Our cultures are a big part of who we are, but sometimes they create obstacles.
For about 12,000 international students and scholars on UCLA’s campus, college is about more than academic success, boosting a resume or going to parties. It also means adapting to a different culture.
I lived in Turkey for 19 years and moving to Los Angeles has been one of the most exciting and freeing experiences of my life. At the same time though, the culture shock is real and I often feel judged because of some ordinary habits that are now considered abnormal, such as smoking. In my hometown, I was an ordinary student with big dreams. Here, I’m made to feel more like an addict because of the stigma in America surrounding cigarette smoking.
College means new friendships, a new home and, in some ways, a new you. This experience has given me a lot think about: How do I navigate this new space as a first-year, as an international student and as someone who is used to smoking and drinking regularly? These activities are common practice in my home country, yet uncommon for many people in my age group living in America.
Since 1984, the legal drinking age in the U.S. has been 21 – the second-highest legal drinking age in the world. For many international students, this creates a dilemma because they are used to being able to drink legally in their home countries.
Dina Saban, a first-year neuroscience student from Turkey, expressed that the higher drinking age has been more of a burden for her than anything else since starting college. For Saban, drinking is mostly about the social experience.
“I was drinking before I came here and I don’t feel the urge to (drink a lot) every time I see or smell alcohol,” Saban said.
Different cultures are not always on the same page when it comes to activities like drinking and smoking. Smoking is a big part of daily life for many cultures around the world, which can cause a dilemma for students who have come to the U.S. and are used to smoking every day.
UCLA, for example, has been a smoke-free campus since 2013. According to UCLA Health, this policy aims to serve the health interests of the UCLA community as a whole.
Mary Rezk-Hanna, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Nursing, is a supporter of the smoke- and tobacco-free campus policy and she believes it can make permanent changes in how society perceives smoking culture.
“It prevents second-hand smoking which could be as detrimental as first-hand smoking,” Rezk-Hanna said. “In addition to that, it reduces the social acceptability of smoking.”
While banning smoking on campus does have several benefits, it also has an impact on students who are accustomed to smoking.
Saban, also a regular smoker, said that forcing people to go off campus to smoke may make them feel alienated and can affect their adaptation processes.
As an active smoker for four years, I sometimes feel like an outcast when I have to leave campus to smoke or face people who look at me with disgusted eyes before I even light my cigarette. It has not been pleasant when I hear people say, “How dare you?” as I smoke outside campus, abiding by the laws.
From this perspective, this policy separates smokers from the physical UCLA community, which can make assimilation more difficult. It can sometimes be hard to take our culture with us to this new college life without any hiccups and to form new friendships with people from different backgrounds.
A study published by the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication stated that 18% of international students pointed to cultural differences as the reason for difficulty making friends. Similarly, 32% of participants thought superficiality in American culture affects the depth of relationships and communication, also contributing to difficulty in forming friendships.
Many international students like me come here with the concern of making an appropriate transition from the cultures they were born in. Most of the time, we have a hard time coping with the expectations of American culture.
Just as there is no perfect solution for the culture clash we experience, there might be ways to catalyze a smoother transition, such as openness and balance.
I don’t expect people to encourage my behaviors such as smoking, but it’s important to acknowledge that people come from different backgrounds, and international students have enough trouble adapting as it is without judgment from strangers.
Stephanie Sandoval, a first-year theater student from Honduras, thinks one problem in forming new relationships in college comes from the lack of openness of other people. She believes that people in America view intimacy as extra effort, and problems regarding social communication are stronger in the U.S. than in Honduras.
“Back in my country, people are not always comfortable talking about their feelings but, it is (also) not such a rare thing,” Sandoval said. “Here, it is like you are asking them for too much if you are asking them how they are feeling.”
In the end, success in social life comes from finding the true balance. Just as we can find a way to integrate our cultures and habits in this culture properly, others can create a safe space for us to explain ourselves and try to understand our roots.
“If there is no balance, you are just doing nothing other than losing yourself,” Sandoval said.
College is a turbulent time with amazing experiences, but also new responsibilities and challenges. We are all on a journey together, trying to figure out who we are while also trying to make a good impression as we think ahead to our professional lives post-college.
For students from many different backgrounds, cultural integration is like another tough course we have to take alongside our academic concerns and extracurricular workload.
In the end, this problem dissolves with showing appreciation. But it takes time and saying hello to bridge the gap between one culture and another.