La Verne Magazine
Spring 1999

"Defining Family"

Finding Family in a Foreign Land

by Angelica Martinez
photography by Miki Chishaki

Stepping into American culture, international students hike the pavement hills of San Francisco during a spring break outing. Venturing into this foreign city, Arnaud Llamas, Hitomi Masuda, Virgine Roca, Gwenaells Persiaux and Damien Peosric, Persiaux's friend from France, take many such trips during their short stay in the United States.

Vulnerable and confused, international students in the United States try to make sense of a world that is completely new to them. Situated thousands of miles from what they may call "home," University of La Verne foreign students venture to an area away from family, friends and into the unknown.

In an effort to blend in with the locals and their "nice weather," these students bring with them cultures from Asia, Europe and South America. Few take notice of the strength they have acquired in their journeys. But, unlike families or friends who have never experienced anything like studying abroad, these students develop a unique bond based on their differences. "We understand each other. We are in the same situation," says Arnaud Llamas, exchange student from Strasbourg, France. All 15 international students have worked their way from confusion to normality. These emotions molded them into a bond. They are like a family; bound to each other by similar circumstances that local students do not understand.

During winter and spring break when the campus is deserted, a small group wanders in a huddle. They congregate to discuss plans, for that night -- a night that most students are spending at home with their family. The students talk, taking into consideration what everyone has to say. For them, it does not matter what is done; they are together, and that is what matters.

Hitomi Masuda, an exchange student from Sapporo, Japan, says she has faithful friends whom she can trust. For others, however, even having this sense of family from friends is still difficult. "You still feel alone," agrees Llamas. There are exceptions though. Masuda says, "I made a few American friends. They know how difficult it is to get through language barriers." These comforting American residents offered smiling faces and patience.

However, smiling faces are not the problem. Every so often, visions of homemade food, steaming with warmth, make these Japanese students realize McDonald's cannot take the place of what is available at home. "I miss the food," Masuda laughs. "Everything here is so oily. I am used to food being more bland. It is different from what I expected," she says. "In Japan, we have oily fast food, but I like homemade food more." In addition, her American life lacks more than just family and friends. It lacks her favorite pet, who makes her feel extra special."

Without a pet for comforting, Masuda has had a harder time dealing with difficulties like progressing in English communication. "I don't think my English has improved," she says. Ironically, learning English was easier for Masuda in her home country, even without daily contact with English speakers. "In Japan, we have more cassettes and stuff for English learners, but not in La Verne."

For some, learning the language may be easier if students seemed more sincere when spoken to. "Most Americans are friendly on the surface. I think they don't expect an answer when they ask, 'How are you?' " says Masuda.

Kaori Nasu, also comes from Sapporo, Japan. For her, having foreign exchange students as friends, is "good." "We share the same feelings. We understand each other."As a Japanese student, the language barrier can be harder than it is for others. Pronunciation, aside from cultural differences, makes it difficult to be assertive. "There are Japanese students here so I can ask something in Japanese," she says.

"If they have trouble with English, they are going to have trouble interacting with other students. It really depends on their level. But, I think they have a sense of family and connectedness with each other," says Phil Hofer, director of the International Student Center.

Family life is also difficult for Nasu. "It was hard to separate from them because I've lived with them my whole life." However, these obstacles have their own reward. "I have friends here. I have to make decisions for myself, and I have no one to rely on to make them for me," she says.

Although having friends with different cultural backgrounds has helped her to adapt to America, she still faces obstacles with her language barrier. Looking down and slowly smiling, Nasu says, "At first I got angry. But now -- now I realize. Sometimes it is hard to express myself because of my English and the culture difference. Sometimes I am here on the weekend, and I'm alone. I'm depressed, but I have them [other Japanese students], and they help me," she says.

A constant wave pattern of emotions tends to overwhelm the foreign students with happiness at times and sadness at others. Some seek normality through social groups on campus. Llamas, for example, serves as the International Student Organization president. Part of his duties includes bringing the group together. "We have activities. We go to lunches together, and we take trips-San Diego, Las Vegas, Disneyland," he says.

Even though most of these activities are supported by the University, it is the group's responsibility to pay, organize and execute them. "We have good group dynamics, and we have fun together," says Llamas.

Traveling is just one of the perks of being an international student. However, a drawback to being a foreigner means having to deal with cultural differences. Living in a foreign country and enduring these differences brings the group closer together. Llamas says, "We know each other very well. We help each other. Most of us are close. But it is hard here."

"Japanese students have a very hard time to be open and give opinion. In their culture they never give it," says Marcy Garcia, adviser to the International Student Organization.

As adviser, Garcia is close to the students and guides them through their first steps in the United States. She is also able to identify which students are adapting. Because of the cultural differences, Japanese students tend to be more submissive. "However, they progress fine with time," she says. "In the beginning, you see them with each other a lot. But, in time, they get involved. I tease them because they want to become very American. But in the end, many of them have a hard time going home. It is reverse culture shock," she says.

A common misconception Japanese students have about California is largely influenced by shows like "90210" and "Baywatch." "Yeah, yeah, most Japanese think all that people in California do is surf, and the sun is always shining," Masuda says. "But, I also knew that Los Angeles was a large melting pot. I knew there is racial diversity. I like it, but the weather is not as warm as I expected. I don't have much warm clothes. At night it is cold."

No stranger to cold weather, Clare Graham, exchange student from England, says her experience has, even with some cold weather, been "brilliant." "We feel comfortable with each other; we've progressed together," she says.

Transportation is an additional headache. "Public transportation here is terrible. I have to wait until a friend with a car offers to take me someplace, or I have to ask someone. It's not good," says Llamas. Transportation problems fall short, though, when weighed with past difficulties. According to Hofer, there are 15-20 nations represented. Their interaction level and comfort level is affected by their communication skills. Other more sentimental problems have struck international students as well. "There have been love triangles in the past. Some problems get resolved. "In general, the group gets along real well. Some may not be big buddies, but they at least get along with each other," Garcia says. "They are like American students," says Hofer. "But, they are [from] different backgrounds. These students do have cultural differences, but a lot also has to do with personality."

At the end of five months, or a year, international students have found much meaning. They have realized more than just "nice weather and a shining sun."Instead, they have seen and exchanged feelings on a day-to-day basis on what it is like to be an outsider -- a foreigner -- and a member of a family unique to La Verne.

Sightseeing the San Francisco Bay and sampling the American way of life, Masuda, Persiaux, Llamas and Roca have formed perceptions about the United States. During the semester, the students rely on one another for support while adapting to this foreign land.

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