When it was patiently explained to me that taxation was an essential part of life in the United States, I was taken aback.
For two consecutive months, federal withholding taxes had robbed me of 60 percent of the meager paycheck I’d earned working at this newspaper. When I went to talk to the woman who handled my tax forms and told her that a United States tax treaty with Pakistan granted me tax exemption for monthly earnings of up to $10,000, I was expecting at least a little sympathy. But I received none. “I don’t know how it’s done in your country,” she responded, “but here in America, we pay taxes.”
Unable to comprehend this alien concept of taxation she had mentioned, I was forced to telegraph home to confirm whether the government of Pakistan taxed its citizens. My father wrote back that for all its failings, it did indeed. To dispel any misconceptions, he added that goats and cotton vests were an acceptable form of payment.
I was confused. But after two years of being in the U.S., culture shock had become part of everyday life. No trumpeters had paraded upon my arrival in Ann Arbor, as they undoubtedly would have in Pakistan. I had just, as you say, “gotten off the boat.” No garlands had been strung around my neck when I’d moved into my residence hall. No gunshots were fired excitedly from rooftops when I uttered my first syllable of English — a language I had first learned from airline brochures. No kites adorned the sky when the snow subsided. And strange moving machines known as cars galloped in the afternoons instead of horses, awakening me prematurely from my siestas.
I’m joking, of course. I’m a public policy major and I know what taxes are and how they work. But the woman’s unintentionally offensive comments were emblematic of the ignorance that continues to simultaneously amuse and disturb international students on campus. As a freshman, I remember struggling to stifle my laughter while explaining to a bewildered classmate how it was possible that I’d grown up listening to the same music he had. Similarly, my friend from Cameroon had audaciously managed to convince someone he’d actually swam across the ocean to Ann Arbor from Yaoundé.
As a result of this ignorance, issues pertinent to international students are rarely publicly discussed at the University, if at all. Last year, when a state law that strengthened restrictions on temporary residents attempting to acquire state identification cards and driving licenses passed, it was largely ignored on campus. It also goes unnoticed that international students are often profiled arbitrarily during the immigration process. So, too, does the fact that the scheduling of University breaks disregards the arduousness of international travel, forcing international students to remain in Ann Arbor instead of returning home.
It seems that international students — 4 percent of the student body, according to University statistics — are an unrecognized part of the population. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t a single overarching organization that represents international students. The International Students’ Organization at Yale is a model that might be worthwhile replicating. With over 600 members, the group is one of the biggest on campus and provides a prominent forum for international students to air their grievances and raise awareness.
The International Center here at the University has formed a student council to address the lack of attention given to internationl issues, but the initiative is still in its preliminary stages of development. It will take time for the group to draw representatives from the 26 international student organizations on campus, but it still should be encouraged.
It’s important to avoid generalizing international students based on preconceived notions and alarming news bulletins. Don’t get me wrong: those CNN reports are true. Poverty and hunger do continue to beleaguer Third World countries. Earthquakes, floods and droughts destroy homes and lives. Those are broader world issues that need to be addressed, but they provide a skewed portrayal of international students who come to Ann Arbor. The University’s high standards for admission apply across the board, not just to local applicants. And that ensures international students are just as qualified as their local classmates.
By mislabeling and unconsciously excluding international students from discourse at the University, students only deprive themselves of the experiences and opinions that international students can provide. Additionally, we risk ignoring the problems specific to international students. Before we scramble into study abroad programs, it’s important to remember that these students are resources right here in Ann Arbor that provide us the multicultural experience many students so desperately seek.
And before you ask me how many dictionaries I had to consult in order to write this column, think again. Or, come to think of it, go ahead. It’ll give me a laugh. But it will be at your own expense, not mine.
Emad Ansari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org