OPINION: ‘Just let us have this one thing’: Fly international flags at commencement

many different countries flags in a room
Pomona College will not fly international flags at its commencement this May, according to ASPC. (Courtesy: Joel Kramer via Flickr)

At an ASPC meeting April 4, it was revealed in a conversation that international flags were not going to be flown at this year’s Pomona College commencement ceremony. I say revealed because it was not a planned agenda item or main discussion point. It was a side note, an afterthought, unimportant. It is not an understatement when I say that this is indicative of the way international student issues are treated here: as side notes, as afterthoughts, never as priorities.

International students comprise 13% of the Pomona population, according to the 2019 Common Data Set. That means next month, about 50 international students will be graduating. Leaving aside the problematic nature of having to justify our existence and calls for representation, international students contribute and play leading roles in campus academics, arts, extra-curricular activities and activism work.

We (read: I) have led work regarding some of the most harrowing issues on campus: sexual assault, intimate partner violence and mental health maltreatment.

Underlying all the work we’ve done and all the interactions we’ve had here is the deep, deep disconnect that we’ve felt from not being American. There is a vocabulary that minority students are given here as a means to find community and articulate our experiences, and in a lot of ways I’m grateful for it — but none of that encapsulates the baseline understanding of American culture that is required to adopt that vocabulary and apply it here.

To clarify: I am not an American survivor, I am not an American woman of color, or immigrant, or ethnic minority, I am not an American from a low-income family, I am not an American with disability and mental illness.

I am a Filipina from Hong Kong — 7,000 miles away. This informed how I processed my sexually abusive relationship on campus and my hospitalization at Aurora Charter Oak. There are contexts to my experience that people here have claimed to understand because of our shared identities — and they don’t.

I understand there are cultural differences between Claremont, California, and other communities around the U.S.; I don’t mean to invalidate that. What I will say, though, is that all the conversations about diversity and cultural competency at this school are solely within the scope of the U.S. — the rest of the world is an afterthought.

Regardless of your positionality, if you have a place in this country you can identify as your home, you benefit from this college’s U.S.-centrism in a way international students don’t.   

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The support that international students give each other isn’t in understanding or relating to each others’ contexts; it’s in the acknowledgement that we can’t. It’s in making space for the disconnect that comes from having grown up in different countries and continents, with different languages and cultures.

“There is a vocabulary that minority students are given here as a means to find community and articulate our experiences, and in a lot of ways I’m grateful for it — but none of that encapsulates the baseline understanding of American culture that is required to adopt that vocabulary and apply it here.” — Samantha Borje PO ’19

It’s in recognizing that the work we do to assimilate and understand the culture of American social spaces, classrooms, advocacy work and administration is never going to be reciprocated for us, because this is a college in the U.S. Despite its claims to be global or international, Pomona is inherently an American institution.

And as international students, we don’t expect that to change; we know what we signed up for.

Ultimately, the support we give each other is about looking at that mantra that gets tossed around a lot in this country — “we have more similarities than differences” — and being okay with the fact that maybe we don’t. Maybe we’re not the same. Maybe we don’t belong in the same spaces.

It’s choosing to share space with, care about and love each other anyway. This, in Hong Kong, in Marikina, in London, and in every community that I’ve been a part of outside of this country, has been the single most healing and liberating kind of support that anyone’s ever offered me.

Our flags flying at commencement aren’t just symbols of where we come from. They’re symbols of the sheer distance between here and our homes, here and our immediate families, physically, culturally and politically.

My friends will tell you that I joke about being the token international student or about my experiences abroad all the time, and if you’ve done any community work with me you’ll realize that I always put my other identities, the ones that are relevant to Americans, first.

This is one of the very few times international students have publicly come together to organize, because flags waving for a few hours on one day of the year is all the representation and support we’ve come to expect from this college.

Please just let us have this one thing.

Samantha Borje PO ’19 is a molecular biology major from Hong Kong. A good way of standing in solidarity with her would probably be to buy her Filipinx and Chinese snacks (BBQ nagaraya and prawn crackers, thanks).

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