I’m a reason why the University can proudly declare they have students coming from more than 140 countries or more. I’m one of the many, many people which helps make this place have a global, diverse community — simply because I come from another place. I’m the token friend who you tell stories about to your other friends from high school. The friend from the exotic place. The friend whose nationality is more important than her personality, it occasionally seems.
I remember when I was the only one standing in an auditorium of 500 or more international students, as they called out “Bangladesh” during the International Orientation Program. There was a typical scatter of applause; some people, however, looked mildly curious, as if trying to wonder where my country was located. I blindly searched across the auditorium, desperately hoping for another face like mine. There wasn’t.
We were told during orientation that from now on, we were going to be representing our countries at Michigan. A foreboding chill ran down my spine as I realized the impact of the sentence. I’d stepped into America for the first time in my life two days before. I’d only ever gone abroad twice, and both times were for religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia nearly six years ago. I was undecided about my major. I’d hardly ever eaten with a fork. What I knew about American culture was everything I’d learned by watching television and movies.
How could I, when I barely knew what to do with my life and constantly suffered from existential crisis, represent a country that consisted of a variety of people? How could they expect me to be excited about such a big burden? It was almost as if living up to a good image and become a minority model was the only way I could make my mark here.
When I moved into my apartment last year, I didn’t know what to expect. On one hand, I’d heard stories from other Bangladeshi expatriates, who talked about how the transition was immensely difficult due to the racist treatment they had received. I’d also heard that it wasn’t true in most occasions, and people had a tendency to embellish stories to gain sympathy.
I dragged my luggage into the room after the family who had sheltered me for a night since coming to Ann Arbor dropped me off, a piteous look upon their faces.
That night, my roommate commented that I must be very rich and privileged to be able to afford to come here from far away. The same thing was said by many other students in my classes, when they realized I was an international student.
I frowned, not because what they said wasn’t true, but because of the condescending tone they would sometimes use to say it. As if I was a filthy rich kid from a third-world country, wasting her parents’ money by getting a foreign degree. As if I had so much money stashed up somewhere that I was drowning in it.
I glanced at the clothes I wore, and wondered about the jeans and T-shirts I’d bought from Bangladesh. I’d never buy anything from here, I decided, because when you converted dollars to the currency used in my country, it accumulated to an exorbitant sum of money. I had no desire for brand clothes or makeup; I couldn’t even afford them. I had brought my brother’s used luggage into my apartment, and piled all my clothes there when I was packing.
It didn’t seem as if my attire played any part in giving people such an impression. Was it simply because I came from a place that I’d gotten hurdled by these assumptions?
Another setback came when my roommates and I divided the chores of cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash. I found my roommate making a comment along the lines that I had probably not done them and I’d better do them now, as Bangladeshi households, along with many countries in Asia, hired domestic workers. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t the case in all families, and there were many friends and relatives I knew who’d pay for the servants’ education, and even their marriages, as my father and uncles do. I wanted to tell her that such a system existed because majority of the people didn’t have access to good jobs, education, health care and working at houses gave them something to get by. I wanted to engage with her, and ask her why she was holding me responsible for a system that had been circulating for centuries. I couldn’t hold her accountable for mistakes politicians made here; why was she doing the same thing to me?
But I couldn’t. I felt a strong sense of dual identity that prevented me from saying another word. On one hand, I was a Michigan student, who had received the most amazing resources and opportunities my friends at home would die to have for. I have my parents’ financial support for undergraduate studies, and the only way I could repay them back was doing exceptionally well in academics and extracurricular activities and get into grad school.
At orientation, I was told, almost compellingly, to give a good image of my country. And yet, it gets harder to put on a smile and never getting the chance to explain that I’m experiencing a double standard.
My status as a Michigan student is firmly tied to the fact that I am international. I’m not eligible for any type of aid or scholarships. I’m a citizen of a country, which is famous for corruption, political instability and religious extremism. I cannot go home for the next three years, because tickets are too expensive. All my free time involves juggling two jobs, and looking into prospective summer jobs and internships so that I can save up and go to graduate school. I’m constantly watching my parents’ resources deplete into nothingness as they make sure I get the best education. In my country, I never walked alone at night. In my country, I’ve been molested and dealt with misogyny that’s a thousand times worse than here. I’ve been told there’s no value in education, and I’ve watched society try to heave its sexist views onto me time after time.
I’m both privileged and unprivileged in many aspects, but I’m more than a statistic to proudly display. I’m more than a stereotype formed about students coming from obscure places. I’m more than the product of the society I grew up in, and I hope this is acknowledged someday.