What International Students?

by David Nelson | 11/17/98 6:00am

Many members of the Dartmouth community have been wrestling with the issue of diversity and its meaning. The events of the past two weeks have further exposed the largely homogenous society that is Dartmouth. We have spoken about all different types of diversity but we have not spoken about cultural diversity -- that which is brought by international students. As you may have guessed, I am an international student myself. I have an accent. I spell and pronounce words like the English do -- colour, emphasise, draught, "kleek" (clique) and not "click," "boofay" ( buffet) and not "buffay." There are not many international students here and, in general, we are not a vocal bunch. However, since there is so much dialogue on campus about stereotyping people, I thought that I would give a different perspective -- that of an international student.

The following are some general instances of stereotyping or ignorance. They may sound incredibly stupid but I want you all to remember that these are all quotes from Dartmouth students.

  • "Oh you're from Trinidad and Tobago? Yeah, Mon! Do you smoke ganja and lie on the beach all day?"

It goes without saying that this is highly offensive. I understand completely that the offence is unintentional, but the hurt still remains. First, I do not know where in the West Indies they say, "Yeah, Mon!" I have never heard it, and I have been to almost every West Indian country. If we are to succumb to stereotyping and all of its inherent problems, am I then to assume that if you are from Vermont your parents were cousins or that if you are from California you are a surfer, incapable of coherent sentences? What about Southerners? Am I to assume that all Southerners are racist bastards because of their portrayal in the media? Where does it stop?

  • "Here's my friend David. He's from Trinidad. Isn't that cool?"

Many people may not understand why this may be seen as offensive, although it was never meant to hurt. The last two sentences seem an arbitrary link to make -- cool = not from America. I often wonder why this makes me, or any other international student, cool. Why not our personalities or the fact that we play a certain instrument or sport? Furthermore, what does that say about you as Americans?

  • "What is your native language?"

This response is completely personal. I get annoyed by the assumption that anyone who has an accent that is not American does not speak English. We ought to remember that the English had one of the most powerful colonial empires in the world. It is as a result of their colonialism that many Africans, West Indians and East Indians speak English. Whenever this question is asked of me, I wonder if I sound as though I am searching for words, whether my grammar and diction are so poor that it is impossible to decipher whether I am a native speaker or not. It seems unfair to make me question myself because of someone else's ignorance.

  • "Tell me about your country."

There is nothing offensive about this question except that it should be more specific. Perhaps a better question would be, "What is the economy like in your country? What are race relations like? What is the social structure?" Specific questions help us to avoid spewing useless historical facts that may become tedious for both parties.

"You all drive? You have cars? Roads? The Internet?"

  • On the few occasions that I have been asked this question, I think to myself: "Somewhere there is a village being deprived of its idiot." Perhaps this is harsh, but ...

These examples of incidents are not intended to embarrass anyone or to censure dialogue. We have realised through past events that there is a lack of dialogue. However, I would hope that before we ask each other questions, we think about them. Am I stereotyping this individual, this race, this class, this nation? It seems clear that we are now trying to move away from forcing groups to assimilate, yet, because of the lack of international students on campus, it is assumed that they are here to do just that -- that they have come here (to the United States) for salvation (whatever that may be). While these attitudes are not meant to cause deliberate harm, it hurts. Perhaps it continues because we have been so silent or because our voices are so small they can easily be silenced. However, as members of the Dartmouth community, we are entitled to a certain level of comfort within this society. This is why I wrote this column. It would be a terrible loss if potentially strong friendships are ruined because of thoughtless comments and the concomitant prejudgements ... a loss to our entire community.