Originally featured in WKU Talisman issue no. 7
Story written by Bethel Aklilu
Abdullah Alshahri, a junior in the engineering program, has been in the United States since 2013. “I used to watch a lot of American movies, like action movies, so when I came here I thought it would be more crazy and exciting,” he said. “It was hard to make friends at first because of the language. I only knew a little English so it was harder to talk to people at first, especially strangers. I found friends though. In the International Center there are people that understand my language and my home so it feels good.”
On March 10, 2013, Abdullah Alshahri landed in Atlanta, Georgia all the way from his home country of Oman. His fifteen hour flight was brutal with boredom and nervousness as he imagined what his new life in America would be like. From the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport, a representative from the University of Kentucky, the school Alshahri and seven of his Omani peers would be attending, came to take the students to their hotel for the night. As they drove to their hotel, Alshahri didn’t find America to be how he thought.
Alshahri watches them go to a factory and observe Omani sweets be made, a favorite of his. He is able to see the vibrant green valleys, stunning waterfalls, and high mountains of his hometown. If he were there he would be hiking and having cookouts with his friends and brothers, a much different scene than what his time in Bowling Green looks like. When he is not studying hard, Alshahri likes to grab coffee with friends at Starbucks or watch action movies. He finds that watching movies helps him improve his English.
Since his arrival, Alshahri has seen much of the United States. He and his friends like to travel the country whenever they get the chance. They’ve traveled to Washington, Florida, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois and even New York. Though he got to see the big buildings he once anticipated, Alshahri was not impressed.
Alshahri has been in America for 6 years, but he doesn’t feel like he’s changed much. He has stuck to his roots, never feeling pressure to assimilate.
There is one way Alshahri has changed since his arrival and it has to do with one of the things that first surprised him when he first moved to America, the lines.
He goes on to explain that in Oman, they have to be more assertive and cut each other to get things done quicker.
Now staying in line has become a habit for Alshahri, and he even finds himself doing it when he goes back to Oman.
“It was like shock when I see from the window. There is nothing. There is no high building and what we see in the T.V. It was a shock when I looked out the window, and there was nothing. There was no big buildings like we saw on the T.V.”
Xuan (Kate) Ngo, a senior from Vietnam, came to Bowling Green her senior year of high school to attend Anchored Christian School with a host family. “I think the hardest thing to adjust to was my homesickness when I first got here, but finally I got to join clubs and interact with the people surrounding me,” Ngo said. “My roommate is also Vietnamese, so we get to cook Vietnamese food together and share our culture.”
Kate Ngo’s bright yellow shirt and blunt bangs frame her welcoming smile as she reflects on her past four years living in America. Although she has happily settled into her American lifestyle now, it wasn’t always easy.
“I had to learn a lot of things, a lot of new things that people here do that in Vietnam we don’t do.” She went on to explain. “Like you know hug or shake hands or hug. I’ve had people just come up to me and hug me, and it’s like that's weird. I don't even hug my family. Like my Mom and Dad, we don't hug. It's really weird.”
Cultural differences like these and a language barrier is what originally made adjusting to life in Bowling Green difficult for Ngo. Luckily, she found comfort in the kindness of people.
“I think people here, Americans, are very friendly. I felt really welcomed when I first came here.” Ngo continued. “My teachers, friends even like WKU people, you can talk to anybody on the street even if you don't know them you can talk to them. They're really nice”
As Ngo reflects on what originally made her feel welcomed into American culture, she goes on to mention a side of assimilation in America that not many consider.
“We have a diverse culture, so like I don’t feel like ‘Oh, this is like a totally different culture. I have to learn something new.’ It’s very diverse, so everybody is learning.”
Ngo occasionally will feel homesick for her native country, but since America is now her home, she finds herself becoming homesick for it as well.
“When I am there in Vietnam, I feel like I miss America. I miss being here with my friends.” She paused. “But then if I'm away from family, I miss my family.” Ngo laughed. “I wish everybody would be in the same place.”
Though it seemed odd to her at first, Ngo finds herself adopting certain customs and bringing them to her life in Vietnam.
“When I first came back home after a year here, I came home and then I saw my mom. And then I was so glad to see her, so I ran to her and hugged her. And she was just like- and she didn't hug me back. She was like ‘What are you doing?’” She laughed remembering the moment.
Ngo notes that even though she has conformed to American life to a degree, she hasn’t forgotten her native culture.
“I’m kind of like emerging those two cultures together and then take things that really, thats better. And then also, forget some things that aren’t good.”
Gabriela Guadalupe Vargas Berroa came to WKU from Peru in January 2018 to study interior design and architecture. “It’s a totally different culture,” Vargas Berroa said. “In Peru, if you’re just saying ‘Hi,’ you’ll give them a hug or a kiss on the cheek. If you give someone a handshake you’re being rude. But here, you just smile and say ‘Hi.’ It was hard at first to get used to the social habits here. The only girl from Peru in my class lived on my floor last year, so I got to live with her and we became close friends. It was nice to be able to speak my language and eat the same food and to have someone who feels like home.”
Gabby Vargas sits with her hands clasped together in the lobby of Maurhin’s Honors College. Around her neck is a silver necklace with a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe which happens to be her mother's name. Only coming to America a little over a year and a half ago, Vargas is still adjusting. The beautiful scenery and serenity of WKU’s campus a far different picture than Arequipa, Peru, the dangerous-at-night urban tourist attracted city she originally grew up in.
Her first few months were spent becoming accommodated to cultural differences. In one instance, Vargas kissed a friend on the cheek as a polite way of greeting them, but her intentions were mistaken as romantic.
"I was like ‘Oops! No, that's not what I want it to mean.’ But yeah, so I cannot have that close contact of people in here, and they respect more of the space of each other.”
The duality of being in a foreign country and pursuing higher education created a level of difficulty Varga was not expecting. She felt behind since her educational background came from another country and English was not her native language.
“For example, for my architectural class I didn't even know which was the name of a basic material you use in any house. In Spanish it’s tornillo and in here it's..nail. I didn’t know that the name was nail and that's really basic, so I had to start like from zero to zero for me”
Varga often finds herself missing her native country and her family. She longs for words of encouragement from her mother and father.
She reminisced,.“There is a phrase in Spanish that is ‘Retroceder nunca, rendirse jamás’ which means 'You cannot go back, you will never say I will give up.’ Something like that. That's kind of the motivation that my mother always told me. You have already fought a lot for it. There's no point in giving up. So yeah, that's what pushes you to continue and continue and at the end, you'll find that if you focus on your dreams and all your goals and you're going to continue fighting for that.”
While combating the hardships, Vargas motivates herself by remembering her purpose here and confiding in other international students.
“I'm here for a bigger reason and that's like I recuperate the motivation, and I can continue doing my homework as best as I can. Or even if that does not function then I look for someone like a close friend to whom I can talk and say “Hey, this is happening to me.” And since there are a lot of international students that are feeling quite the same sometimes, they know that this is something hard that we have to overcome.”
“There is a phrase in Spanish that is ‘Retroceder nunca, rendirse jamás’ which means 'You cannot go back, you will never say I will give up.’ Something like that. That's kind of the motivation that my mother always told me. You have already fought a lot for it. There's no point in giving up."