but there are other issues. A lot of people won’t even bring up an issue, assuming right away that it is intractable because of culture. That isn’t the case. Be respectful, but just say “Hey, it bothers me when you are looking over my shoulder,” or “Hey, could we please figure out a way not to have ESPN on all day and night?”. A big part of living with someone is adjusting, and if you don’t bring anything up, it’ll fester, until you bring it up very angrily. And that is no good.
Recognize that sometimes things don’t work. But, and this is the most important thing: it isn’t because they are from a different country. It’s as easy as it is wrong to think that a roommate situation doesn’t work just because someone is from another country. That leads to people saying things like “You don’t want to study in America; your roommate will be a loud frat boy” or “You don’t want a Chinese roommate; they don’t respect your privacy.” Sometimes, you just might not get along with someone. That’s fine. But to make a broad cultural assumption from that one interaction is faulty. Think about it. That’s like saying “You don’t want to live with a human, because I once lived with a human, and he lost my keys, so literally every human will lose your keys.” You can see how silly that is. It is just as silly to say it about an entire country.
Over the last 20 years, the most important culinary trend has been fusion, an exciting mix of different cuisines, owing elements to many, but belonging to none. And you have a chance to be a part of that. A globalized world is creating an exciting cultural fusion, where we can take the best and leave the worst. We get to make that choice. And if you are studying abroad or living in an international dorm, you get to be part of that. Just open yourself up to whatever ingredients come flying off the shelf.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.