During the winter holidays, upset by the news of the upcoming pandemic-induced changes to our spring semester, I fondly remembered my fall semester at Vanderbilt. The memory that worried me the most was the Thanksgiving break, a unique experience for international students like me.
A standard 10.4% of the Class of 2025 are international, representing a population of 169 students who are burdened with the terrifying task of acclimatizing to American society. I proudly contribute to this statistic, as one of four students who endured the 18 hour journey from Turkey this year.
One of the many important responsibilities of an international student is finding accommodation over the Thanksgiving holiday, especially since most of us can’t get home for such a short break. Staying on campus is an option, but I prefer not to be alone when everyone is with their families.
So this Thanksgiving, I found myself a home in Houston and Roundtop Texas, thanks to the thoughtful invitation of my friend and his wonderful family. And let me tell you, as evidenced by the many memories of Texas that I now have in my dorm, I had the best time of my life.
The classic Texan the stereotypes were pretty much all I knew about the Lone Star State before Thanksgiving: guns, Christians, hardcore state pride, and huge tracts of land. I assumed these stereotypes wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but I really had no cultural context for my trip.
Let me start with the one aspect of American culture that I’ve never quite understood, a sentiment that I’m sure most foreigners to share: fire arms. I had never even held a gun in my life, let alone shot it. After spending only ten days in Texas, I had shot dozens of clay pigeons and could reload a gun without hurting myself or anyone else in my vicinity.
The gun laws in Turkey are restrictive; semi-automatic and automatic rifles are totally prohibited for civilian use. Purchasing firearms requires a mandatory background check and a legitimate reason for purchase. Owning a firearm for home protection or hunting is quite common, but there is no “culture” surrounding gun ownership like in the United States.
As a very gun control friendly Turk, I was hesitant to shoot a gun. The last thing I expected was for it to be fun. While shooting clay pigeons didn’t change my attitude towards gun ownership, it definitely piqued my interest in how best to use guns for sport or recreation while still making sure to use them in a safe and responsible manner.
Shooting clay pigeons was the highlight of my trip, but every time I saw a sign that carried guns in buildings was allowed, I was reminded of the absurdity of the situation. It was a conflicted experience, to say the least.
Another quintessential American moment was the three-hour road trip we took to see a high school football game—an American football game, because I refuse to call football “soccer.” I still don’t understand why “soccer” refers to a sport that is played almost entirely with the hands.
Our road trip itself was also all-American, filled with country songs and a taste test of the most unhealthy food we could get from a Buc-ee’s (apparently a very Texas experience). After we got to the game, I spent the next three hours mimicking the announcer’s incredible Southern drawl, noticing that cheerleading is a little weird and deciding that watching American football might actually be quite fun. there wasn’t the unnecessarily long duration.
Seriously, three hours?!
Yes, I recognize American football is exciting when you start noticing the elaborate strategies and athleticism required to pull off what happens on the field. But, I don’t know how to react to cheerleading. I’ve never been exposed to the sport back home and I think it’s a uniquely American sport concept. I find myself confused as to the intent of sport and whether it empowers or demeans women.
The experience made me think about all the other differences in sports rituals between countries. In Turkey all the cheering and chanting is left to the fans, while in the US you have cheerleaders, marching bands and mascots. This reflects a larger cultural phenomenon in the United States of turning everything into a “spectacle”. Certainly, I liked this aspect of American culture, but I sometimes found it unnecessary.
Speaking of sports, another highlight of my Thanksgiving experience was…golf! Golf isn’t exactly popular in Turkey and if you hear of anyone playing golf, it’s safe to assume they’re part of the 1%. So go best golf twice – and considering going for a third time – was pretty cool, especially when I missed the ball more times than I care to admit. I got the highest point every round, though!
Top Golf is another great example of the “show” phenomenon I mentioned. A simple round of golf is decorated and painted into a spectacle, an event: American style – and I’m not complaining about it.
My trip to Texas was full of fun, new moments, like trying Blue Bell and Whataburger ice cream for the first time, or playing hide and seek on ATVs on a ranch while being chased by cows and donkeys (do not ask). However, my experience also meant dealing with a few unsurprising microaggressions.
I have mastered the art of ignoring ignorant comments towards my country, especially if I know the person making the comment did not mean to be offensive, a common experience among international students. Instances of this are surprisingly rare but not unheard of on the Vandy campus, such as being repeatedly told that women are apparently oppressed in Turkey – no doubt in sight. People who don’t know my house feel they have the right to tell me anything that’s wrong. I am not saying that my country is above criticism, but it is insensitive to say such a thing to a person who comes from said country as if it were a fact.
Some microaggressions are harder to ignore than others. I has been nicknamed “the least lucky” by someone I had just met as a joke, one that I didn’t laugh at. I was talking about a Muslim holiday celebrated in Turkey, Eid al-Adha, in response to someone asking if there was a holiday similar to Thanksgiving back home. I explained how, in accordance with religious requirements, the majority of meat from a ritually slaughtered animal is given to “those less fortunate than us”. Someone joked that the donation part didn’t exist in the US, which was admittedly funny. Someone else, however, decided to add to the joke by stating that I was the least lucky in this situation and they gave me their food. I decided to let the comment slide, but I certainly didn’t share the laugh that followed.
There were more than a few similar cases of microaggressions and insensitive comments in Texas, but honestly, I didn’t care. This trip actually convinced me that the concept of Southern hospitality exists and I felt welcomed enough not to think about such comments. Everyone I met was interested in what I had to say and immediately made me feel like part of the family, which I appreciated as a student away from his.
In general, I would sum up my Texas experience as a week filled with incredible memories with friends I love and family I am forever grateful for welcoming me into their home (and ranch). I met a stereotypical Texan guy who proudly called himself the mainstream American and he was actually a pretty funny guy. Tried new food, fired guns and withstood a few condescending remarks about turkey. I had the time of my life, changed my perspective on what Texans are usually like, and also asserted a few suspicions.
As international students living in the South, we are in a unique situation. I love Vanderbilt but that’s not an accurate representation of where we are. I sometimes joke about how I live in Vanderbilt, not Tennessee. As important as it is for American students to try to learn about our background and our culture, it is equally important for us to try to learn about theirs. This trip to Texas taught me that many people have unfounded opinions about Turkey and I’m sure many international students have experienced the same. What I also learned, however, is that the opposite is also true: culture is a two-way street. And we have to meet in the middle.