In a lot of conversations, discussing American politics replaces small talk. An awkward silence is almost always followed by a comment on Trump’s absurd tweets and policies. A recent Zoom call with my classmates cemented this for me. After the cordial questions of “How are you enjoying the break so far?” and “How does it feel to be back at home?” we had to come up with something to avoid looking at each other uncomfortably through our screens.
Then followed a long discussion — one I’ve had again and again over the last few months — on the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement regulations and Trump’s voter fraud claims during the election. This conversation only took an interesting twist when one American friend turned to me and the other international students in the call and said, “You guys know a lot about the U.S. in general.”
Yes, we do. It is almost imperative for international students to know this much about the U.S. to even be allowed to stay in the country. We need to constantly follow the state laws, ICE regulations, Supreme Court appointees, etc. Aside from these legalities, if we want to blend in with our American friends, we cannot just surround ourselves with our own cultural values. We need to learn about the American pop culture and appreciate American sense of humor so that our friends won’t think that we come from a different planet. We need to know all these if we want to make American friends in the first place. So, even in our home countries, we put a constant effort to immerse ourselves in American culture.
However, knowing a lot about the U.S. is not just particular to international students. Wherever you go around the world, any person in the street can tell you something about the U.S. This is the case in my home country Turkey, and I have learnt from my interview with a fellow columnist Awuor Onguru that it is also the case in Kenya. I am not suggesting that everyone knows all the facts of American history or politics. In fact, people’s fascination with the U.S. almost always clouds their perception and what they know. But at least they put in the effort to learn. Every time I come back home, people eagerly ask me about my experiences in the U.S. — not only about my personal experiences, but also about the American life, people and values. They genuinely want to know.
However, I cannot say the same thing about most American people, even about some of my friends at Yale. Most of them start the conversation with their preconceived and usually wrong notions about our countries without any attempts to ask before assuming. The American ignorance and indifference about the rest of the world is a persisting problem that most Americans are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge.
As international students, we come to the U.S. already accepting this ignorance, which, I believe, is testament to the gravity of the issue. I have been asked before whether there were a lot of camels in Turkey by an American friend. This was worse than pure ignorance. It revealed how Americans view countries in certain regions. You may be tempted to laugh at this moment, but amusement came a lot later for me. As the absurdity of this question sank in, I experienced a wave of emotions: shock, frustration, denial, acceptance and, eventually, amusement.
A surprisingly pleasant contrast to this example happened when I first came to Yale. I met an American friend who knew about Turkish football. I remember how excited I was. Not because I am really invested in football, but because it was the first time that an American person knew such details about my country — obviously except for the universally known fact that Turkey is ruled by a dictator-like president. But this shouldn’t be the case. I shouldn’t feel ecstatic just because an American person shows interest in a country outside of the U.S. This needs to be the norm, not the exception.
I do not expect my American friends to know everything about Turkey or any other country. But I expect them to ask, to make an effort to engage with a world different from theirs. I expect them to meet me halfway and reciprocate my interest in their culture. These expectations shouldn’t come as a surprise; I know for a fact that a lot of other international students feel the same way.
On a larger scale, this should be a University-wide effort. Yale needs to do much more to expose us to the international world especially in this age of rapid globalization. Taking a class in Middle Eastern relations or European history, for instance, could help. But not everyone may be interested in such classes and that’s okay. Panels with international alumni and cultural events that blend American students with internationals should be publicized better to attract students regardless of their affiliations. It is true that the pandemic has made such interactive conferences and events quite hard to organize, but American ignorance is not just today’s problem. There could even be a change in distributional requirements that encourages students to take a class in international-scale problems or world history and culture. Only then can the mission of educating world leaders ever hold its true promise, and this ignorance can turn into a true and well-informed appreciation of diversity.
SUDE YENILMEZ is a first year in Berkeley College. Her column runs every other Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.