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Being international in America

Judy Chen reflects on her life as an international university student for her first story in our series featuring graduate voices. Photo courtesy of Judy Chen.

By Judy Chen

In the first month of my very first semester at Tufts, a classmate and I worked on a presentation for Spanish class. The topic was education, and as we were outlining the specific direction and themes we wanted to explore, I asked if we want to choose a Spanish-speaking country to contextualize the presentation. For example, education in Mexico or education in Chile.

She considered it for a moment, and said, “I don’t think we have to. We are in America.”

I was taken aback. But she was right – we were in America.

Having spent all 13 years of my education at international through the Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), and Diploma Programme (DP), surrounded by peers and teachers from over 40 different countries, all of us strangers in our host country, I was surprised at how American Tufts was. My international school was very Americanized, yes, but it was an international school. Tufts is an American school with splashes of internationalism.

“I identify strongly with being ‘international’— but what does that mean?”

I later heard from other international students at Tufts – some of whom attended international schools, others local schools in their home countries – experience similar surprises at the Americanness of America. At the surface, there are the innocent questions — what language is spoken in your home country, or how you learned English. Then, there is the part that a majority of the education is imbued in an American mindset or an American assumption.

Because of my international school education and having grown up outside of Taiwan my entire life, it is easy to say: I am international, to identify with an international identity, to think of myself as an open-minded global citizen suddenly faced with the Americanness of America. Like many others, I consider myself a Third Culture Kid — calling different places home and having different versions of oneself in different cultures and languages. I identify strongly with being “international” — but what does that mean? How can one single person be international?

“the Americanness of America was, in reality, no more different than my frustration towards the Taiwaneseness of Taiwan”

Fast forward three years later, as I enter my last year in college. The initial reaction to the Americanness of America was an inevitable part of adjusting to life here, but also an excuse to be dismissive. The frustration towards the Americanness of America was, in reality, no more different than my frustration towards the Taiwaneseness of Taiwan I used to feel.

I remember how excited I was for my very first internship in Taiwan during my freshman summer, but also how cautious I felt. My biggest fear was not whether I would fit in or make friends with my colleague — it was that my ego would get into the way of and prevent me from learning. Fearful of the ego that identified with being “international” and hence having more to bring to the table.

Thankfully, that fearful ego never manifested, and that summer was one of the my favorite — I found humility in the mission of the organization and the dedication of my colleagues.

Being a global citizen, whatever that may mean, is more than finding other TCKs that share “international experiences,” people who have travelled extensively or speak multiple languages, or people who don’t have an easy answer to where home is. Being a global citizen requires a humility and fascination that learns from wherever one is, and makes a home wherever one lives.

“‘International’ is not in the stuff – boarding passes, international schools … nor is it about being uncommitted to any country”

My learning about the Americanness of America is an international experience – and a humbling one, just as is my growing a better relationship with Taiwan year after year. It is narrow-minded to merely dismiss the Americanness of America as being narrow-minded. “International” holds the space between — it is a relationship. I am making more homes and relationships wherever I go, rooting more care in different places and people.

“International” is not in the stuff — boarding passes, international schools, expat privileges – nor is it about being uncommitted to any country or set of history, and dismissing those who are.

Three years of living in the US later, it is the Americanness of America that fascinates me time and time again, an Americanness that is both local and global — a place I care enough to critique and call home.

Judy is a graduate of Suzhou Singapore International School, China and is in her final year of studies at Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts. You can find her on her website.

To learn about the IB alumni network, visit ibo.org/alumni and read about our 50th anniversary featured graduates to see where other students have taken their studies and careers.