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The Ease in Adapting to American Culture
Aman Majmudar
University of Chicago 2024

In July 2018, I had an opportunity to experience American culture for the first time—in China. I had signed up for a Youth Leadership Program where I was the only student not from America. This experience—being a foreigner—is what many students fear when thinking of coming to the US for college. But what I learned in China made me excited to study in America. The exposure to American culture started at the airport in Beijing. While waiting for the program’s instructors and other participants to come, I saw this student sitting opposite me who had interesting hair. It was blonde, shiny, the top slicked back, and the sides shaved. He didn’t seem like someone I would normally approach. When all the group had arrived, we headed for the bus to the hotel. The student with the slicked hair introduced himself to me. His name was Jim; he was from Virginia in the US. As we talked more, what struck me was his openness. He found it easy to speak to me, as though we had known each other for long. When I noticed this, I felt fortunate: I was in China, but I could learn more about American culture, too. On the bus ride, I quickly got to know Jim. As he showed me photos on his phone, I found out that he was the Valedictorian of his class, he loved fishing, and he was open to trying new things. But I realized that he was doing most of the sharing. I realized that I, too, had to be open. So, I showed him my photos—I showed him my life in Singapore. Singapore became a favored topic of conversation during our long bus rides to the sights of Beijing. The group was interested to hear my stories of the Singaporean food, people, and lifestyle. Telling stories about where I’m from helped me fit in. The group—especially those who had never left America—made me feel like they valued my perspective. But, often, they spoke about “The Lakers,” “The Warriors,” and “The Bulls” and “The Steelers,” “The Broncos,” and “The Jaguars.” I could not join these conversations. And sometimes, they spoke about politics in America. I could join that conversation, but not long enough to make it an intelligent one. So, I told myself, when I go to America to study, I will be ready, well-read and well-informed on politics and basketball and baseball. When I did converse with the group, I noticed their colloquialisms. They are funny with language. “Have a good one” is a phrase that isn’t a complete thought. Yet it is a favorite: It’s another way of saying good luck. Here’s another: “I got you.” This phrase would never work on paper. But it would fit in any conversation because it means, “I understand.” Once I became more familiar, I tried to sprinkle these phrases into my speech—I think they were flattered I was imitating them. Americans also have an intrepid sense of humor. They will take risks to entertain themselves and their friends. When at the night market, we found a stall selling cooked scorpions. I was not brave enough to try one. Jim didn’t have one either, but not because he was scared, but because the stall owner wouldn’t give him what he preferred: a live scorpion. He wanted to try one for fun and to tell us how it tasted. Taking small, if not harmless, risks with friends is common among American students. Towards the end of our trip, I felt like I had adapted well to the group. I felt like I was no longer a “foreigner” to them. I became especially close to Jim, Andrew, and Brandon, and we are still friends today. You need not fear coming to America to study: Americans make it simple for us to adapt to their culture. They will welcome us if we reciprocate their openness. By becoming more open and sharing my perspective, I overcame the feeling of being a “foreigner.” And I noticed that Americans create their own culture within their group. You become a part of it when you share, observe, and learn.