Finding community: by Jonathan Ho
Be it with his students as an educator, or as a songwriter in his room, Jonathan Ho is often thinking of how to communicate ideas and thoughts in a relatable way. He loves to write songs and desires to create melodies that move not just the heart but also the mind. He majored in Physics at UCLA and currently resides in Singapore. you can find some of his songs on Soundcloud.
Sharp feelings of pain and insecurity pierced me as the words fell from his mouth. Did he not care, or was he simply not mature enough to care for someone who felt so misplaced? Why do people here feel so different, and why do I feel like a fish out of water? Did he not know it should be others before self? I never knew that someone inviting me to his family’s Thanksgiving dinner, and then dropping the ball could hurt so much. This happened my freshman year, and looking back, I must have been utterly crazy to simply drop everything back home and come to the USA for the first time for college. I suffered from culture shock possibly my entire first year.
I grew up in a country that was primarily my ethnicity, and I felt a strong sense of community with my friends. I was always told that it was others before self, and that I was a part of a great body of people that I needed to protect and value. My own individuality was good, but not central. Needless to say, it was a huge blow suddenly being a minority, and suddenly having feelings that I wanted to fit into a group of people in which I did not belong. I was the one whom people were supposed to come to try to “fit in” with me. I was the one who could speak and was the life of the party. But not anymore. The average American was way louder than I was, and I struggled to speak American English in a way that fit in the local banter. I used to be the extrovert, at the center of attention, but now not only did I feel displaced from my home country, I felt misplaced.
My first year, I struggled to believe there were any Americans who cared about me. In retrospect, I had friends who asked me to hang with them, and I tried a few school clubs in hopes to find a good community too. There were people who cared, but I was too homesick to truly believe it. I thought in order to be loved, I had to have things in common with the others. This was usually how it was back home. As a result, most of my friends were Asian during my freshman year. Feelings of homesickness made me feel like I belonged nowhere, and that I left a perfectly good country only to struggle here. Americans expressed their love differently from my friends back home, and I felt drained trying to keep up with their pace of chatter. It took me two years to finally figure out that locals here were “roasting” me from the first day we met precisely because they liked me, and not because they hated me. You might be laughing now, but it is true.
Back home during the first summer, I remember thinking that my worst nightmare came true. Most of my friends had moved on; the 16-hour time difference made it near impossible to maintain contact with most of them, and by some twist I now had to grow new roots in my home country. It all seemed like a painfully logical consequence—I chose to leave, not them—but I still didn’t want it to be true. When I left, in my mind, everything back home froze. Being overseas here, I started changing in ways that my friends back home would not change. When I went back home, I expected my old friends to be the same, but they were not. Conversely, they expected me to be the same, but I was not. I did my best to explain how I had changed, and they did their best to understand, but I couldn’t help but feel misplaced once again, even in my home country.
My second and third year, I slowly learned more about American culture, and at the very least could use some American slang. Although I made more friends as the next two years progressed, it introduced a new set of difficulties, some of which were cultural, and some simply personal. Thankfully, I found a personal mentor who helped me to navigate many of these issues. I learned that Americans often end events promptly on time and leave because they respect my time and not because they didn’t want to spend time with me. With my friends back home, we were never so time conscious, but often hung out “indefinitely.” I learned that small talk, although can be used as a façade, can also be used as a way to learn about someone and connecting with him. I also learned that dishwashers really are more efficient and possibly a cleaner alternative to my mom’s hand washing technique.
Slowly but surely, I felt myself change and find community here in the States. A huge part of it was understanding that the culture at a prestigious university will often be such that many are focused on their studies and thus not on building friendships. I eventually found a group of local friends who spoke at the same pace as I did and who enjoyed deep conversations after the small talk. I started to think that perhaps we are all the same. We all value love, community, and feelings of belonging. The tricky part to navigate is that what seems like love to me might be stifling for you, and what seems like love for you might be rude to me. Needless to say, it took a lot of dying to myself and what I thought was right, to see that we have more in common than our skin color or cultural background. I also stopped trying to find my worth in being the center of the party, but enjoyed every single person I came across. It was better to have one close friend who would be there for me than to have fair weather ones.
Most crucially, I learned that communication works both ways. The sender has a message, but before he sends it, it is encoded by his personal background and upbringing. On the other hand, the receiver has a decoder from his own upbringing, which decodes the message. I had been using my home decoder to decode American messages, which resulted in a lot of hurt that was unintentional. As I slowly picked up the “American” way of decoding messages, I soon found that perhaps we are a lot more common than I thought. Everyone desires love, joy, patience, and hope, and if we can communicate that in culturally sensitive ways, perhaps we can cross more borders and boundaries than we could ever have imagined.