Bridging the cultural divide

International and first-generation students find a combination of their home culture and their new home

Maisha Rashid, Opinion Editor

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Thinking about diversity makes you distinguish some very personal and intricate details about yourself. It makes you really look at your identity and realize it isn’t just a plain account your experiences and surroundings. Rather, you realize you are bigger than just you; you are a converging point of different cultures and histories. At UT, we have an unusual, but predominant, culture of students that are a product of a complicated combination of cultures. These are the first-generation Americans and the international students.

Being on a university campus you realize that genetically inherited features or socially inherited habits no longer completely embody the entire structure of a person. This is because what we have now have are first-generation Americans who have immigrant parents but habitually Americans, juxtaposed with international students or immigrants who have come to America for higher studies and are merging with the American culture, but who are essentially a product of their homeland.

Student organizations that represent this diversity hold events showcasing unique features of the different cultures, which are so knowledgeable and enriching, and definitely exciting as the SU is adorned galore with fliers advertising some cultural event or the other at UT throughout the year.

I feel a sense of pride and uniqueness when I educate others about the history and ways of my people, the Bangladeshis. On the other hand, I enjoy learning more about the surrounding American ways and inherent American characteristics and traditions. Keeping these in mind, I’ve come to realize a very important quality about myself. Having been in the US for almost a decade now, trying to learn and integrate myself with the American culture to better adjust to the new land, I have increasingly become somewhat “American” too. It is a sentiment many internationals say as well.

Starbucks has become my coffee, Walmart my grocery store, pasta the go-to dinner and I have other such American additives integrated into my cultural background, which make me a non-genetic, non-historically and a non-traditionally American. Thus, while I still identify primarily as a Bangladeshi and enjoy educating people about the Bengali way of making “bhaat” (rice) and “daal” (lentil soup), I believe the staple American burger and fries has become an integral part of my being as well.

The cultural events showcasing the unique traditions of particular culture are inclusive, but on a very superficial level. Other than educating others on food and traditional performances distinctive to their particular country, there is very little else these events do. While these events can provide internationals with some sort of nostalgia or feelings of solidarity with their country people, it doesn’t do much else. It is important to talk about these events, because they are one of UT’s primary ways to showcase diversity on campus. But there is an important part of the UT population who don’t obtain the inclusion or identification promised at UT. These are the first-generation Americans.

A huge portion of the first-generation Americans feel very disconnected from their history, simply because their backgrounds are not even identified as a culturally distinct existence. They are a combination of two different cultures, and while you’d think that because of the two cultures to choose from they’d have more space for inclusion, it is exactly the opposite.

The social events that the student organizations, representing different countries, often have little impact on the first-gen Americans. They feel like they aren’t able to connect with internationals from their parental birth-country and don’t really get to understand the ways and language of the people. UT never holds discussion of issues related to first-generation Americans. Getting that real feeling of solidarity and identification with a non-American culture is difficult. Despite these feelings of isolation, UT does not have system to address these issues.

I have asked first-gen and international students from the same cultures to talk about their feelings about how they feel their cultures are represented at UT, and if they feel a good sense of belonging and inclusion because of their backgrounds. The answers I got were surprising.

All of the first-generation Americans I have talked with for this article have expressed how eagerly they want to learn about their parent’s cultures and incorporate it into their lives. A lot of the time I didn’t even think it really mattered to first-generation Americans where their parents hailed from; I thought they were not even concerned about identifying as anything other than Americans. However, that was not the case.

Both first-generation Americans and internationals have expressed how high schools often have little diversity and so they rarely got a chance to know about their parent’s ancestral heritage. When they came to college, they expected to be properly integrated and understand the values and traditions their ancestors have. They want to know and feel connected to their parents’ cultures, since that is also, despite them never being having grown up there, an essential truth of who they are. However, this group or “culture” isn’t something that isn’t acknowledged, despite the fact that their sentiments are actively being ignored as they are denied their historical and cultural values.

It was surprising to find that it was the international students who felt integrated into the American culture and found people from their own countries to share new experiences and with. On the other hand, the first-gen Americans felt left out of this side of their identity. They often just had their American identities to rely on, and some people felt left out even then, as at first glance, their genetically inherited appearances weren’t American.

Meeting at a single event, where all you see are some food and clothing from your parents’ country, don’t really solve issues of inclusion. The interaction and ability to really identify as an American-Korean, or American-Bangladeshi or American-Indian, aren’t addressed. From personal experience, both internationals and the first-generation Americans are left feeling like another American who just learned about a new type of food or new type of dance.

UT needs to address the issues of first-gen Americans. As the administration increases efforts to improve diversity on campus, they need to understand that the correct way to make them feel integrated and at home and at one with the ancestral heritage for their own personal identification, is to actually increase personal interactions between the first-gen and people from that culture. It is the only way to clearly visualize those lines that converge to form your unique racial identity.

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Bridging the cultural divide