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The list of sins was starting to feel almost liturgical. I had been explaining lynching, segregation, voting rights violations, the constant threat of violence and the inherent weirdness of having two of everything — water fountains, restrooms, swimming pools, seating areas. Discussing life in the Jim Crow South can be emotionally draining in almost any university classroom; however, college students who have been brought up in the American education system at least have a baseline understanding of segregation and the myth of “separate but equal” from which to begin that conversation.

The students looking back at me with furrowed brows and confused frowns are not those students. “But sir,” asks a young man from Azerbaijan, “why did they care so much about the color of the skin?”

And there it was: one of American society’s most vexing topics, histories and issues — race —distilled by an outside voice to the purity of a question as simple as “why is the sky blue?” This is both the joy and challenge of teaching international undergraduates a semester-long course called “American Cultures.” Starting from ground zero to explain American culture to a college-level newcomer (who perhaps has been here less than a few weeks) often means returning to the most basic questions about who we are and why.

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International students studying in the United States recently surpassed the 1-million mark. From across the world, they come for our renowned education system, especially in fields like engineering and business. George Mason University, where I teach, has long had a reputation for diversity and a student body that draws from cultures around the globe. While some multilingual and international students dive headfirst into a traditional freshman course load, others take advantage of INTO George Mason University’s Undergraduate Pathway Program — a typically yearlong set of courses that turns the students’ first year into a preparatory bridge, building upon both their English skills and academic goals.

Americans could do far worse than to listen to and engage with these 1 million—plua observers who not only love our culture enough to be here, but want to be part of making it better for everyone.  

Pathway students receive a healthy dose of welcomes, introductions and orientation sessions that mirror those on campuses around the country; however, INTO Mason decided from the beginning that one of those foundational experiences should be something far more substantial—a semester dedicated to learning about American cultures (emphasis on the plural). Whether students remain in the United States to live and work after graduation, or return to their home countries and cultures, it is incumbent on us to provide the tools with which they can understand, experience and explore their new home while they are here (and continue to engage with us in a global context when they are not). Yet far from a one-way conversation, “American Cultures” opens the door to seeing our history, values and norms from the outside.

Take individualism, for example. Most Americans probably see individualism as a fairly typical and straightforward American value, given our emphasis on the self-made man and love of the up-from-your-bootstraps narrative. Our freedom to say what we please and to argue whatever is on our mind is already well known around the world before international students ever touch down on our campuses. But my students routinely question American individualism. In discussing Gabby Douglas’ unintentional national anthem faux pas and Colin Kaepernick’s deliberate protest around the same, students note the collectivist instinct inherent in the debate about the “right” way to act when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played.  The multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful” from Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl ad likewise sparks questions — if America is so individualistic, shouldn’t we celebrate people singing in individual languages? So why were people angry at the commercial? Good questions …

The course is designed to get students used to asking such questions about American culture as they explore it, both as newcomers and ongoing participants for at least the next four years (and perhaps much longer). Throughout the semester they are presented with topics that require opinions to be formed rather than a simple recitation of facts: Should sports teams have Native-American-based mascots; should immigrants assimilate; does advertising hurt women’s self-image? It is not always easy to encourage such conversations in the classroom; many come from cultures where interjecting a thought or query is seen as disrespectful. They readily admit their awe at American students’ ability to toss out questions, answers and opinions.

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Yet by semester’s end, they, too, begin engaging in the debate about the dynamics of American culture, and offering their own opinions about both its strengths and weaknesses—itself an insightful exercise for me. Prior to overseeing the course, I was expecting such discussions to arise around topics like guns and gun violence, or America’s drinking age. And while my students do routinely mention these, they also see other parts of American culture in need of redress—parts that perhaps I have grown inured to seeing myself. They lament the prevalence of fast and processed food and the super-sized culture they see around them, reminding me afresh of the estimated 5.2 million college students who are obese. While they admire American directness in the classroom, they often express concern that Americans treat marginalized workers like waiters and cashiers poorly. It is a viewpoint furthered by Americans’ dedication to tipping — a custom that ranks among our strangest (along with ice water) no matter how many times or ways I explain it. Their suggestion of this pattern means I spot it much more readily now as I look around restaurants and checkout aisles.

But the topics of race and racial discrimination weigh most heavily on their minds, along with ethnic and religious discrimination. “Why did they care so much about the color of the skin?”  Why do we still? These are tough enough questions for those who have grown up studying slavery and the civil rights movement since grade school; imagine wrestling with them within a few weeks of first setting foot on American soil. Each semester I put myself through that exact “thought exercise” and imagine trying to newly deal with both the history and the modern incarnations of race relations. I would love to say the process has provided a new clarity, understanding, and perhaps even illuminated heretofore unconsidered solutions. Instead, I am reminded each time how densely complex and intertwined these issues are, and realize that it will take far longer than my one semester with them for our students to truly begin to unravel it all. Instead, what I receive each semester is hope.

These students end the semester with both the tools and the perspective to ask the tough “why” questions about American culture. More importantly, they want to alter the status quo. “My impression of American society is one of real freedom and equality, so discrimination has to change,” wrote one of my Chinese students recently, echoing the thoughts of students from Vietnam, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Korea and Qatar, just to name a few. “I realize that Americans love to stereotype, and it has come to the point that people think it is just joke. Well, I believe it isn’t and it has to stop,” wrote a Saudi student during the same assignment, mirroring the sentiment of his Chinese classmate even though they are separated by their original languages, religion, political systems and hometowns thousands of miles apart. But they share something much more important — they are the embodiment of multilingual, multiethnic, multifaceted global citizens. In the fight to improve ourselves, our society and our nation, Americans could do far worse than to listen to and engage with these 1 million-plus observers who not only love our culture enough to be here, but want to be part of making it better for everyone.

Daniel Gifford is a term assistant professor at George Mason University and coordinates the American Cultures course at INTO Mason, the university’s pathway program for international students.

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