International Observance

You know those internationally recognized days, sanctioned by the UN or some other highfalutin organization, like World Sleep Day, or International Tiger Day, or World Goth Day or, my favorite, International Talk Like a Pirate Day? Well, this whole blooming week is recognized as International Education Week, and Marlboro is celebrating with its usual panache, including international dinner menus, international movie nights and a captivating, cacophonous cultural quiz bowl. The week will wind up with a visit to the School for International Training, in Brattleboro, for their multicultural fashion show. But the highlight for me was yesterday, when a panel of Marlboro’s international students held forth about their respective cultures and the cultural challenges they can face on Planet Marlboro.

Like, did you have any idea how unusual it is, globally, to chat and chew at the same time? The esteemed panel included students from England, Korea, Slovakia, Peru, and Germany, and they unanimously agreed that talking while you eat was one of the biggest adjustments to Marlboro, where it is practically an organized religion. I mean, think about it, students meet with their professors over lunch, discuss Marcel Proust over muffins in the coffee house, and catch up with friends’ favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation over dinner. Freshman Jeanne Kim of Korea even described having to consciously develop a new technique for chewing on one side, so she could talk out of the other.

Lots of their reflections were a breath o’ fresh air to someone like me, who thinks of putting Sriracha hot chili sauce on my French fries as a cultural experience. Like freshman Fif Aganga of England suggested that the health center provide “tea and biscuits,” a.k.a. cookies, rather than jumping right to fancy medical treatments. Sophomore Daniel Zagal of Peru said he was used to people hugging more, leading to many awkward, head-bumping half-hugs. Sophomore Olivia Schaaf of Germany said it took time to adjust to the question, “How are you doing?,” being merely rhetorical. American students walking around barefoot in November were generally viewed with the kind of bemused amazement one saves for a cat stuck in a tree.

But perhaps the most surprising thing that came up, at least for those of us cultural greenhorns in the Sriracha-on-French-fries camp, was that American students were more guarded in their opinions. Really? Marlboro students, who boldly pontificate about their opinions on pets or smoking regulations or fire codes in Town Meeting, or who discuss the fine points of German idealism and post-structuralism and every other “–ism” into the wee hours? Sure enough, more than one international student said they had to be careful not to express opinions that would upset people, because Americans seem to take their viewpoints more personally somehow. The panel discussion was great food for thought for all of those attending, who now have a much richer appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of students from afar. True to form, we will talk while we chew that food too.

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