Posted by: Catherine Weston | October 14, 2013

First Impressions

I was in conversation last week with a Japanese student who was newly arrived in our city. ‘What things have you noticed that are different?’ I asked. She quickly responded, ‘the bathrooms!’ – and her friend vigorously nodded in agreement. They found it strange that the toilet should be in the same room as the shower, with only a curtain between them. The second point of difference that struck them was alcohol.  All the British students consume a lot of it and make a lot of noise late at night around the student village.

What first impressions have you gained from visiting other places?  We have stories to tell of charming carpet sellers and suicidal taxi drivers in Turkey, of the cleanliness and punctuality of Swiss trains, of trying to cross the road in UAE and the contrast between scenic beauty and evident poverty on the journey from Cape Town airport.

After the initial strangeness of a new physical environment we start to take it for granted.  We learn to look for power sockets or light switches in the right places, to navigate the supermarket and public transport and cope with different plumbing arrangements, even if they are mystifying. Setting aside for the moment the hurdle of communicating in another language and dealing with the weather, often the bigger challenge is adjusting to different attitudes and social expectations. This process can take a long time.

If someone invites me out, what time should I arrive? Why did they find that funny? Why is everyone so rude about the Americans in general but really friendly with individuals? Who should I talk to if I’m sick and can’t make my assignment deadline? Why does no one talk to me on the bus? Why was my course mate happy to chat to that member of the group but ignore my question? Why do British people say ‘sorry’ when I bump into them? Why are they always in a hurry? Why do they say bad things about their country, aren’t they proud of it? I wish I were home; they do things much better there!

For an international student, it makes a huge difference to have a local friend who can listen to questions like these without judging or becoming defensive, recognising that the questions and frustrations are a normal part of the process of transition into another culture.

We’re trying to be that kind of friend in our corner of Oxford – what about you?

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