Being a foreigner in America, or anywhere else for that matter, is tough. There is always a cultural and language barrier that takes some getting used to, the climate is different, and even the Burger King menus can vary. As someone who is not from the States, one of the main problems that make this transition to mainland America hard are those “Did he really just say that?” moments.
Before I go on, let’s define this term. A “Did he really just say that?” moment occurs when a person, male or female, intentionally or unintentionally makes a racist, stereotypical, rude, or ignorant comment toward someone who is not from that place. One would think that this would not be a problem in the 21st century, but it happens much too often.
In my case, I have been born and raised in the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, but I would come to the mainland United States for summer programs. Fast forward a few years: I’m in my sophomore year of college at Liberty University - very far from home. Even now, I still find myself experiencing “Did he really just say that?” moment.
Coming from Puerto Rico, some of the top comments I have heard that caused these moments were:
1. You're Latino, how come you don’t like spicy food?
2. Why do you say you’re American, Puerto Rico isn’t even a state?
3. Was it hard to get a passport to come here?
4. You must really like salsa music, right?
5. I would have thought it was the Puerto Rican …
And finally …
6. How long was the drive from Puerto Rico to here?
There have been many other moments, but these should help you get an idea of the problem. Keep in mind, however, that this not something that is experienced by only one or two people; chances are a lot of people near you go through this. I would encourage you to talk with students from your school’s international office or even friends from other places. Ask them what their experience has been.
For example, a friend from Chile was asked how close it was to Mexico. Similarly, a friend from Germany was asked if people there still believed in Hitler’s ideals, a friend from Russia was told that he would never go to Russia because it’s so dangerous, a friend from Colombia was jokingly asked if he had brought drugs with him, and so on. These things are actually happening in America in the year 2015.
So now the question is: what do we do now? Well, there’s no single or absolute answer. Racism, stereotypes, and ignorance aren’t defeated in a day. But if you’re still reading this, then that means you probably want to know what you can do to help.
I believe the best thing locals can do to avoid causing these moments is to stay informed and have empathy. Being informed means you won’t say the first thing that comes to your mind. If you’re not sure of something, look it up or wait a while, but don’t just say what’s on your mind. On the other hand, empathy is being able to understand what a person is experiencing. Keep in mind that these people are far from home, most probably everything is new to them, and chances are they’ve probably gone through a few “Did he really just say that?” moments already. Being empathic in these situations means showing them around, teaching them the new culture, helping them understand this new place, trying not to remind them of the place they are no longer in, but helping them see the beauty and good of where they are now.
I had someone like that when I came to the States for college. To be honest, if it weren’t because of this person who went out of their way to do these things and understand me, I probably would have gone and dropped out or gotten depressed.
Be that person for someone. Neither of you will regret it, and you will make a friend for life.