Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dancing to My Own Music


Before studying in the United States, the images I had of America and its people were strictly based on what the media presented to the world. I read a lot of novels, watched a lot of movies and of course—reality tv. Let’s not forget that another important medium is international news.

So you could probably imagine what I initially thought about America. Being a Muslim Malaysian girl who not only practices her faith but also wears the headscarf, I was very nervous thinking about whether or not I could ever feel safe or even happy in America. Thanks to the news, after the September 11 attacks, I was worried that people would equate Muslims as terrorists.

But to my own amazement, when I arrived in Madison the experiences I am having is very different-- far different from what I had anticipated.

The first time I walked down State Street, I was expecting people to look at me as if I have a second nose or a third eye, but to my surprise things turned out to be normal. Actually, normal isn’t the right word to describe about Madison. I noticed that the people here are extremely nice. They are warm, friendly and very accepting—something which the international news did not emphasize.

I’m not trying to say that my experience in Madison has been smooth sailing—that’s totally far from the truth. Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, I was exposed to life that is rich with diversity. I may be a practicing Muslim but that does not mean I do not hang out with people of different faiths. But I have to admit; it took me some time to get used to America.

Culture shock comes in many shapes and sizes. Most people think that an example of culture shock is feeling depressed and unmotivated because they miss home too much. I thought it was nearly impossible for me to experience culture shock. Little did I know, feeling overwhelmed due to the workload is one of the many forms of culture shock. Coming from a background where homework was to figure out mathematical and scientific equations, I felt as though I had a big rock pressed against my chest when I had to complete three papers in one week. In Malaysia, we did not do much writing so it explains the reason I had a difficult time adjusting. I remember I used to cry a lot not because I missed home but because I could not deal with the stress that I was experiencing.

Putting aside academics, like everyone else, I wanted to fit into American culture. I never lived in the residence halls because I felt it would be easier to live among Malaysians. Since I have been separated from family members, it’s better to live with people who understand where I’m coming from, people who most probably will end up being my backbone while I’m here. Unfortunately I was not able to assimilate into the culture as easily as I thought. Currently I have made good American friends and I am very confident that the friendship will be long lasting. However, I did notice that it is certain people who took the time to appreciate diversity. Sometimes I tried to make conversations with the people next to me, but from their facial expression you knew they weren’t really interested. It took me awhile to know that if an international student wanted to make friends, they had to go through the right channels. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not blaming Americans but the issue was probably also coming from me. I see myself as a pretty outgoing person but I will never be accustomed to certain things like parties. I enjoy concerts, music, food and good company but going to a place where the room is crowded with people just makes me a little dizzy.

Regardless of how I longed to find a connection, I never felt pressured to enjoy myself the way others did. I somehow knew that there is a place for everyone in Madison, it was just a matter of time.

As time passed I had befriended many people from the most unexpected places. I’ve grown close to my friends that I’ve met through classes. At times I think that we may be totally different people but our shared interests create a strong bond. Ironically, the struggle that my friends and I in Arabic class experience together consist of fun and laughter. We’re so diverse in ethnicity, age and ideas that the diversity creates a very interesting environment to be in.

I’ve also enjoyed the experience I gained from working for Visitors and Information Programs. My employers and colleagues have taught me priceless knowledge that I hope to bring back home. I have never met a bunch of people who try very hard to keep everyone happy. If I could choose a working environment for my future, I would want something similar to this.

My heart feels heavy having to leave the United States in July because I know that it will be long before I see my friends again. Even though I have not experienced things the way others did, I still have no regrets so far. People tend to think that when you go to the US, you might lose your cultural background. Interestingly, I think I’ve become wiser because I’ve learned so much from the people around me and I hope these fulfilling experiences will continue—no matter where I may be.

I truly believe that I’ve explored everything United States has to offer. During my three-year-stay here, I have seen many places from New York to California and even to Tennessee. My college life in the US has been more than living away from home; it has been a life journey that I can’t really describe. Some people say that you need to live life as if you’re a traveler and I believe that I’m doing just that.