Fun with International Students at SPEA

Last week, the Japanese students and their families organized the annual SPEA Japan Night. They absolutely transformed the SPEA atrium into what looked like a Japanese carnival with food stands, games, and cultural activities ringing the entire forum. Somewhere around 70 people showed up not counting the organizers. People were so busy with the activities that the actual presentation started about half an our late. I don’t think anyone minded as everyone, organizers and attendees, were having such a good time. This was actually good for me as I was running late from a panel presentation on international water resources issues hosted by two of our student organizations: the Environmental Management Association (EMA) and the International Public Affairs Association (IPAA). The post-presentation discussions were really good so I was running a little late.

For the main event there was a general, though highly entertaining, presentation on Japanese culture. One of our professors¬† is a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do and gave demonstration of various fighting forms as well as a history of the martial art. The best part of the event was the “Quiz Show.” The students prepared a series of Jeopardy-like slides with aspects of Japanese history, culture, and society as multiple choice questions. What made it most fun was that everything they quizzed us on were things that any 8 year old Japanese child would know. The alternative wrong answers were also ridiculously wrong so once explained it was hilarious. For example, as quiz takers we often took such giant blunders as mistaking their Prime Minister for the Japanese equivalent of Brad Pitt. It was cross-cultural miscommunication at its worst and best at the same time. Overall, everyone had a wonderful time, especially the organizer who got a chance to share their culture with all of SPEA. And I think we are all looking forward to Taiwan Night in a month.

Beyond cultural interaction, one of the things I love best about SPEA is the quantity and quality of the international students in our program. As an American who is pretty much exclusively interested in working abroad or for international organizations in the states, they really make life a lot more interesting professionally. The most interesting perspectives I’ve gotten on working in the international context haven’t always come from my professors. Rather, they tend to come from my highly seasoned international colleagues in the program. The experience of some of them is literally jaw dropping. The Korean, Turkish, Kazakh, Japanese and other governments have programs where they send some of their senior or most talented officials to SPEA on scholarships. And we have quite a few US government sponsored Fulbrights and Muskie scholars from the Russia and Central Asia. The wealth of their professional and life experiences really enriches class discussions, group projects, and informal conversations.

Though colleagues seems like an odd word considering the informal relationship I have with most of the international students and close friendship with others. Every Friday about fifteen of us, mostly international, play volleyball and the 6’4″ Tajik Muskie scholar who played on his national team restrains himself from raining spikes down on us all game. Afterwards, we usually have dinner, watch a free movie, or bowl at the student union. Its a nice way to vent stress and get to know everyone outside of an academic context. We are really competitive, play really hard, but always forget the score somehow. Overall, its all about having fun and hanging out.

Last week I taught a Chinese student how to eat pizza for the first time in her life and spent 45 minutes with a Japanese friend discussing the difference between Valentines Day in America and Japan the other day. At breakfast my Kazakh friend who worked for three years in international finance (6 months of which in London) before coming to SPEA was left speechless when the waitress asked her if she wanted her eggs sunny-side-up, scrambled, or over-easy. Have you ever tried explaining what scrambled eggs are without being able to show them? Not easy, trust me. But it was a fun little incident that we both had a good laugh over. In the end I think the waitress was the most confused.

This story is only topped by when we stopped at a rural Ohio Cracker Barrel for lunch on our road trip to Washington DC last year for the SPEA Spring Break Professional Development Trip. The 45 minute wait for a table on this Sunday was actually enjoyable as our international friends treated the interior of the restaurant as an archaeological exhibit. They asked us endless questions on what the various items were or had been used for in American history. But as we sat down, the menus might as well have been in ancient Greek as my Japanese and Spanish colleagues had no idea what grits, country fried chicken, collard greens, or anything else on the menu were. The Spanish Fulbright scholar simply got up and walked around the restaurant looking at other peoples’ plates and cheerfully asking them what they were eating. The Sunday church crowd was more than friendly and eagerly answered all of his questions. The waitresses had fun with it too and even the cooks came out of the kitchen to talk to him. We became mini-celebrities as our international friends soaked in as much traditional American culture as possible. We didn’t make very good time to DC but we are looking forward to this year’s road-trip. Professional benefits aside, its these kinds of personal interaction with international students at SPEA that I really enjoy.

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