University of Memphis students form relationships with internationals

"It was Yuan’s birthday and I wanted to make her M&M pancakes because they had never had pancakes before.” Yates said. “ I went to her house and surprised them and Yuan pulled out the chopsticks and said, ‘OK, let’s eat’ because they don’t own a fork.” Ashley Yates holds a picture on her phone of her friends Yuan Zhou and her husband Hanwen Yu.

Without a car, Memphis is only what is within walking distance of the University. And if you grew up eating traditional rice dishes with chopsticks, things like pancakes and eating with forks are foreign concepts.

The busses seem dangerous and there is no subway or convenient taxi service. The food is different and the southern accents make the language difficult to understand.

This is often the case for the over 1,000 foreign students that come to the University of Memphis each year. They are learning the language and reading books, but making friends and learning about the culture first hand is the hard part.

“We need friends other than just the other international students if we want to really learn,” said Seung Yeon, International student from South Korea.

The number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by eight percent in the past academic year. There were 886,052 students from around the world studying in the U.S. according to the Institute for International Education.

International students roam college campuses all over the U.S., but few have American friends making it very difficult to adjust to or learn about a new culture.

Curryann and Seung

Curryann Potter, a sophomore nursing student at U of M, said she recently began taking an interest in making friends with international students. Three weeks ago Potter said she saw two women, who looked like international students, studying in the McWherter Library.

She ceased the moment.

She went to hand the girls their papers from the printer and started a conversation. From that, they started a friendship.

“We have such great access to the nations here and I wanted to be apart of it, even though I can’t really afford to travel to other countries right now,” Potter said.

Her new friends Seung Yeon and Young In, from South Korea are both students at the University of Memphis studying in the Intensive English for Internationals (IEI) program at the University of Memphis.

They have taught Potter about many aspects of Korean culture and their lives at home.

Yeon says her family believes that the ancestors come and dine with them and they pray to them for blessings.

“I thought it was so interesting hearing about her [Yeon’s] family and ancestors because they are nothing like our customs here in America,” Potter said.

Potter and other University of Memphis students have taken Yeon and In to places like Central Barbeque, Graceland and the Pyramid.

“I love having American friends because getting around and really experiencing Memphis with no car is very hard,” In said.

It isn’t just students that are friends with the international students. Ashley Yates met Yuan Zhou and her husband Hanwen Yu two years ago, and although she has already graduated she still sees them every week.

Zhou and her husband Yu watched every season of Friends five times before they moved to Memphis from China. They knew that adjusting to the culture would be hard and didn’t want to worry about learning a language as well.

They were surprised they said, that not all Americans lived in tall apartment buildings with all their best friends like Rachel, Monica, Chandler and Joey.

Even with all the practice from TV shows and classes, English will always be difficult Yu said.

“Letter, Lighter, letter, Lighter,” Yu said trying to make the two English words sound different although they came out the same.

He says English is so different from Chinese. His Chinese characters draw a picture and illustrate an idea, while English letters show pronunciation.

It’s through friendships with Americans that they have really started to adjust Zhou said. They didn’t know where to meet new friends besides their classes.

Then they met recent U of M grad, Ashley Yates two years ago through an event at the Baptist Collegiate Ministry called Free Food Friday, which attracts many international students regardless of their religion.

“I asked Yuan to go to Jerry’s with me, and after that we just started hanging out every week,” said Yates a recent graduate of the University of Memphis. “She ordered a strawberry cheesecake snow cone and asked me where the cake was.”

Yates spent time with international students during her undergrad through the IEI conversation partner program and the Baptist Collegiate Ministry.

“I think people who hang out with internationals are more intentional in all aspects of their life, and they usually have a love and acceptance for other cultures too,” Yates said.

So why don’t all Americans make international friends?

“Of course they aren’t as easy to talk to because of cultural differences,” Yates said. “Mostly I think people are just in their own little world and comfortable with their own friends instead of reaching out,”

According to Potter, becoming friends with internationals is not a volunteer project, but rather a give-and-take relationship. It is an opportunity for both the American and the International to learn from each other she says.

“Internationals have a lot to offer about their cultures, and are eager to know about ours, “Potter said. “It is just as important for us to learn about their cultures as it is for them to learn about ours.”

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About the Author

Hannah Johnson

Hannah Johnson has traveled to many Spanish speaking countries to study and volunteer. Because of her passion for diversity and different cultures she is covering the “International Reflections” section of the Memphis Mirror. You can usually find her practicing Spanish, reading any book she can get her hands on, writing blogs, and spending time with friends from around the world.

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