I could feel the heat coming out from under my arms and around my chest — it felt like compressed fire. I glanced up at the towering steps before me.
“3 minutes, I’ll make it.”
I step inside the Fine Arts Center. Immediately, I rip off my jacket. I somehow always managed to break a sweat on my way up here, despite the snowy winter conditions.
It’s that damn hill… why did I choose this school?
I attend a University where we, the students, are regarded as “Hilltoppers.” Like, that’s our mascot. Although it’s a highly ambiguous representation of our student body, it’s an accurate one.
Our entire campus literally sits on a giant f*cking hill.
The year is 2014
In my very first semester of college, I just arrived at my 9 o’clock MWF class. Of course, the building perches at the pinnacle of the hill. I hustle on into the classroom — Public Speaking 101.
Public speaking scared the piss outta me.
This was only my first week of college and I didn’t know a single soul. It’s safe to say, I didn’t have great expectations for the course. I thought it was going to be a sweaty, intimidating 16-week drag.
I looked around at everyone else… others seemed to share the same assumption.
Little did I know, this class would permanently change my perspective on foreign culture in just one week.
Hi, my name is…
As tradition, the first week of class required personal introductions.
You know, the typical:
Hi, my name is ____ and I am from ____ city. I am studying ____ major. Uh, one interesting fact about me? Uhm, this summer, I traveled to…
You get the idea.
But for this class? Not so easy. In the essence of public speaking, we were required to stand before the class and talk about ourselves for at least 2 minutes.
Student by student, we took turns introducing ourselves to the rest of the room.
It was interesting to watch everyone occupy a full two minutes. The generic “Hi, my name is” intro only lasts about 20 seconds, so the rest of the time is left to improvise.
Some people talked about their endearing pets. Others spoke of Greek Life and extracurriculars activities from their high-school days. Some people were nervous, some were funny, awkward, and loud. It was routine; exactly what you’d expect from a group of college freshman.
We work our way down to one last student… No it’s not me. I went early on and was so nervous I forgot everything I said.
It came down to one, frail guy — his name, Xi.
The stage belonged to him.
Speech, speech, speech
Xi was an international student from Beijing, the capital of China. He’d been in America for about a month.
He reluctantly got up from his seat and made his way to the front of the room. Arms clinched by his side, he stands before the class and avoids all eye-contact.
The first words to come out of his mouth would stay with me to this day.
With his head pinched down and a crooked smile, he said…
This is my first time speaking in front of a class of foreigners. (Chuckles) You all think I am the foreigner, but to me, you are what is foreign.
The tension in the room shattered. Half the class broke out in laughter. The other half, taken aback by what they were just referred to as.
The laughter? Appropriate.
His delivery and smirk indicated he knew the irony behind his words. He was clever, no doubt.
Our class spent the next 15 minutes in upbeat discussion around Xi; we became enthralled with him. Questions flew his way left and right and everyone seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say.
It was the finale to our class period.
We loved this guy.
Lessons to be learned
There are a couple things to take away from this experience during my first semester of college.
Xi taught me two lessons within an hour of knowing him:
1.) You are a foreigner.
Yes, you. And me. Given that I’ve never traveled outside the country, this realization never crossed my mind. I’m sure a lot of people have never considered themselves to be foreign either.
But you are, in someone’s eyes.
In fact, you are very much a foreigner. If you live in the United States, you make up roughly 5% of the world’s population. So, in theory, you are 95% foreign!
It’s all completely relative.
In more serious matters… I think it’s safe to say the term “foreigner” has a bad connotation attached to it. It’s thought of as other, strange, or unknown, which makes sense. That’s exactly what it means.
But sometimes, the word crosses a line and extends into an unfortunate racial realm — which is partially why I’m sharing this perspective.
As much as it hurts to say, even in 2018, racism is still alive.
Denouncing someone as a “foreigner” is a total double standard. You’re not seeing or judging that person from a healthy standpoint. Under reverse circumstances, you are just as weird and different to their culture.
There is no premise to discriminate against someone who is “foreign.” You might as well hate on someone with the same name as you.
I’ll leave it at that. I won’t rant.
Understanding we are all foreign can, hopefully, take some negative charge out of the word and widen our horizons.
It’s also a really cool concept to think about if you haven’t already.
2.) Different is interesting.
In perfect juxtaposition to the previous point, foreign can be attractive.
Xi stands as a perfect example.
Every person who presented before him did their best to meet the status quo. Or, they were just run-of-the-mill, everyday people you see and hear from all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not engaging!
That storyline doesn’t get people’s attention.
Xi went against the grain from the get-go. He didn’t fall in-line, pat himself on the back, and emit the uninvolving narrative of “Hey, I’m just like you guys! Accept me!”
No, right away he challenged us.
He made us believe the thoughts in our heads were wrong. “I’m not the foreigner, you are.” Notice how that had an absorbing effect on the room — it caused a genuine reaction.
In turn, we became interested in Xi. We wanted to know more about him. We felt comfortable to try him with questions.
In the end, we liked and respected him.
Foreign = Positive
I learned a powerful lesson on that day, back in fall of ‘14.
I haven’t seen or spoken to Xi since that semester, but man, he opened me up to perspectives I had yet to see.
A conundrum in itself, he exposed the irony of what it means to be “foreign.” He also manifested the positive energy behind being different; it’s a quality you can use to impact and build relationships with those around you.
It’s safe to say Xi left a lasting impression.
Foreign — let’s see this word for what it truly is.
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