Name: Megan Koh
Major: Computer science
Country of Origin: Malaysia
Please describe aspects of your culture that are different from here:
There are a lot of aspects in Malaysian/Chinese culture that a different from American culture. For example, while in America everyone is always early or on time, in Malaysia, everyone is nearly always late. It’s not that we mean to be rude in being late, it’s just that we’re not as time-oriented as Americans are. Things move at a slower pace there because we’re not always rushing to get to our destination on time, which can be a disadvantage, too—public transportation isn’t very reliable, because we never know when the next train or bus will arrive. Another different cultural aspect is the relationship between elders and younger people. It was a little bit of a shock for me when professors here at Calvin told us it was fine to address them by their first name. In Malaysia, no matter how close and comfortable you are with an older person, you never call them by their first name—it’s always Uncle John or Auntie Jane. Perhaps it's because of the generational gap between students and teachers, but typically students are encouraged to speak in class when the teacher is teaching. While in America asking questions in class means that someone is a good student, in Malaysia you never raise your hand unless you have an important question. That is still one cultural difference I struggle with—participating in class when I’ve been brought up to study and learn quietly.
What do you miss from home?
My family, definitely. We were always a tight-knit family, and being homeschooled during my high school years meant that I spent even more time with my parents and sisters. Coming to America to study is the farthest and longest I’ve ever been from them, and though I enjoyed my first year at college, homesickness quickly set in. I also miss the food from home. It was so easy to find foods from all around the world in Malaysia—Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Western, Thai, Vietnamese … I miss the variety of foods and the cheapness with which we could get them. Another thing I miss is the slang. English is my first language, but I speak English with a lot of Malaysian slang back home with friends and family—we call it “Manglish.” Although I’ve gotten used to speaking in an accent Americans can understand me in, I still miss being able to shout angrily or say something sarcastically in Manglish. It’s a very fun language! I also miss the freedom I had back home. I had a car, I knew where everything was, and I felt comfortable going out alone. Now I’m in a whole new country, and I barely leave campus because I don’t have a mode of transportation, and because I never know how to get to anything.
What’s hard about living so far away?
Family, for the reasons listed above. Living thousands of miles away means that it’s up to me to take care of myself now—I can’t rely on my parents to help me get something or to help me figure something out. I’m more detached from their lives, and so are they with mine. My youngest sister is twelve, and she’s just now growing into her teenage years, one of the most important periods in a person’s life—and I’m not going to be there for that. I went back during the summer last year and while it was wonderful being home again, it was also hard seeing how my youngest sister didn’t feel as comfortable around me as she did with my second sister.
What do you feel Calvin College and its student body do well with being inclusive and culturally respectful?
I like that Calvin had a separate orientation for international students instead of putting us in the main orientation at the beginning. International Passport gave me the time to deal with culture shock as well as meet new people who were going through the same things I was. IP was also super helpful because we could go on grocery shopping trips to buy stuff we would need throughout the school year. This showed that Calvin understood and acknowledged that international students needed more help and time settling in before the semester started.
Even after the school year started, Calvin continued being inclusive and culturally respectful with its campus events, such as International Learning Week, Rangeela and chapel services. All these events weren’t only for international students, but also for American students to learn about and participate in the cultures of their international friends.
What do you feel Calvin College and its student body do poorly about being inclusive and culturally respectful?
I’m fortunate in that I’ve never experienced much ignorance or racism from the student body. Apart from being asked the usual, “Where are you from?” and the surprised “You’re from Asia? But you speak English so well!” comment that inevitably comes after, I have never felt unequal treatment or personally threatened by the Calvin community. I know friends who feel otherwise, but I can’t give a proper answer here because I have never experienced much other than love and understanding and kindness from the people around me. (I have amazing friends!)
Have you ever felt left out or not included based on your culture?
Even among international students, it’s easy to feel left out. When I’m hanging out with a bunch of other Koreans, and they start speaking Korean, I feel left out. When I hang out with all-Americans, they make references to and joke about American pop culture I don’t know about because I wasn’t brought up in America. That being said, I don’t want the different groups of people I spend my time with to have to forcefully change themselves just so I can feel included. I understand how fun it is to be able to speak in my own language, or to crack inside jokes. What I ask is for people to be slightly more sensitive of who is in their group. Don’t speak in a different language if you’re with a person who doesn’t understand that language. Ask about my country, ask about my language, ask about my culture, but don’t ask all that for the sake of making conversation. Ask to learn. Ask to be aware. Ask so that we can be friends. I want to tell you more about myself, but you have to be willing to listen and to go deeper than the surface. I think this is the main reason why many times international students tend to stick to themselves. Americans ask these questions only for the sake of asking; they never seem interested to go any further.