La Verne Magazine
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
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
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?' "
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,"
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,"
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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