This past week I had the privilege of speaking with Daniel, a Duke student from Kenya, and Robert, a Duke student from Zimbabwe, about their first impressions upon arriving in the United States for freshman year. Many American students at Duke, myself included, can provide insight into the psyche of a first-time traveler to African countries, but today I hope to discuss the reverse: Daniel and Robert’s experiences as students at Duke and in the United States.
A go-to remark about the United States might be that there are a million over-generalized stereotypes floating around. And that statement certainly does hold weight with regard to African nations and their citizens. But beyond the factual ignorances and the “Wait, your English is really good!” comments, there are even more stark social differences between Kenya and the United States. For one, Americans are hyper-aware of how awkward they are. Daniel grew up used to circumstances in which sitting quietly with other people was not regarded as anything out of the ordinary. Here, we have a campus where people feel compelled to chatter and fidget with their hair and fall all over themselves in order to avoid sitting in silence next to another person on a C1.
Similarly, there were people who Robert met and had great conversations with during breakfast or lunch the first few weeks of freshman year, yet in following days they might pretend they had never seen each other before.
I know I personally approached O-week thinking that it would be the time for first impressions. Awkward was bad; friendly was key. But this outcome-oriented approach to new relationships and new people is distinctly different from the manners in which people interact in Kenya and Zimbabwe. This result-oriented attitude that prioritizes and often trivializes the present permeates all aspects of Duke life. It broadens the divergence between the learning experience in Zimbabwe and Kenya, and that in the United States.
At Duke, we have a student body that spends class time asking, “Will this be on the quiz?” Students are blunt and to the point, their intentions easy to discern. In Robert’s experience, professors were presenters. They would present for an hour or so, and students would process the material on their own later. At the University of Nairobi, you wouldn’t be able to ask a professor what was on the quiz; class time is not for questions, but for PowerPoint slides and lecturing. Office hours aren’t an integral part of the learning mechanism, and teachers and students retain a much more formal relationship. Altering the manner in which you learn requires a great deal of adjustment and practice.
The laundry list of differences between education and experiences in the United States and African countries goes on and on. Consider the Duke bus system: TransLoc has been fully adopted, increasing reliability and making the experience easier for the user. Despite having traveled all across Uganda by way of taxis and buses, I was never once able to predict when a taxi or bus would arrive. Duke hasn’t been an exclusively tough adjustment for Robert and Daniel, but has also come with good surprises, like the successful integration of technology to make life easier. Duke has meant opportunities to realize what they’re passionate about; it’s been meeting generous families who have hosted them on holidays and the development of rich, two-way relationships.
You can’t compare much about “first times” in African countries and America. While both might be directly preceded by a long, disorienting flight and a blur of new, unexpected realities, they are quite simply vastly different places. And within specific nations in Africa and, within the United States to a lesser extent, there are vastly different places. Still, there’s something to be said for this mutual disorientation.
I think Robert said it best when we spoke: Brand new college students have already had 17 or 18 full years of learning to behave and interact with their environment in a certain way. It’s 18 years of learning how to learn and 18 years of learning how to fill would-be awkward silences. But that practice becomes irrelevant as soon as they experience a different culture. International students at Duke and other students for whom Duke culture isn’t the norm are expected to function, to choose classes and manage their time and make friends with a completely different set of norms in place. And they’re expected to do so immediately. What logic motivates Duke students to think that an international student from Kenya hunts for food with his bare hands, but also pushes them to expect that the same student will need nothing more than a good night’s sleep to become oriented and accustomed to the “normalcy” of the United States?
I hate to spoil the façade for readers who have made it thus far, but this column doesn’t have anything close to a punch line. I can’t squeeze the two hours with Daniel and Robert into a sage one-liner, so I’ll just leave you with this: traveling and living abroad, whether it’s in Durham, N.C. or Masaka, Uganda, is bizarre. To some extent people are people, yet you can’t reduce diversity to common humanity. The best you can do is try to understand where people, yourself included, are coming from, and leave it at that.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. This is her final regular column of the semester. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.