No, I don't Bathe with Elephants! International Stereotypes and Their Implications

Being an international student, I have received numerous questions and comments regarding my hometown, some perceptibly playful and others genuinely inquisitive.

Since I hail from Singapore, friends have always joked about the gum law and how I was deprived of bubble gum until I came to the States, while strangers have inquired why I don’t seem to have a Singaporean or foreign accent. My sister even claimed that an acquaintance at a summer camp a few years ago asked if she bathed with elephants.

Jokes aside, there are often assumptions that some make about being from abroad. Here are the top three:

One: People tend to dwell on is the mystery of how some international students can speak English proficiently, without any remnants of exaggerated, stereotypical foreign accents.

Franco Liu PO ’20, from China, spoke to how his own family members made assumptions about this issue.

“One time I was talking to my sibling ..after we got our final grades back, and she was like, ‘Oh I can only imagine how hard it must be for you to write essays in English,'” he said.

Liu has also encountered the flipside, where professors have sometimes overestimated skills without taking into account international differences.

In one of Liu's courses, "the professor would just assume that I had previous experiences writing extensively in English, but that’s not true for me,” he said.

Liu attended Chinese public schools, where he was taught solely in Chinese, making it difficult for him to gain exposure in English.

“The teacher barely knew any English. We didn’t write anything in English. So yeah, [I think] the professors [sometimes] have false expectations of international students,” Liu said.

Jolo Labio PO ’20, from the Philippines, also commented on people's reactions to his language skills. 

“People are always surprised that I speak English well,” Labio said, adding that once they realize he’s proficient, they automatically assume he’s Filipino-American.

Two: a lot of assumptions that are made align with perceptions of the particular culture and the stereotyped illustrations associated with it that have infiltrated our minds.

Amanda Tung PO ’20, from Hong Kong, explained how she often encounters people inquiring about her choice of cuisine back home, even though Hong Kong is an international, cosmopolitan city with more than one cuisine.

Tung recalled, “Sometimes people ask what I have for dinner back home. They ask if we only eat Asian cuisines such as rice,” assuming she seldom eats pasta or pizza. 

“I think there are definitely assumptions made [about international students] because of my culture,” Akari Ishida PO ’20, from Japan, said, “But I think it’s just their way of being friendly and finding connections.”

Ishida doesn’t take offense to some of the assumptions that are made because she understands that when she mentions she’s from Japan, they “immediately say something that they can resonate with, and that just tends to be anime and sushi.”

THREE: accents are usually a chief topic of inquisition. There is the notion that being from abroad, we must have acquired an accent that is distinctly dissimilar to the American accent.

A lot of the time, this may be true; growing up locally in many countries, or even being exposed to molded versions of English, many of us do have foreign accents, which are noticeably different from what is common here.

However, being international often also implies that we’ve moved around a lot; we’ve grown up among international communities, lived as expats, which in itself often encompasses a degree of Western influence. It is also possible we attended an American school abroad or that our international school received western influence be it in terms of the curriculum or even the student and cultural atmosphere.

Ishida explained how she’s experienced people asking her where her accent comes from.

“They don’t expect me to have this kind of accent," she said, alluding to her British-Japanese-international amalgamation of an accent, “so when I say I’m from Japan, they will be like ‘why do you have that accent?’ and then I have to explain my whole life story."

Making assumptions isn’t necessarily a bad thing and doesn’t always imply a sense of ignorance; in many cases, it is simply one’s desire to know more about a culture or country that they haven’t been able to experience themselves. Assumptions, essentially, can be the starting point for learning more about parts of the world we don't understand.

Editor's Note: Jolo Labio PO '20 is an Opinions columnist for TSL.