World Class

Writer: 
October 1, 2003

 

Illustration by James Yang

 Illustration by James Yang

 

Orienting oneself in a new city is a challenge only made more difficult when the power goes out, as it did in New York City in mid-August, right when people from Taipei and Karachi and Leverkusen and distant places all over the globe were stopping through on their way to Durham for an orientation to Duke.

Kelvin Low, a freshman from Singapore, was shopping in the Brooks Brothers in lower Manhattan. "I was in the one by Ground Zero, you know, and all of a sudden the lights go out. It was crazy. Everybody was trying to find their way around in the dark. At first it was scary, but then, since it wasn't terrorism, it was kind of fun. Then, on Saturday, we left for Durham."

Low and 120 other students from all over the globe arrived at Duke for the thirty-ninth International Student Orientation on August 18, carefully scheduled by Duke staff so as not to steal the glory from Indian Independence Day or Costa Rican Mother's Day (August 17). All in all, a fine morning to meet in the commons room of an East Campus dorm to find out what, if anything, people from thirty-six different countries might have in common.

The most obvious thing was that no one was from America. But the second-most-obvious thing was that the room was not big enough for students and their parents too, who, upon learning that they would be mingling separately, happily ambled away for an air-conditioned audience with Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. Left to themselves, the students commenced with the obvious ice-breakers, translating dirty words and imitating accents until I-House staffers, on-hand to make sure that language-determined cliques did not develop, assigned students to smaller, multinational circles to talk about the weird things they do and eat in their respective parts of the world.

They learned that many Indians had ridden elephants and had never seen snow; that Turks don't eat pork; that the Dutch are zealously proud of their bread; that it is bad luck to whistle in the Republic of Georgia; that it is a crime to chew gum in Singapore, although recently the enforcement of gum laws has been relaxed; and that Durham might be the hottest place in the world next to the Sahara desert, but even that might be better, because it isn't sticky.

Following group discussion, Carlisle Harvard, who is in her seventeenth year as director of the International House, stepped up to the lectern. With an accent foreign to many students and faculty--Harvard is a native of Durham--she extended her vowels and a warm welcome to the international portion of the Class of '07: "Well, hello theya. We ah delighted to have you heya with us!"

The International House, on the corner of Anderson Street and Campus Drive, is three stories, brick, with a living room and a kitchen, pictures on the mantelpiece, and staff members who encourage foreign visitors to drop in anytime. One day in early August, three slight, thirty-something Korean journalists and visiting scholars in the Asian/ Pacific Studies Institute, who had arrived in the U.S. a week earlier, came in seeking information on living in Durham and working at Duke. They sat down with Clare McGrath, a program assistant who has red hair and speaks Chinese. "How can we make Duke e-mail address?" they wanted to know. "And what is 'Duke Card'?"

McGrath smiled. "The Duke Card is the gold card," she said. "You need it for everything." "Ohhh," they said. "How do we make this?" McGrath explained that first they would need Social Security numbers and then they would need to go to the Duke Card office to fill out an application. "Ah, this is the bureaucracy," said Dong-Kuk Lee. "I try to get Duke Card before at the office but the woman say, 'I have to talk to supervisor.' I say, 'why can't you make Duke Card?' She say, 'I have to talk to supervisor.' 'Why?' 'Because I have to talk to supervisor.'" Lee made the universal sign for craziness (finger twirl next to head) and let out a long sigh.

McGrath moved on down the list of orienting priorities: directions to the grocery store, ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, schools for their children--and distributed little stacks of colorful handouts with information on each. "Yes, we do all these things already," said Jong Cheol Kim. McGrath was impressed. "Wow. You've settled in so quickly. Do you have cars?" "No, not me," said Kim. "I have new apartment and have to move lots of things and children and my wife. Where can I buy--how do you call it--pick-up truck?"

On Monday evenings, the International House hosts an English Conversation Club in the living room, and at one meeting in August, two Koreans, an Israeli, and a Brazilian, all new to Duke, talked about the ups and downs of adjusting to life in America:

" I love the big roads, I'm in love with the roads in this country," Lucas Santos, a lanky, garrulous Brazilian and a research associate in neurobiology said.

" The people are nice," said Jin Choi, a Korean research associate in rheumatology. "But I tried for friends with Americans, and it's very hard to meet somebody friendly in my case inside a laboratory."

" For me," said Mehea Park, a Korean and a post-doc in biology, "English is hardest thing. I watch You Got Mail with subtitle. Then I just listen as I go to sleep and learn words."

" I don't like the TV," said Choi. "Some programs are very disgusting to me. Do you know Jerry?" Grins and nods all around.

" I like the grocery store. Have you seen it?" said Michael Galperin, an Israeli post-doc in the chemistry department. "It is huge. I could not find the exit. And you are not afraid that it will be exploded. At least for now."

One week after orientation, Kelvin Low was happily moved-in and typing away at an essay assignment for his first-year writing course. "I have met people from all over the world," he said. "I met a girl from Hungary. And a guy from Kazakhstan. Have you ever met anyone from Kazakhstan? Amazing. But you know one big difference between Singapore and Durham is that people are approachable. In Southeast Asia country, you do not go up to someone and say, 'hi, how are you.' But here, people do this all the time. It's good, but I don't know; maybe, it's the 'Southern hospitality.' I have heard that you have this here. But maybe it's because everyone is still finding their way around."