My affection for international students runs deep and wide. I have had the joy and privilege of walking with many different people, from many different countries and cultures during the last couple decades of my life. Sometimes these relationships were the direct result of a job, of my employment, but even when that was the case there was much pleasure in growing in friendship with people who were so very clearly different from myself.
Getting to know someone from another country can be equally steeped in gladness and hardship. It is humbling, and hard work, to see past one another’s natural, formative barriers of place and of culture. It takes long patience and an undying willingness to be present. Sometimes— too often— it requires knowledge or skills that we simply don’t have, words and cultural savvy that we are quite sadly lacking.
There were days when, in my official capacity as an international student advisor, I was exhausted by trying to understand, or wanting to help more than I could. Each day brought a new ache: sometimes an earache, or stomachache, an anxiety attack, or worse. Sometimes, oftentimes, it was the vast, nearly impenetrable ache of loneliness in a person saturated in family, friends, church and community, thousands of miles away. I wrung my hands over financial ache as people learned the value of a dollar and how to make it stretch. I stamped my own foot over the ache of words that could not be understood, or properly translated, or extended in the desired way.
Long before my days of international student advising, and up until now, I have become angry at systems not built to include, eyes filled with blindness, and hearts unable to extend even small compassions. Close-mindedness, prejudice and ignorance become the daily bullies to be faced when you love someone from another country, a different place.
And yet, there is much joy, and seemingly endless generosity in these colorful, intercultural relationships. Loneliness gets pasted together, and somewhat healed, by friendships that form into concrete, gentle, and rich bonds that will last an eternal lifetime. My eyes were opened time and again and made brighter. My heart was opened, and made warmer, as I witnessed and experienced the gift of loving one’s place, the goodness of one’s family, the value of meaningful work, and then finding these things in a new place with new people when your natural, normal life is far, far away.
In all of this we need humor; a total willingness to laugh at oneself, and to laugh with one another about something that may or may not even make total sense. Sometimes you’ll laugh until your sides ache. Sometimes you’ll laugh until you cry, quietly and with new understanding.
There are endless reasons for coming to America, many which are far more complex than wanting to get a degree. Many reasons are far more painful, and much more permanent. There are many of us who love the world, and love to travel. COVID has made this lack into an ache inside of many of us. But, even a love for travel, and the world, and the ache we feel from its absence is different from the ache that prompts a person to come study in America, or immigrate to America. One may blossom beautifully by traveling the world and returning home again newly formed by a bigger perspective, but the flourishing, blossoming, and growth that happens when an individual is uprooted from one’s place and starts over in a new place is wildly different.
Perhaps lack of travel and interaction with the great, wide world during times of COVID has made you feel stunted. If this is true, or if your heart is like mine, both broken and enriched by those who join us here in America from far away places, then I would like to offer you a gift. I am not a major TV-watcher, but I’ve found the perfect show, and it’s one you might like.
If you have any way to access Apple TV+, please try out Little America. Admittedly, it was my (Indian) husband who found the show and decided that we would watch it, but he knows me well and we have similar taste. We’ve watched six episodes, each one different from the last, revealing a unique immigration experience from a very personal, vulnerable perspective. It will crack you open, and fill you up.
I have been nothing but grateful for the international students — and non-students — who have filtered through my life these many years. They have shared stories, and jokes, and tastes from their kitchen. They have shared their fear, their frustrations, their shame, and always, always their gladness for their experience in America. They have helped me love the world better, and they have helped me love America better. I experience this same thing in the show, Little America. It has been a true gift in a season when the world has felt distant. I hope, if you have opportunity to watch Little America, that your world will be made larger and be drawn close