When in a strange land, laugh

UNMC graduate studies student Raheleh Miralami re-enacts the horror of finding her hair dryer does not work in America.

UNMC graduate studies student Raheleh Miralami re-enacts the horror of finding that her hair dryer does not work in America.

Comedian Yakov Smirnoff rose to stardom by summing up the incredulous, wide-eyed experience of being an immigrant in America with the catchphrase, “What a country!”

Likewise, many of UNMC’s international students can weather culture shock the way successful fishes out of water always have — with a sense of humor.

Raheleh Miralami, a UNMC graduate studies student from Iran, has been through it. She’s been in this country for a couple of years now, so she’s a veteran. But she wishes someone might have given her a head’s up (American slang; a forewarning) on some of the craziness that comes with being an international student in America. “Nobody told me,” she said.

So now, she’s telling everyone. And, yes, laughter sometimes ensues. She and other international students laugh at their situation, laugh at themselves – and, they occasionally laugh at us, too.

Miralami gave a presentation during UNMC’s recent International Student Orientation, entitled “U.S. customs, culture and culture shock.” First, she said, upon arriving in America, you are in euphoria. Everything is beautiful. You’ve never seen anything like it! But, it didn’t take long before Miralami was coldcocked (American slang; to be unexpectedly punched in the face) by reality.

“My first problem?” she said, queuing up the next PowerPoint slide. “It was this.”

The American electrical outlet.

Not even Jackie Chan (top left) can defeat the American electrical outlet.

Not even Jackie Chan (top left) can defeat the American electrical outlet.

First of all, what in the world WAS that? And, let’s face it, it’s tough to think of the U.S. as the greatest country in the world when it can’t even run your hair dryer.

“The voltage here is 110,” she said. “The voltage at home is 220.” (Cue Michael Keaton as Mr. Mom: “220, 221, whatever it takes.”)

The coins don’t have numbers on them, the dime is smaller than the nickel, what’s up with that? And no metric system! How heavy is a pound? How far is a mile?

When it’s 40 degrees out, what does that mean? Is it cold? Is it hot?

Uptown, downtown? What?!

And, let’s not even get into “football.” But, since you brought it up, the even crazier thing is this: “Some houses have a special room decorated to watch the football.” (Yes. It’s called a Husker Room. What, is that not normal?)

Anyone else out there notice anything crazy about this country?

international students 007

You mean the ball is not round, and they throw it with their hands, and they call it “foot” ball? Ohhhhh! This country is SO confusing!

One young man raised his hand. In his hometown in China, it is socially acceptable to just stand around on the sidewalk at 2 a.m., whereas in America, people tend to find that unnerving.

Yes! Someone asked, “Why is everything closed when you want to go out to dinner at 11 p.m.?” (Hey, we’re also cultured in this country. Taco Bell is open. We’re not savages …)

At times it feels like international students may as well have landed on another planet. So what do you do? It’s taken so much, financially, emotionally, all the work and effort and everything else, to get here. You can’t sulk home. It’s time to get tough. It’s time to adjust.

(Strangely enough, it turns out that even after adjusting, many international students find themselves going through a “reverse culture shock” upon returning home. Presumably by going to bed before midnight.)

Americans are fat? Hold on, let me get this down.

So, “What’s up, partner in crime” means “Hello, my friend”? Hold on, let me get this down.

So, how does one adjust? The first step may be to realize that people here in the United States don’t necessarily speak English. They speak American. If you’re going to succeed in academia, you’d better figure that out.

Reheleh’s mentor-to-English phrasebook:

  • “I’ll have to think about it” = “No.”
  • “You might want to consider this” = “Do this right now.”
  • “That’s interesting” = “I can’t think of anything else to say.”
  • “Sounds great” = “It’s … OK.”
  • “It’s not bad” = “It’s bad.”

Then, there’s dealing with Americans. They’re different. You’d better prepare yourself for American culture, so let’s go over the stereotypes.

Americans love food. (Yes, no other people in the world enjoy their food or put social or cultural significance on mealtime like Americans do. Though, to be fair, in other countries they may not get quite as euphoric about curly fries.)

Americans are very passionate when they talk; they love to talk and will talk about anything. (Another trait unique to America; I’ve never seen anyone have a passionate, animated, garrulous conversation in any language other than English, have you?)

Drive around and around until you find a parking space closest to the door? Wait a minute, that's not a bad idea ...

So they drive around and around until they find a parking space closest to the door? Wait a minute, that’s not a bad idea …

Americans are very religious. (Because obviously, they’ve worked out that issue everywhere else in the world.)

Americans want what they call their “personal space.” (What are you looking at?!)

So now that a group of scientists have a set of preconceived notions to cling to, we’re ready. The next step in the process is the “mastery” phase. It’s where you adjust to your new surroundings, and everything is OK (American slang; it means “OK”). You get involved. You make friends. You find your way. It may seem a long way off, but you, too, will get to that place.

And then? Then, we will explain football.

The ball isn’t shaped like a ball. They use their hands but call it football. And the coach carries a cat for some reason.

Sigh. Americans …

What a country!

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