During college, I had an easier time making friends with students from other countries than with my own US classmates. We seemed to share a confusion with the surrounding social world, although for presumably different reasons.
These are remembrances from that time in my life. Click here for Part 1 and the intro.
Conversation from fourth year, first semester.
Jen-ling, a friend from Malaysia, does not have a car, so I drive her to the grocery store once every week or two.
On this day, classes are finished. We’re at the store. Jen-ling is staring at a watermelon.
We move on to the apple section.
She chooses five apples.
J: Freezer items next.
We go to the freezer section.
J: Frozen sweet-peas. Frozen sweet-peas. Frozen sweet-peas.
We march down the row, peering into doors.
M: You walk faster than most people run. Here they are. Frozen green dots.
J: They are not dots.
There are two little tables beside the bakery counter. We sit at one of those and eat donuts, drink coffee.
M: Why is it that you will sit with me here, but not in the student center?
J: This smells like baked bread. It is pleasing. The student center smells like cheese. Cheese is horrible.
M: But that’s where I am most of the time.
J: The smell is too much. Sit out front.
M: The sun is too bright. We are incompatible.
J: When I moved here, food was the biggest adjustment. American food is unpalatable. It is either grease or cheese. It was shocking to me. Cheese is on everything. Do you like cheese?
M: On everything.
J: Goodness. Horrible.
She stares at the bakery counter.
J: I did not buy enough donuts. Foooood.
We get more. She bites a filled donut. A dollop of filling falls from the end of it, onto the table.
M: You have to bite those on alternating sides.
J: Don’t tell me how to eat my donut.
M: It’s all about filling hydraulics.
She ignores me. I close my eyes and listen to the dry, jazz-like elevator music that the store is playing. I hear shuffling feet as people walk past…mumbled conversation. Everything is quiet, hushed, sedate.
M: I forgot to ask: how was the test today?
M: How troubling?
J: Very troubling.
M: How very?
J: Extremely very.
M: You’re one of Those People.
J: What “People”?
M: Perfectionist. You stress out about every test; say “I did terrible”. Then, when you get it back, it’s an A.
J: Today was different. There will be a bad result.
M: That’s the other phrase Those People say! “This time was different”. Then it’s an A. It’s irritating to non-perfectionists.
J: I was not able to sleep well last night. I think it impacted my test performance.
M: In your entire life, have you ever made less than perfect grades?
J: God no.
She considers the possibility. Shudders.
M: I wonder what would happen if you got a B on this test.
J: I would die instantly.
It’s quiet. I work on the coffee. Jen-ling squints at a woman standing nearby.
J: What is that woman holding?
M: Umm…I think that’s a block of marinaded cheese. They sell this Italian type of cheese here; like, a marinaded mozzarella or something.
The woman holds up different cheeses, sorts through the options. Jen-ling watches with an expression of horror.
Donuts get finished. We scoot crumbs from the table, throw napkins away, roam around the store.
J: The breakfast aisle…in three…two…one…
We turn into it, begin the march.
J: I will not eat oatmeal. I will not eat granola. I will not eat flakes with raisins. I will eat chocolate puffs.
A cereal box with a cartoon character on the front goes into the shopping cart.
M: Do you hear that? My shoes?
M: They are squeaking. It’s some kind of Morse code. Jen-ling. Listen. My shoes are communicating with us.
She stares straight ahead.
M: You never laugh at my jokes.
J: I do not understand them.
We roam around. Later on she glances over her shopping list, says “Complete”.
At the front of the store: no one else is checking out, so several cashiers are available. They’re just standing there, looking at us, waiting. Jen-ling moves forward, but then swivels around and heads the opposite way.
J: The cashiers are all staring. It is too strange right now. We should wait until they are distracted with other customers.
We hide in the freezer aisle. Every so often, Jen-ling peeks around the corner, says, “Not yet…not yet”. We stand around, wait. We hear a bar-code scanner go “boop”. She peeks.
J: Okay. Others are checking out. This is the time.
We head that way.
M: The important thing is to act natural when approaching a cashier. No sudden movements. And for god’s sake, do not make eye contact.
J: Hello. You are well?
Cashier: Yes, thank you.
We put everything onto the little conveyor belt and wait. I stare at the floor. Jen-ling stares at the floor.
The frozen dots go “boop”.
Conversation from fifth year, first semester.
I was supposed to give Jen-ling a ride to the grocery store, but we’re sitting on a bench, next to an old building on campus. She is staring at the ground. Her face is red…her fists are clenched. We haven’t spoken yet. I never know what to say when she’s like this.
M: Jen-ling. I don’t know…
She interrupts with a string of curse words. Then she pauses, breathes in, out.
J: It is inevitable. I will fail at my chosen profession.
Also, she catastrophizes when upset.
J: The business group I am in, we just completed a luncheon. We invited community leaders to attend. The goal was to meet people. The social component is important. “Establish a connection”.
She tenses up.
J: “Establish a connection. Build a rapport.” This was intended to be practice.
She picks up a rock, throws it at a trash can.
J: And I know the material from class so well. I keep telling myself this. “I know as much as any student here.” All of this learning. All of this studying…and what is the basis of rapport-building? Inane conversation. Inane bull***!
M: What happened at the luncheon?
J: Nothing happened. Nothing. People stood in groups and they talked about…I don’t even know what. I could not contribute. I wanted to interact but the topics were: television, sports, television, sports. I stood there and smiled like a silly person.
She curses some more. She is visibly red, angry.
M: When people are small-talking, they are usually on auto-pilot. They are saying things even they don’t care about. People probably thought you were smart for not engaging in the conversation.
She rubs her eyes.
J: I wish that were true. This was a business luncheon. Small-talk is everything. It is important. Ugh, the professors were confusing. I only know them from class. It was very difficult to simply talk with them. What do you say to professors outside of class?
M: I don’t know.
J: Do you talk with your professors?
M: It rarely happens. I’m supposed to. I see other students mixing it up. It’s not my strong suit.
She blinks, then shakes her head rapidly.
J: I am not always able to piece together your phrasing.
M: I don’t talk with them. I go into class, I go out. No real interactions.
J: After all these years?
She kicks my shoe.
M: Okay! I’m thinking. One time, two years ago, I was in a professor’s office asking a question about class. And I saw this vintage Doctor Who magazine on this desk. So I asked, “How is that?” And he told me about it, said it was interesting. And…that’s about it. I can’t think of anything else.
J: Two years ago?
J: That is a terrible anecdote. Let’s just go to the store. I’m upset now, but I will be okay.
M: The television thing is a problem. People fixate on television here. It’s the basis of a lot of small-talk.
J: It is too much. I approached a group of professors who were having a conversation. They were talking about a particular television show. One of them asked, “Have you had a chance to see it yet?” And I wanted to say, “Well…no…because I choose to study for your class instead.” And it was irritating to me that he used the word “yet”, as if it is inevitable that I will watch this show. It is just assumed: you will be watching television; and you will be watching the same shows.
She gets angry again.
J: All of us! Together! At the same time! Watching television! Forever!
She picks up a rock.
M: Wait for a bit. Maybe a professor will walk by. You can throw it at them.
J: It would be justified.
Classes play out; by Spring, they’re over.
I walk around campus in the hours before the graduation ceremony. I sit on benches and people-watch. Swarms of moms and dads and aunts and uncles dart through campus, snapping pictures. Students pose in front of the bell tower. Acquaintances and their families come around and small talk. Everyone asks what my plans are. I prevaricate, respond with scripted evasions.
The truth is that I canceled my grad school applications. I’m beginning to cut ties with friends, family. My plans are all crumbling into static.
I go and sit on my favorite bench by the library. I drink coffee and throw acorns at squirrels. Finally, I walk to the big gymnasium, put on the robe and cap and stand in line.
We wait in a massive hallway, shoulder to shoulder, many hundreds of students. People laughing, smoking cigars, drinking from flasks.
Jen-ling walks up.
(I wasn’t able to find her after the ceremony. This is our last conversation.)
She waves her hand in front of her face and says, “Good god these people stink. Who smokes at a graduation?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
She sighs. “They will mispronounce my last name during the ceremony.”
“Not probably. They will say it very wrong.”
“You should talk to them beforehand, tell them how to pronounce it.”
“It would not work,” she says. “I have tried many times. When you tell an American how to pronounce a name, they do the same thing every time. They mispronounce it anyway…laugh…and say, ‘Close enough!’ I stopped trying years ago.”
We stand there, uncomfortable in the crowd. She says, “I am in another line. I will go and see you afterward.” She leaves.
The ceremony starts. I receive my diploma before she does and return to my seat. Later, I see Jen-ling on the edge of the stage. She looks blank, stiff. They mispronounce her last name. She walks across the stage robotically, takes her diploma and exits the stage.
After the ceremony, it’s a lot of crowding and noise and I can’t find her to say goodbye. I stand on chairs, look around for a bit, but it’s too chaotic. Cameras keep flashing, it hurts my eyes, so eventually I leave the building.
I sit in my truck for an hour and watch the crowd drift away. The campus empties out. I don’t really have anywhere to be. I wait, keep an eye out for Jen-ling, but never see her again.