I JUST FINISHED WRITING A UNIVERSITY entrance essay with this prompt: “How has living abroad prepared you for US university life?”
Here’s what I wanted to say…
1. I’ve never driven a car in my life (except for a tractor in China), but I can maneuver through international airports.
I live in Hiroshima, Japan, where public transportation is much simpler than driving a car. To me, sorting out cancelled flights or undergoing a 10-hour layover in a bustling international airport sounds less terrifying than navigating American street signs during a driving test.
2. I don’t remember what a check looks like, but I’m a proficient bargainer.
The last time I saw a check was when I practiced signing a fake one in my fourth-grade American math workbook. But thanks to night markets in Thailand and day bazaars in Hong Kong, I’ve learned the tricks of finagling the honest price out of street vendors — despite my disadvantageous Western appearance.
3. I’m not accustomed to American mannerisms, but I have eagle eyes when it comes to cultural observation and assimilation.
Except for a few miscellaneous slip-ups (like the time my twin sister and I were visiting US colleges and she accidentally bowed to the cafeteria lady) we’ve learned to be cultural chameleons. Don’t know what a cultural chameleon is? Becoming one goes something like this: Enter new culture. Observe. Copy. Observe more. Listen. Copy better. Go shopping for a new wardrobe. Slowly blend in.
4. I don’t have a credit card, but I can convert eight different types of currency in my head.
During a recent visit to the US, I used my aunt’s credit card to buy the two of us cups of coffee. Nonchalantly, the cashier handed me a random iPad lying on the counter. “Sign please,” she said. I froze. Why is she handing me her iPad? My palms started sweating. I gulped loudly, completely baffled. Despite my adeptness at currency conversions, I had apparently missed the US transition between paper and electronic money transactions.
5. I’m oblivious about American pop culture, but I can pinpoint every country on a world map.
For me, any geographical map is easier to navigate than an American TV schedule. American sitcoms? Comedies? Celebrities? No idea. Although we did just get Netflix…through a VPN.
6. I’m always lost when it comes to American humor, but after eight zillion cultural mishaps, I’ve learned to just laugh at myself.
I’m still working on understanding American humor. But after getting lost in five countries, getting stranded on top of a mountain after catching the wrong bus, eating MSG for three months before realizing it wasn’t salt, and constantly confusing the not-so-interchangeable Japanese adjectives “scary” (kowai) and “cute” (kawai), I can certainly laugh at myself!
7. I don’t particularly enjoy American pizza, but I delight in exotic dishes prepared with ingredients I hadn’t realized were edible.
No matter how many times I try a slice of pizza, I can’t seem to develop any enthusiasm for this greasy, cheese-laden, American specialty… a US university student favorite.
But as I’ve traveled, I’ve eaten numerous meals without knowing exactly what it is, what it’s called, or where it came from. Give me raw fish in Japan, blood sausages in Korea, or scorpions in China but leave the pizza in the box please!
8. I’m utterly confused with American slang, but I can differentiate between flight announcements spoken in Japanese, Thai, Mandarin and Korean.
On international flights during safety announcements, my first goal was to identify Japanese. Then Chinese. Then Thai. Then Korean. During 14-hour flights, it certainly helps pass time.
American slang, however, is another story. While visiting the US, a friend greeted me with a friendly, American-style, “What’s up?” I stared at him like he was crazy. The sky?
9. I’m completely behind on current American fashion trends, but I can pack and unpack all of my clothes at record speed.
I’m always a few years behind the US clothing trend. (Hence, the “go shopping” step in becoming a cultural chameleon.) But after countless travels coupled with a busy schedule, I’ve learned to pack for a two-week trip in less than 10 minutes. Minus my toothbrush. I think I have about eight in my bathroom cabinet from hurried purchases after realizing I’d forgotten one.
10. I’m bewildered at the “Where are you from?” bubble on American registration forms, but I can fill out any airport immigration card without much thought.
I have many homes scattered across the globe. Choosing one physical location is challenging. Pieces of my heart lie in each of these places. My personality is a mixture of each of these cultures I call “home.” Obviously, I’m not totally prepared to enter university in the US. But as I look back on a childhood rich with cultural experiences, I’m realizing these embarrassing gaps of knowledge about my passport country are worth it.