My ‘About Me’ sections go like this: 22, college student, cat person, Hufflepuff. Nepali. The last one is hesitant, a fluttering around the periphery of my identity, almost a question. Nepali? I was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I lived there for nineteen years before leaving the country to attend college in America. Both my parents, both sets of grandparents, are Nepali. My childhood included vermillion tikas to the forehead, ringing brass temple bells, three-wheeled auto rickshaws, daily morning incense. Still, before leaving Nepal, my nationality was just a concept, as generalized as saying, “I have two eyes” or “I’m right handed.”
As humans, we’re used to labelling ourselves, compartmentalizing ourselves into groups: sister, daughter, friend, student, dreamer. Nepali? These definitions often come not from what we are, but by how we differ from others. Us and them. Insiders and outsiders. In America, my international identity is almost always the first thing people notice, the first thing they ask me about, the most common conversation starter. When I came to England, I expected more of the same. Being an international student wasn’t new to me. What was new was being an international student alongside Americans.
At my home institution, ‘international’ meant non-American. That’s how we think of ourselves, students from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Ghana, Uganda, Nepal, a sea of non-white faces, a chatter of varying accents. Us and Them. International and American. It’s not a hostile separation: we love our American friends, live with them, study with them, celebrate with them. No, being an international student simply brings inclusion into a club with others like you who don’t visit home most breaks, who are proficient at calculating distant time zones and currency exchanges, who might never have set up a Christmas tree before. We might have nothing else in common but recognition of our foreignness, and this is enough. Us and Them. International Students and American Students.
In England, Americans are foreigners. Most of Oxford’s international students are in graduate programs, and nearly all of them study here permanently. Students like me, international visiting students, are mostly American. Of Oxford’s thirty eight colleges, the one I attend, St Catherine’s College, has the largest undergraduate class, and also the largest number of visiting students: my international orientation was full of American faces. After two years of ‘international’ being a synonym for ‘not American,’ the labels have shifted: the Americans and I are international together. There’s a distinct international visiting student group, that is also the American group, and we eat meals together, explore pubs together, swap notes on tutorial schedules and UK systems, and ask each other how we’re getting along with the Brits. Like me, the other international visiting students come from small liberal arts colleges.
We’re an odd bunch – neuroscience majors and art history majors, extroverts and introverts, party-goers and those of us who are religiously in bed by eleven, the one who’s an Irish dancer finalist and the other one who rides a unicycle – and if we had met back on American soil, probably wouldn’t have much in common. Here, the differences are compressed, the similarities magnified.
We’re outsiders together, foreigners together, and this is how the British view us too. What do you think about Donald Trump? they ask. How does the US housing situation work? Do you have end of term exams? I’m asked the same questions as my American counterparts: my two years in an American college have made me at the least, a nominal American. I tell them about shared dorm rooms (British students recoil and call this barbaric), about fraternities (they’re like Oxford societies. Well kind of), about the regulated drinking (no, my US college would never serve wine at a college event).
The American visiting students leave me a spot at the dining table, invite me to their American parties, tell me about international events. Another like Me, I think when I see an American visiting student. Here, on English soil, I’m no longer international in relation to the Americans. I’m one of them. Us and Them. The Americans and the English.