Fears of International Students

by Megumi Kakogawa, Osaka College of Foreign Languages, Japan, April 23, 2008

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Can you imagine how much fear international students feel in a foreign country? Everything is new for international students. Language, customs, people, and surroundings are different, and most do not know anybody in the foreign country until they come to the country. Before I became an international student, I did not expect to be afraid. However, expectations and anxieties about my future experiences in the U.S. filled in my heart before arriving here. Although I certainly found my new surroundings stimulating, some anxieties changed into fears when communicating with native students. Some bitter experiences triggered this fear. I could not express what I really wanted to say. One time, a person frowned at me because of my bad pronunciation. Such small incidents frightened me. Even though international students are interested in other countries, fear is an inevitable aspect of international lives when they begin studying in their foreign countries. These fears may be about communication problems, feeling unwelcoming attitudes from natives, and making mistakes. The fears that international students feel can act as road blocks to having a good international experience, but it is very important for visiting students to overcome those road blocks. The largest road block that prevents a successful international experience is fear of communication problems. Speaking a different language can be intimidating. Facing different cultures, people, and surroundings, international students have the fear of whether other students understand them or not. The fear stems from having little confidence to speak a different language as well as the stereotypes and biases that international students have about the country and its people. Especially at the beginning of the experience as an international student, it is hard to understand everything that other people say and to speak a different language fluently. During my first semester at SUNY Cortland, I was always afraid of speaking English because I really believed that my English was flawed. English and Japanese are completely different in respect to words, pronunciations, accents, and rhythm. When I could not understand someone, I felt uneasy about asking them to repeat themselves several times. Likewise, I would not like to be asked to repeat myself again and again. However, as I got used to asking for help, I began to think that it was not a big deal to ask someone to repeat themselves because I noticed that it was a necessary process to communicate. People do not always misunderstand because of pronunciation mistakes, but maybe they simply could not hear what was said. International students might take a request for repetition as a sign that they have made a mistake, and no one likes to make a mistake. In addition, the stereotypes and biases that international students have can be road blocks to having good relationships with others. A common stereotype for American people is that they are cheerful inclusive and open minded. However, it is not always true. As in Japan, there are many different kinds of people. It is important for international students to accept the difference between what they imagine about the country and reality. According to Naoko Nagasaki, who is an international student from Japan, American students are more emotionally conservative than she expected. As Dr. Boynton observes, “U.S. students tend to exclude those who are different. The U.S. is a clicky place.” However, once she got to know them well, she was able to break down the barrier between them as native speakers and her as a foreign student. In other words, she could find people who could share what they think and like. Visitors are not guaranteed to like everyone in a foreign country, just as they may not like everyone in their native country. Although international students have a fear of communication problems, it is possible for them to overcome this fear and find others that share their interests like Nagasaki did. International students also have a fear of unwelcoming attitudes from natives. Native speakers are not always welcoming to international students. Arturo Madrid who is the author of “Missing People and Others: Joining Together to Expand the Circle,” mentions about being the other: “Being the other means feeling different; is awareness of being distinct; is consciousness of being dissimilar” (23). He goes on to say, “being the other sometimes involves sticking out like a sore thumb” (Madrid 23). Madrid explains the negative effects of being the other: “The other makes people feel anxious, nervous, apprehensive, even fearful” (23). According to Madrid, the majority also feels fear towards the other, and it is true that the majority tend not to accept others. While Madrid explains the feeling that the majority and the others have, Craig Storti, the author of The Art of Crossing Culture, mentions why people distinguish others. He explains about a common assumption of human behavior: “Each of us expects that everyone else is just like us. We expect everyone to behave as we do, and we assume we behave like everyone else. This is true of our behavior as individuals and especially as members of a culture” (Storti 48). Native students sometimes have the assumption that Storti mentions. International students look different; they wear different kinds of clothes unlike many or native students who often wear sweats or T-shirts with a school logo. International students also speak differently because their English is not fluent. Too often, native students cannot accept the existence of the differences between themselves and international students. As a result, native students may put forward unwelcoming attitudes toward international students. While some native students may give unwelcoming attitudes, international students sometimes misunderstand native students’ attitudes towards them. This misunderstanding may come from a wrong impression. When I began living here, Kristen Zerbato, one of my roommates, often said “Huh?” in response to something I said. The word’s connotative meaning is to pick a quarrel in Japanese, while in English, it is an informal request for clarification. Therefore, I felt that she got angry with me, and she was giving an unwelcoming attitude. I was afraid to talk to her. I later figured out that the word just means to ask “What did you say?” or “What did you mean?” This situation caused me to feel as if she was unwelcoming, but I then realized she was actually nice. Even though some people really do have an unwelcoming attitude to international students, sometimes these feelings are misunderstandings.

Making mistakes is also a fear that international students have. For these students who have different cultures and social customs, common sense is also different for native speakers. International students do not always know what they must do or not do. If international students make mistakes, what will other people think of them? Furthermore, when international students make mistakes, they may feel embarrassed. For instance, when having to do a presentation with a group, international students fear making mistakes because how they perform affects the grade for the entire group. International students as members of the group are equally responsible for the presentation. Many of my classes require group presentation. I also have had done group presentation in Japan, but it is done differently. Japanese group work is more cooperative than in the U.S. While everyone works together on all parts of the presentation in Japan, individual sections are distributed at an early step in the U.S. This difference comes from what people look at as important. In the U.S., there is more emphasis placed on individual work. Because of this, I feel more pressure not to make mistakes. Although international students fear making mistakes, there are some ways to reduce this fear. Lara Atkins, the International Programs Office Director, advises international students to reduce fear. According to Atkins, it is important to gain knowledge about culture, customs, and the college, to interact with native speakers positively, and not to be afraid of making mistakes. International students can learn from these mistakes, and they can overcome the embarrassment.

While international students experience personal growth in foreign countries, they also face some fears. The fear is caused by people’s attitudes and assumptions, stereotypes, and communication difficulties. The fear is about whether international students can communicate with others or not. It is necessary to keep trying to communicate in order to open up to others and gain their trust. It takes time for people who have different cultures and languages to communicate well. Furthermore, international students are worried that native speakers are not welcoming of them because of these communication problems. International students are brave for coming to a foreign country and facing these fears, no matter what trouble comes up. If they do not overcome these fears, their language skills will not advance; they will not get rid of stress. It is key for international students to overcome some of these fears in order to have successful experiences in their foreign countries. International students have to control their fears to succeed during their experiences.

Works Cited
Madrid, Arturo. “Missing People And Others: Joining Together to Expand the Circle” Race, Class and Gender. 3rd ed. Ed. Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998. 21-26.

Storti, Craig. The Art of Crossing Cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1990.

Atkins, Lara. Personal interview. 28 Feb. 2008.

Boynton, Victoria. Personal interview. 10 Apr. 2008.

Nagasaki, Naoko. Personal interview. 10 Feb. 2008.

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