American Culture Through the Lens of an International Student
Andrew Oslin, Staff Editor
Guillaume Tabary is a senior psychology and political science major here at Saint Martin’s who has experienced living in cultures vastly different from that of Washington’s west coast. His story begins in the southern hemisphere, in a country often stereotyped for its friendliness.
“I grew up in a small town called Mornington, Australia, but I moved around a lot so I don’t really remember much of it,” Tabary said. “I ended up settling down [there] when I was about ten, so that was a little seaside village. It was about five minutes from the beach by walk – that was great.”
He describes the light-hearted cultural feel that is often attributed to the country’s smaller population, which is eclipsed by that of California on its own.
“In Australia there’s this really loose, fun culture. It’s hard to explain it, but things are not really serious over there,” he said. “You insult your friends and it’s considered friendship, and you mess around a lot. But America’s a lot more serious. One of the first things I learned is people get a lot more insulted if you make jokes about them.”
From there, he moved to the state of Virginia, where he faced a starkly different world.
“That was some pretty nasty culture shock,” he said. After living there for about three years, his journey took him to Kailua, Hawaii, and then here to Lacey, Wa. Compared to Tabary’s previous lifestyles, certain elements of America stand out sharply.
“Everything’s a lot bigger in America, from serving sizes to cars,” he said. “[And] the racism in America is different; it’s more systemic. In Australia people just didn’t know, there was ignorant-born racism, but in America it’s like, into the system.”
Moving here after life elsewhere led to the struggle of trying to assimilate himself into American society. He found himself making personal changes that American-born people usually do not find necessary.
“I had to be more polite in my language first and foremost [and] had to dress differently, more modestly here. I didn’t really fit in in America that much because I had trouble with the American accent. People were always asking me to repeat myself,” he said. “I speak with a bit of a strange accent now because I tried really hard to try and fit in and change my accent here so people would stop bothering me about it, so I have trouble pronouncing certain words.”
Even the humor differentiates itself, making it more difficult for people without an extensive American background to relate.
“I have a lot of trouble understanding American humor still. A lot of my humor extends from poking fun with people in a way that’s more direct than most Americans. I get worried about that sometimes.”
Tabary considers himself an international student because his life experience in multiple cultures allows him to relate to people in similar situations.
“When I met some international students a couple years ago, I felt a really strong comradery with them,” Tabary explained. “There was something of a shared experience there where I still feel very much like an outsider. Even though I put on an American accent and I try and understand American values better, it’s still hard to like, be an American, you know?”
Tabary offers a piece of advice to students who find themselves moving here from a different country, or someone who feels like an outsider because they come with different cultural influences. His suggestions may appear surprising at first glance, but they are rooted in his specific personal experience.
“The first thing of advice I would say is don’t speak first, just listen, because it’s strange how many things here are considered wrong or insulting. America’s really sensitive in a lot of weird ways,” he said. “Interpersonal relationships are really different here too. Respond to them rather than try and start conversation just for your first couple of weeks here. The groove is hard to get into but once you get into it, it’s manageable.”
Of course, one of the greatest challenges he has faced involves relating to people who have only lived within a small area, relatively speaking. If someone does not yet have the opportunity to venture out and expand their horizons, interactions can feel less rewarding to the traveler.
“You’ll meet people that haven’t left the state they were born in. That leads to a pretty shallow experience,” Tabary said. “You’re unable to empathize truly with people just from coming from a different place because that requires the experience of having been to that different place.”
Despite this, being the person who must adjust to fit the societal norms of the normative culture has its benefits.
“Moving from one place to another has absolutely given me the ability to empathize better and to understand someone’s struggle of moving, or struggle with just having been in different places,” Tabary explained. “You’re much more open to understanding that things aren’t what they seem, and people have experiences they bring to the table that aren’t the same as yours.”
Some of his experience in America has been less than positive, however. He cautions that people might not always be understanding and respectful of an unfamiliar culture.
“I would say don’t bring your culture over to this country because it becomes like a schtick. People will be interested in the culture as like, a fun joke, so be ready to have that dissimilated or just pay more attention to the culture here,” he said. “Don’t try and be your culture in this country. It doesn’t work.”