What I learn from my international office-mates

I wanted to start a little series about the interesting things I’ve learned from my international office-mates.  I would say “Chinese office-mates”, but we do have one Koren post-doc and who knows, we might get a few new students next year so I’ll keep it general.

For those of you that I’m already offending, please hear me out!  Anyone who is in grad school, especially in the sciences/engineering knows that domestic students are a minority.  Actually its more like an epidemic when you consider how few American students we’re actually educating.  At our school (and I think this is pretty typical of most research schools) international students make up about 70-75% of the student body.  In our research group, two of us are American and 6 are Chinese/Korean (including my boss) so we fit those statistics quite nicely.

Chinese is spoken in my office by default. For me, this should be a good thing since it should allow me to practice my Chinese, which I had almost all  but forgotten, but more often than not this semester, its just made me angry.  I’m not proud of this, but too many times this semester I’ve just been really upset about the lack of American students and upset at the fact that I can’t keep up with the conversation around me.  I think it hit again this semester since we got three new Chinese students.  And my boss is Chinese.  Seriously?  And somehow I am the one put in charge of organizing what few social events we have and making sure our group is cohesive.  Again, not that I was justified, but the best way I can explain it is that I felt like I was a driver in a car full of a bunch of people sitting in the back seat talking with each other.  Instead, I’d much rather enjoy driving the car if someone could sit up in the front seat and talk to me, you know?  I guess as pathetic as it sounds I’d really like to just have a friend that I can commiserate with in my research group.  One who doesn’t resort to another language for every conversation other than the ones that they need something from me.

Grad school is lonely enough already!

So now that I’m done wallowing (I wouldn’t be posting this if I was still there) I have realized that hey, as the senior student, if I make an effort at talking to people, they will talk back!  Eventually.  [I have to relearn this skill every semester apparently.]  I really do learn a lot from my international office-mates and I would even venture to say we’re friends now.  So my point is that I wanted to start writing these entries as a reminder of the good/funny/interesting/thought-provoking things that we talk about, so that next time one of these whining bouts start, I can re-read them as tell myself “See?  Look at what a better person you’re becoming for having the work situation that you do!”

So for this week, here’s a few recent things I’ve learned:

  • In Korea, Christmas is celebrated by going out to a club and dancing. Yeah, it sounds pretty much like a glorified/drunken Valentine’s Day where you get drunk and go on a blind date.  More commercialized than in America.  No family activities whatsoever.
  • You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas in Korea either.
  • One of the new students approached me the other day asking me where I got my wedding ring from.  We had a talk about it and I asked him about how he’s going to propose.  He said he’s going back over the winter break and doing it as soon as possible.  I said “Oh, so she’ll move here?” and he answered “I hope so.  My life here is miserable.”  What a good reminder that I’m not the only one making the best of this situation. Some people have it much worse.
  • Another office-mate married his wife and then 9 days later moved to America.  She was only able to join him the following year.

That’s all for now.  I’m sure I’ll have many, many more…

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5 thoughts on “What I learn from my international office-mates

  1. I think this is more prevalent in the hard sciences, though there are still many international students in other departments. For example, my tiny dept admits 4 students each year, and for a very long time the (unofficial?) rule was to admit 2 Americans and 2 internationals. They seem to go through phases in the origin – several Germans, a couple Eastern Europeans, a couple Koreans. It’s very interesting.

    Anyway, I was lucky enough to become great friends with the other American girl who came in my year. Grad school can definitely be lonely! Good for you for looking on the bright side here! I look forward to hearing what else you learn!

  2. When we are among strangers, in stressful situations, we can learn a lot about ourselves! It’s funny because I felt the same way in my church, there are the spanish speaking people on one side, and the old asian ladies on the other, and I can’t seem to fit anywhere…
    Well, of course I would obviously be a stranger in the situation above!!! LOL
    what I mean is that the cultural choc from Western Europe to America is much smaller than towards any other culture.. But I can’t deny there is still some cultural gap there.

    Anyway I hope you feel better with your coworker, and that they make an effort to speak english, it would be good for them too. :)

  3. I don’t go to grad school, but I do work w/ a pretty international group. Indians, Nigerians, Kenyans, Australians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. I don’t know why, but I never get mad when ppl start speaking languages I don’t understand. Perhaps it has something to do w/ having parents for whom English is a second language? I do, however, get really irritated at ppl when they get irritated at ppl who can’t speak English very well. I get the “If you move to our country, you should speak our language” mentality, but I think getting irate about it is kind of retarded. It can’t be very easy. There’s a lab tech at my hospital who’s got a really heavy Chinese accent, and this American nurse was on the phone w/ her. Upon hanging up, the nurse exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh, did she JUST get off the boat?!” I almost came unglued.

    • hmmm, yeah i think it definitely has to do more with the fact that grad school is extremely isolating to start with and combine that fact with no one to communicate with in ADDITION to being in charge of planning social events with people who don’t communicate with me, it can just be a stressful situation some days, usually when I’m already upset about something else.

      and after “in China” experience myself, I will add that its also a cultural thing related to mainland China.

      seriously, all i’m asking for is courtesy/friendliness. if i make calls to all your utility companies because no one can understand you on the phone, can you just plllease talk to me occasionally about something completely fluffy? i know i’m useful because i speak English but come on, i have feelings too!

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