In class last Thursday, we had the opportunity to chat with four foreign students who are currently studying here at OU. They were all women, and each was from a different place: Iraq, France, Slovakia, and China. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, they had some surprisingly similar thoughts about life in the United States. Across the board, it seems that the little things have really shaped their experience in America.

The amount that Americans smile is something that all of them mentioned, which I found funny. Being from the midwest, I’ve been taught to politely smile at everyone I make eye contact with, and that’s pretty typical of most domestic places I’ve visited. In big cities, this is less common, but it’s still prevalent. Emmanuel, the French woman who spoke with us, was particularly confused by this. In combination with how focused we are on making eye contact, she said she was constantly convinced she had something in her teeth or people were laughing at her. While we tend to be more outwardly friendly than the French, Americans are much more concerned with personal space. She said in her first interactions with Americans, she found they were constantly scooting farther away from her while she talked.

All of them noted how flexible the American education system is. The student from Slovakia had also studied in Spain, and in both countries there was basically no ability to choose what classes you’d like to take once you’ve selected a career path. Schools are also more purely academic, unlike American universities that host social events, sponsor hundreds of clubs, and constantly hand out free T shirts. This is perhaps one reason why schools in the United States are so much more expensive than those abroad, something they were all baffled by.

At one point, the student from China remarked that she was working on getting over being nervous about speaking English. She said she knew that people sometimes couldn’t understand her, and she felt bad. I was shocked by that because, while she had a moderately thick accent, her English was excellent.

Emmanuel mentioned at the end of our discussion how uncomfortable it was for her that people here are so overt about religion. She was shocked that the university allows religious groups to so vocally recruit people and promote their causes on a public school campus. In France, she explained, religion is a private business. People don’t talk about it, much less shout about it.

While the United States in general is certainly more vocal about religion than France, I don’t think the fervent, conservative population at OU is indicative of the whole nation’s attitude about religion. I’ve lived in America for my whole life, and I grew up in a fairly religious family, but I was surprised and even a little uncomfortable when I first encountered people shouting about God on the South Oval. I wish that I’d had an opportunity to explain that attitudes about religion (and many other things, for that matter) vary wildly from region to region in America.

Talking with these four students opened my eyes to a few things about studying abroad and traveling in general. First, things that are a given here aren’t necessarily typical or even acceptable in other places. When I’m outside the US, I’ll have to do my best to suppress  my urge to cheerfully grin at strangers. When in Rome, and all that.

After hearing about the gross disparity between the cost of higher education here compared to most other developed nations, I may also consider dropping out of OU and getting my degree abroad. Just kidding. While the price of college here doesn’t thrill me, I’ve had a wonderful experience in the American education system thus far. Hearing about the rigidity of foreign programs, I’m glad that I’m going to college here, given that my interests are so varied.

I also want to get over my fear of speaking French with native speakers. As our Chinese guest demonstrated, there’s an inherent insecurity that comes with trying to communicate in a language other than your first one. As good as her English was, she was still concerned that we were judging her abilities. As the native speaker in that situation, I was impressed by how good she was, and I can’t distinctly remember any errors she made. People generally aren’t judgmental of your language capabilities, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a language can understand how difficult it is to attain fluency. That’s something I need to bear in mind.

Lastly, while most countries aren’t quite as diverse as the United States, it’s never safe to extrapolate your isolated experience in one region to a whole country or population. In traveling, I’ll be sure to encounter a lot of polarized opinions. While it’s tempting to assume that a subset represents an entire country, that’s just not fair. Take every experience with a grain of salt.