5 Big Things My International Roommate Has Taught Me
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5 Big Things My International Roommate Has Taught Me

My Japanese roommate has taught me about her culture while helping me see ours from a new perspective.

5 Big Things My International Roommate Has Taught Me
Summer Trip to Japan

On my college's roommate pairing survey, there was a little button labeled "I would like to room with an international student." I clicked it, excited by the possibility of spending a year with someone from another country. I had no idea if I would be paired with an international student or not, but I hoped I would be.

Later that summer, when I found out my roommate was an international student from Japan, I felt the same mixture of excitement and nervousness I'm sure every incoming freshman feels about their roommate. Would we be friends? What would it be like living with her? I was as unsure of what to expect as I was eager to become her friend. I'm sure everyone who has an international roommate has had a different experience, but these are just a few of the things I have learned and experienced with my international roomie so far:

1. English is weird.

"Why do you say 'oh, man' or 'oh, boy' if there isn't a boy?"
"Chapstick and chopstick sound almost the same."
"People say 'yeah, no' and 'no, yeah' and mean the same thing."
"Killer whales are dolphins! Why do you call them whales?"
"It's weird how people say 'hey, guys' even if there are girls."

Native English speakers do occasionally laugh over some of the foibles of their language, but the weirdness of English is plain to anyone learning it for the first time. Having to explain idioms, phrases like "Oh, boy," words with multiple contrasting meanings, and the many versatile uses of swear words to my roommate has made me far more aware of exactly how weird and complicated the English language is.

2. Americans both eat and waste in excess.

It's sad but true. I noticed how different my roommate's eating habits were right away. Instead of filling her plate with everything that looked vaguely appetizing in the dining hall, chowing down as much as she could, and throwing away what she didn't want, my roommate would finish off small portions and then, if she was still hungry, get seconds. She didn't take too much, but what she did take she never wasted. Even leaving a few grains of rice unfinished in your bowl was, as my roommate told me, considered rude in Japan.

Now I try not to take more food than I'll eat, because if I do throw away unfinished portions my roommate makes a sad puppy face that needs no translation.

3. American relationships are full of blurred lines.

We were walking with a group of friends toward the parking lot. My roommate turned to me and pointed out two of our friends. "They're holding hands," she said. "But they're not boyfriend and girlfriend?"

"No, they've just gone on some dates."

"But they're holding hands!" My roommate's face was amused and confused all at once. In Japan, she explained to me later, people are either each other's friend or girlfriend/boyfriend – there's no in-between stage. If you have feelings for someone, you ask them to be your girlfriend/boyfriend, then go out on dates. There's a very clear line between the different kinds of relationships.

"Oh, man," I told her. "There aren't any lines in America." Friends – or strangers – have sex; people date to figure out if they want to be in a relationship; there are open relationships and friends-with-benefits. American culture has no firm framework for one kind of relationship compared to another, especially when it comes to sex and dating – and especially in college.

4. Sometimes there aren't the right words.

We've all been there: a friend is having a tough time and you tell them, "I'm sorry." It turns out that this is an English thing, too: the closest translation for what you tell someone for whom you feel sympathy in Japanese is "Condolences." Unfortunately, only bereavement cards say that here in America.

"But it's not your fault!" my roommate told me after I told her I was sorry for her bad day. "Don't say you're sorry, you didn't do it!" I tried to explain the English phenomenon of apologizing as a way of expressing sympathy: "Sorry" was another word with so many meanings that it grows unwieldy. So we came up with a compromise. Now, when one of us has a bad day, we say, "I feel sympathy for you." It's less clunky than "condolences" but still slightly awkward to say. Still, it brings us a little closer to what we mean to express.

5. Humans should be Earth's stewards, not parasites.

Whenever my roommate eats something she particularly likes, she puts her hands together, nods, and says a phrase in Japanese. I asked her what it meant one day and she explained, "It's a traditional way of saying thank you to the plants and animals who died so you can have food." It was a way of recognizing that the lives of other things had ended and were now giving you life. It was also a phrase that told the people who made the food that their meal was delicious.

I was humbled by this simple display of recognition and gratitude. My roommate's respect for living things was so great that she wrote "I'm sorry for wasting you for fun" on the little pumpkin she decorated for Halloween.

My roommate has helped me see how much the Earth gives to us, and how the least we can do in return is not waste those gifts. Instead, we should conserve the natural world and give back to it in any way we can.

My roommate and I have been able to share so much with each other about our cultures, our languages, and our countries. Having an international roommate hasn't just allowed me to understand Japan and Japanese culture more, it's given me a new appreciation for American culture and all the weirdness that makes it unique. We're shaped by our culture and language, and being able to see how my roommate was shaped by hers has given me a broader understanding of the fantastic diversity of the world.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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