It was a beautiful Saturday morning in Bethlehem. Students were waking up early, dressing up in crazy outfits and preparing for the first football game of the season. Meanwhile, I was preparing for my first football game ever.
I didn’t know anything about football, so I got my friend Austin to sit beside me and explain what was happening. Whenever there was an exciting play, people would start cheering, and I had no idea what was going on. As Austin explained one of the plays to me, the guy sitting in front of us turned around and said, “You don’t know football? Are you even American?”
Just like that, he asked the question that has haunted me ever since I can remember. It’s such an innocent question, yet mine is a difficult answer. You see, I was born and raised in Puerto Rico by Puerto Rican parents and relatives. There is no part of me that is really American.
Well, except the fact that I’m an American citizen. Everyone in Puerto Rico is. There is no such thing as Puerto Rican citizenship or nationality even though that is what we say we are. We are all just ‘American’. It’s a confusing, ambiguous state of mind to be in.
It also put me in a unique situation once I got to Lehigh. I can relate well to Americans but also to international students. What I’ve experienced so far at Lehigh has either been with one group or the other, but there is really not a lot of mixing between the two.
This is due in large part because people are scared to step out of their own comfort zones. Of course, most of it is just human nature. We tend to stick with people who are similar to us. But how will we ever experience a multifaceted life if we keep our experiences boxed into one category?
Exploring the world outside of our comfort zone is the only way we can ever truly learn about people and places who are different. Students should have friends who are different from them, whether ethnically, racially, or in any of the other many categories that divide us. Having friends and knowing people who are different then give us the chance to be comfortable asking awkward questions about ethnicity, race, sexual preference and everything else.
The diversity issue here at Lehigh isn’t one of lack of representation; it’s a problem of inclusion and exclusion. Students, by not being entirely included in a specific group, feel as if they are completely excluded from the group. That’s not entirely true, though; people who keep an open mind and step out of their comfort zone are okay with being with people who might not share their same language.
It’s hard, I understand, to integrate yourself into a group of international students as an American. First, there might be a language barrier, and since they all also stick together, they might all be speaking in their shared language. Then there are also the cultural differences that you may not understand, but trying to understand and asking meaningful questions is half the battle.
Students need to know this: If you don’t understand, it’s perfectly okay to ask. Don’t be afraid to sound stupid; if they take it personally, just apologize and explain that you’re only trying to understand where they come from.
The point is you’ve got to try. All of us do. We cannot just sit around and wait for the inclusion to happen. We have to go out and give other people a chance.
“Are you even American?”
The question lingered in the air as I composed my thoughts. My answer came out sounding almost like a question: “No…?” The guy turned around and didn’t give it a second thought. I wish I had asked him why it mattered where I came from if I was only trying to understand his culture.