Points In Between: Episode 3
What Did You Expect?
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 3: What Did You Expect?
Selena: Well, since I was little I didn't really realize how much America was really involved in the conflict at the time. I know, you know later on, I realized like how Bill Clinton helped resolve the war and how he stepped in and why the war actually ended.
That was Selena. You met her back in Episode 2. In that episode she talked about what it was like to go to elementary school in Bosnia during the war between Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia.
This episode of Points In Between, Episode 3, explores what people thought America was going to be like before they came, and what they discovered when they got here.
Selena: But my impression was that Americans were so cool and America was so cool because most of my exposure to Americans was through like UNPROFOR-
A vocabulary moment: UNPROFOR was the UN Peacekeeping force dispatched to Bosnia in 1992. They were there to protect Bosnian civilians during the war with Serbia.
Selena: I would be almost like awestruck. And one soldier in particular who kind of like patrolled the area, my father made friends with him and one day I was sitting outside and I was playing - I think it was like a beautiful sunny Saturday and it was supposed to be a peace time - but a grenade fell about half of length of a football field away from me and he was there and he just you know, sprinted. It was like raining concrete and rocks and he just jumped on top of us until it was over and, you know, I was like screaming and I couldn't hear anything and my ears were ringing and he took us over into the house and it was just this huge mess and you know my dad was so grateful to him and he got a little shrapnel in his leg. So he went to the hospital and my dad work there. But they made friends and he would show me pictures from America and he taught me my first word in English which is very inappropriate [laughs] so I'm not going to share it. It starts with an F though.
As impressions go, “an American saved my life” is about as positive as it can get. In her experience, American soldiers symbolized protection from violence.
A couple of years after the war, Selena and her family immigrated to the US.
Serena: So when I immigrated over here, I came through a, like a program that I would say it's like a political rescue. So that was how I came here. I got like political asylum, quote unquote, because my family was so affected by the war.
One of the awful hallmarks of the conflict in Bosnia was ethnic cleansing, most famously the killing of Bosnians in the Srebrenica massacre, which the International Court of Justice later ruled an act of genocide.
Despite positive associations with America, it took her parents a while to make the decision to move. In the end, they decided the opportunity for a new start was worth selling everything and leaving their home. But the first night they got here, they got off to an inauspicious start.
Selena: So when I first came to America, one of my first experiences was not a positive one. So my father is Muslim Bosnian and my mother is Serbian. So that's the two countries that were fighting. And my father has, he’s sort of dark, he has very like prominent features. He's like a loud, kind of like very extroverted Bosnian man with a thick accent. And we were trying to eat food at a restaurant. It was like our first night. We landed in New York, JFK, and we were at the hotel restaurant and we had these bags and they had the U.N. thing it, immigration, and the people refused to serve us because they didn't think that - we didn't speaking any English but my father had dollars - but they didn't realize that we like had money. So they thought, like, we can't serve you cause you don't have any money.
So I remember going back up to the hotel room and just being like, “Wow, those people are so mean! But we're hungry!” you know and I was such - I was a little kid and my dad like figured out how to go to like Burger King or something crazy like that. But, my first impression of America was terrifying. I remember being 12 years old and just crying alone in my room and I'm like, “I have no friends. I have nobody. I just have my parents and my sister.” And it was just so… it was such an emotional, you know intense experience. I'm tearing up a bit.
Selena talked really matter-of-factly about waiting out bombing in her school library, for example, but got really emotional talking about her first night in the US. She wasn’t alone. A lot of the people I spoke with found the shift from anticipation to reality jarring and difficult.
Selena: It was, it was really… like looking back on this I guess I don't think about this often but it was a really intense experience.
You also met Omar in Episode 2. He’s the student who came from Syria to attend college in Vermont. He does like things about Vermont and about his classmates, but America’s involvement in the conflict in his country affected his expectations, too. What he expected was that Americans would know about the conflicts – that we might understand why he would feel ambivalent.
Omar: There's also something else, which is the two faces that people have for Americans. Like the fact that us, people who come from underdeveloped countries who have seen nothing from the U.S. but like wars and death and misery…no, and like even the actual Americans that we've seen. So if you, for example, like let's bring - I don't know - a typical Iraqi child who was brought up in the midst of the war and this child has seen nothing from Americans but Americans with guns, Americans and tanks, Americans in airplanes, bombing and shelling his home, his city, his country. Now what do you expect from this Iraqi child? How do you expect him to like Americans? Or how do you expect him to be neutral to Americans? He won't be, and it's natural and it's his right to not be neutral to them.
You might think Omar is deflecting a bit here. After all, he’s Syrian, not Iraqi. Interacting with American soldiers in Iraq isn’t his experience. But then listen closely to what he says in the next segment and think about the geography of the overlapping wars in the Middle East.
Omar: Now at the same time you come to America, you come to the U.S. and, you see people expecting you to be liking them and to be even looking at them as idols and as the greatest nation that I want to be like and the people that Iwant to be like and everyone as…as if I'm trying always to be an American citizen. So that was really… frustrating for me in the beginning to live with those people and knowing at the same time, especially for me, that this specific country is currently bombing my country and those people that are saying that their nation is the greatest are the same people that are supporting this army on bombing - the same flag is the flag drawn on those airplanes that are bombing.
US news reports tend to emphasize the idea that our military is attacking ISIS. But the Islamic State didn’t magically create new land when it declared its existence. It claimed territory in Iraq and Syria. You may have heard about the US bombing specific targets in Syria as a part of the current civil war there, which is true. But also, perhaps what you didn’t realize is that when the US bombs “ISIS targets,” that also often means we are bombing parts of Syria.
I think you can understand how a person could, at the same time, oppose ISIS and also be unhappy about two wars being fought inside their country. And how our participation in those conflicts might complicate Omar’s feelings about America and Americans.
Tobias attended an International School that he described as being deeply influenced by American culture. He found something different.
Tobias: Maybe this something to do with being in the northeast. But I - and being at a very liberal college, which is that a lot of people, Americans, were ashamed for being from sometimes such a deeply divided culture of you know Left and Right, Red and Blue. I thought that Americans thought Americans were the best when I came to school. So I thought that all Americans would love where they came from and love, you know, have a strong sense of nationalism, patriotism. You know, the USA chant. But that ended up being pretty wrong. Like, I would sometimes have to remind Americans that they came from a pretty impressive country and that they weren't all that bad. So, Id’ say that was the biggest surprise for me.
America’s huge military and political influence in the world does, of course, influence how others see us. But another powerful source of ideas about Americans, especially for younger people, pop culture – movies, TV, music, memes on social media. And one thing American movies about young people often show is out-of-control drunken parties. Tobias knew to expect a different culture around drinking when he came, but still…
Tobias: I was in college and my sister was still at home in Belgium in high school and she was drinking legally. So she was going out to bars with her friends. So it was funny having that dichotomy of her being abroad and drinking, you know, completely legally and in moderation while students in the states just didn't know how to do that. You know, they just couldn't take alcohol for what it is, which is sometimes just a drink for, you know, that you like the taste of rather than something as a social lubricant or like as a way to get drunk.
Siobhan moved from Wales to study at the University of Wisconsin. She said that maybe the most shocking thing about America was that it actually was how she imagined it was going to be.
Siobhan: …And there were signs saying don't bring guns into places. I remember being particularly shocked by that. [laughs] Otherwise I think the thing that struck me the most, and it's still one of the things that strikes me the most, was the what the undergraduates would wear to campus. They almost all wear leisure wear, like sportswear, with Wisconsin like with the “W” or with the badger stuff on it. That's what they would wear to class every day. And that's really different because in the U.K., and in Cardiff in particular, it's - you're not wearing tracksuits to class. It's not so much that you're dressing up but everyone's trying to look really fashionable. So it's always like jeans and like boots or something. It's never like Cardiff University sports gear. So that struck me that all the undergrads were just in RED and I never seen that before except on film.
Daniel came from South Korea to pursue a second, different undergraduate degree. He reflected on the impression he got from superhero films.
Daniel: Actually, I didn't have any idea about what America is before I decided to come here. But when I decided to come here, actually I thought about like … racism but that, like because American movies, like Iron Man or Captain America. All hero movies has a main character which is a white guy and…the man in America, they usually looks like very muscly and they stay fit and strong and big and then, actually, the gun is legal here. So yeah I was kind of afraid like that.
Shane: Do you think you were right to worry about any of it? Or do you think it's turned out to be different than you thought?
Daniel: It's kind of different. Yeah. Just like people… I think people just don't care about that.
This theme was echoed by Serafin. He moved to the US from Senegal, West Africa, when he was 16. Senegal is, coincidentally, right next to The Gambia, where Lingerr is from.
I asked him to introduce himself in his first language, Wolof.
Serafin: [Introduction in Wolof]
Serafin met up with me at a bakery in Oakland, California in December. You might be able to hear some Christmas music in the background here. His expectations of American violence came from multiple sources.
Serafin: When you watch some of the movies that ...like, the violence on it and then you're like, “Oh. That's the…That's the country of the rodeo, I guess.” So… A friend of my dad hame here. He was in New York once, because he used to work for like an airline, and he was in New York for a couple of days. And his first night he was in bed and he heard gunshots and he was like - the next day he packed his stuff and then left. [laughs] So when he came home he was like man it's just terrible.
So I had that thing stuck in my mind. And, plus the jet lag and everything, I was in bed and thinking, “Hmm. I don't hear any gunshots yet but it's coming, it's coming…[laughs] until I fall asleep, and nothing.
This impression of violence came from films, but also the news and it’s clear that even across the Atlantic in West Africa, expectations about violence here in America carried the same racial stereotypes.
Serafin: My friends when I call would say, "Oh yeah - how is it over there? People shoot each other?" "Nah. That's TV. That's the movie. It's all good." "How are the black people?" "Well they're black. They're just like us. They're cool. They say hi, you say hi, that's it. You go your way, they go their way.” [laughs]
I don’t think the pattern isn’t hard to pick out here. Talking with Mia, from China, didn’t reveal a different principle at work – just a different set of TV shows she watched. As a kid watching American shows in China, she compared her life with what she saw on Hannah Montana and Glee.
Mia: And I[used to] think like my life was so boring, but like American kids they all have like have like different funny and interesting activities. They have parties. Yeah they can do a lot, like, what they want. But you know like in China it's such a restricted atmosphere. I kind of think like Glee, you know, like those high school kids, I really liked them. I think this is actually a normal American high school day, but now I think maybe it's not. [laughs]
Angel didn’t name the shows she watched, but I think you can make some safe guesses.
Angel: It seems like the...I don't know, maybe it's the exaggeration of the TV drama. Like the girls, in high school, they would judge each other by their appearance or their clothes and it's kind of mean. Like their friendship, it's… I don't know. I think everyone is afraid of being like edged out or... The social relations in the high school seems a serious issue in the high school from my seeing the TV drama, but I don't think they have a really serious school work burden on their high school life, compared to Taiwan.
When she was in high school in Taiwan, Angel enjoyed playing in the wind ensemble. So once she got here, she joined an organization called the Music Connection. She got to go to music classes in a local high school as a volunteer, and this gave her a chance to see how reality stacked up against her impressions from TV.
Angel: I don't know. It's really different from my stereotype of high school students on the TV drama. They are, like… they are really respectful and very cute. Before I went to - the first time - before I went to there, I was really nervous because I'm like a foreigner and I'm not a native speaker and I was a little bit afraid to be discriminated. Yeah, because from my stereotype of that. But when I went into there, they were really, really respectful and when I am talking, if there's someone still playing their instrument there will be some other students to say "Shut up! She's talking and we should listen to her.” Yeah, it's like very different from…
Growing up in the Czech Republic, Caroline was also deeply influenced by American pop culture.
Caroline: All the American movies get translated and dubbed in Czech so you grow up with, you know, everything that's American. I mean the culture is so heavy over there and music, oh my God. You don't - nobody listens to Czech music in my class as far as I can remember.
There’s a difference between the early accounts from Selena, Omar, and Tobias about their experiences of Americans, and these later ones. The first few speakers, they were taking their experiences with actual Americans abroad and extrapolating from those events to form impressions of how Americans might behave and how we might see ourselves.
The more recent voices have addressed the slippery world of films, TV and music. Watching TV or a movie, it’s hard to tell what’s even intended to be realistic, let alone what actually is real. Obviously people in America can’t fly and just as obviously people drive cars, for example. But the gray area in the middle – the category of Might Be Real – is surprisingly big. For Caroline, part of the excitement of coming to the US was greater proximity to this pop culture world.
Caroline: I have this image stuck in my head when the plane was leaving Prague. We just happened to be on the side of the airport where one of the main buildings had the Prague sign across. So as the plane was rising I saw the sign disappearing. I was like, “oh...dramatic!” [laughs] So when we landed, when we were about to land in L.A., the girl that was sitting next to the window… she tugged on my shirt and I turned around - and we barely spoke English back then - and I turned around and she just points out of the window and I look and there were fireworks going off and my mom of course was like, “Oh look there’s fireworks. They’re, like, welcoming us to the US.” And then the girl said it was Disneyland. Those are Disneyland fireworks and I was just like, “Disneyland!?” [laughs] Everything you know starts to come back into your head.
Her mom’s boyfriend met them at the airport and took them home.
Caroline: I was definitely - I was trying to imagine something more spectacular. But the guy just lived in your regular apartment complex building when you just have like a portion of the house to yourself. When we finally settled to go to sleep I was just on a mattress in this kind of empty room that was gonna be mine. I remember laying there and then I also woke up very early in the morning because of the jetlag and everything. Then I got up and me and my mom are making toast, but that was already different. The toast was so much more sugared than like what we eat back in Czech. The bread is nothing like that. And I was really excited about it back then. I was like, “Oh my God! This is so sweet! This is a sweet breakfast!” So we were eating toast and I sat down and I turned on the TV and there was like Good Morning America and there was a concert. The Black Eyed Peas were playing. And that, I think that's when it truly hit me. I was like, “Oh my god! This is going to be on my TV every day?!” I actually get to see these like worldwide stars on the TV. I was like, “OK, you live in American now. This is what it's like.”
So far everything you’ve heard has been about what people expected and then how it compared with what they found. But there is a whole other category of first impressions and I’m going to call it: Things You Never Even Imagined.
After three years in India, Roya’s family finally decided they just weren’t going to be able to return to Afghanistan. When she was 14 they came to join her older sister in California.
Roya: My sister was living in Palo Alto and it was a quiet experience because Palo Alto was so quiet. My first expression was like, “Oh my God! Where are these people? [laughs] This is so quiet!” It was really empty and quiet. I come from a city of ...packed. Millions of people are walking, cows, sheep, dogs. I mean like you… rickshaws, scooters. I mean, coming from a busy city and you end up coming to Palo Alto and it's like, “Where are these people? [laughs] Why so quiet here? Why is there nobody here?”
Ra’ouf, coming from rural Yemen at age 16, experienced a similar sort of surprise in the Bay Area, but for a different reason.
Ra’ouf: I think it was afternoon, like 12 or 1 o'clock.
In addition to leaving home, he was coming to live with someone he barely knew: his dad. Ra’ouf’s father had lived in the US for almost the entirety of his life. It’s a common story – one family member going abroad to earn money for years at a time. So as big a deal as the move was, on his arrival at the San Francisco airport, America – as a place – wasn’t what he was thinking about.
Ra’ouf: …and I was just thinking about me and my dad. I curious, you know? How is he? Is he nice? Is he tough? Because I used to hear my mom saying that he's a really strong person and doesn't want anyone to, you know, like lie to him or whatever, you know. And he doesn't laugh a lot. [laughs] And so those were the questions that were running into my mind.
His father and some cousins met them at the airport. When the family was reunited – or, I guess maybe I should say, when they were finally united, they got on the highway,and headed for San Francisco. That was the point when Ra’ouf remembers noticing his surroundings for the first time.
Ra’ouf: …the roads, the freeway. There is no beep-beep, you know. [laughs] Cars are just riding, you know? There is not that noise because when you're in Yemen, you know, all you hear is just horns. People pressing on horns, you know, “Move! Move!” But here, when we get into the freeway it so…was stunning, like how peaceful was it and the order. I felt it was a system and it was very – what’s the word? It was... I don't want to say wonderful but like challenging for me to comprehend and I started to really just compare and contrast between Yemen and the United States and began to say, “Wow, this is the U.S. that people really talk about and that people really love to come to.” And that's because there is a system, there is an order.
They arrived at their apartment building where they were going to be living.
Ra’ouf: … and then you get in and then there is an elevator and I got lost in the elevator. I just went to the second floor when I was supposed to go to the fifth floor …and I said, “Wow. This is going to be a long journey.”
Newcomers arrive in American schools with this multilayered set of expectations already in place. The things longtime students take for granted, they have to just puzzle out. The tools at their disposal are a patchwork mix of movie references, personal encounters, stories, rumors – any part of which might or might not be true. And unlike tourists, who have the luxury of simply marveling at the mysteries they encounter, students are being graded. Their success depends on making sense of the situation fast.
That’s where we’re headed next. Episode 4 is called “First Day.”
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.