So Do You Speak Indian?
by Arjun Mahajan
For incoming freshmen, college holds the promise of a new beginning. However, the move from the childhood room to the dorm room is more jarring for international students than their American contemporaries. With a new phone contract comes the responsibility of handling a new currency; with the option of eating cereal for dinner comes a sense of longing for a home-cooked meal. I began my first quarter at Drexel University in Philadelphia in the fall of 2013. I was as convinced as every other first-year student at orientation that the coming months were going to be all about beer, friendship, and freedom from adult supervision. Amidst all the excitement surrounding free pizza and a Netflix account, the distance between me and everything I called home didn’t register immediately. Under the surface, unbeknownst to me, the separation from home was more significant than it seemed at the time.
Despite the atmosphere of open dorm room doors and ice-breakers in classrooms, it is common for international students to flock together. This seemingly organic grouping provides a brief respite from the personality we are all auditioning in those first few months of college. An unspoken aching for home binds such a group together even if ideological differences persist. Only people who were spending their evenings longing for a faraway land could be any comfort for the soul-wrenching homesickness that hit me in waves every morning. There are some bittersweet moments only this particular group of people can share with genuine empathy. My roommate from New Jersey didn’t quite understand the tears of joy that rolled down my cheeks the first time I ordered in Indian food, but the next day when I retold the story for my fellow expats, they nodded along in somber agreement. Soon, many of them found friends specific to other shared identities: dorm hall, class group project, KPop interests, etc. A quarter in, I still found it difficult to fit into the social tapestry of college. Shortly after, I completely stopped trying.
For the first two years of my time in the country, many key identifiers of my life that I took for granted were questioned by those around me. I realized for the first time just how many ways there were for someone to mispronounce my name. It became a regular occurrence for professors to look down at the attendance sheet and look up in my general direction with a mix of confusion and horror in their eyes. I was mistaken for Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean all in the duration of a single class. Inevitably, I lost interest in every activity that involved a “go around and tell us your name and something interesting about yourself” or anything that required human interaction even in the slightest. My voluntary isolation developed into a pathology.
Depression settles comfortably in a lonely home. In hindsight, my depression could not have been more obvious, but mental health often gets overlooked for more convenient justifications of dysfunction in college students. At the end of my sophomore year, I had no friends to call my own. I skipped everything after the first lecture of the quarter, embarrassed and frustrated by how far behind I was in developing my skill set compared to those who started the journey with me. Late in my sophomore year, I was in a pedestrian accident with a careless driver that left me with no feeling in my legs for twenty-one days; I had no visitors. I failed another quarter as I lay in a twilight sleep in the hospital. With this fourth failure came an academic dismissal followed by a successful appeals process, three surgeries, and a change of major. I came back to school yet another fall, two years later, this time with university-mandated weekly meetings with my advisor and a single-minded determination to break the vicious cycle of my past.
I knew the first step was to turn my loneliness into hours of self-discovery. I had no particular preference for how I liked to spend a day that was independent of another person’s expectations from me. I vowed to stop wasting my days sleeping or binging every season of M*A*S*H. With no friends to spend my time with and no roommates to split my attention, I poured over history books, listened to new music, went to class and therapy, came home, cooked, ate, and slept healthy, disciplined hours. Even though my therapist was the closest I came to having a friend for a while, I found myself more engaged with classmates and unafraid of participating in class. I was laying a foundation for myself to build upon, and I didn’t even know I was curing my mental illness.
I never spoke of my depression to anyone—not to my mom, my childhood best friend, or even myself. I just chalked up my improving grades and general happiness to the benefits of living a disciplined lifestyle. Cautiously and over time, I made friends who became my family away from home, but they were not privy to my struggle with my mental health. My silence is what kept me from getting help when I needed it most. It allowed my demons to tighten their grip on my life when I was away from home and everyone I considered family.
International students constantly juggle two worlds. On the one hand is the world in which we are born and raised, made up of family and a complex cultural hierarchy. It was difficult to put into words my loneliness and subsequent failure without disturbing the fragile balance between me and my family sitting an ocean and a few continents away. My ascent to this country was the culmination of generations of sacrifice, a burden too heavy for my unprepared shoulders. It is what kept me from picking up the phone and letting someone into the darkness of my life. The other world is of the new, the one that demanded constant proof and justification of my existence. I was expected to adopt a name that was easier to pronounce, an accent easier to understand, and a lifestyle easy to digest. I feared losing my identity and becoming too alien for both my worlds, just like many who came before me and many after me.
My years of living in this country have allowed me to realize that my story is neither novel nor does it rank among the worst of the lot. Most of my friends, members of various diasporas themselves, have similar stories to tell. A common thread in our collective narratives is the sense of isolation we felt in those early months that eventually turned into an unshakable feeling of abandonment. Most of us struggled with the loss of home and identity. It manifested itself in depression, learning disabilities, or problematic relationships with alcohol. Even though we came from different countries, a natural cure was to bring as much of home as possible to where we were. Through weekend potlucks and quick smoke breaks between classes, we made each other feel just a little closer to home.
Mental health and international students are talked about often, although seldom as a combination or in relationship to substantial action. Eighteen is a difficult age to navigate easy decisions like Godfather or Beatles poster on the wall above the bed, let alone life decisions with far-reaching consequences. College campuses are set up in a manner that encourages a certain degree of autonomy among the student body but allows for a lot of international students to slip through the cracks. International students are less likely to seek help for mental health owing to different cultural values and perceptions of mental illness, which makes bringing attention to this struggle so vital. Given the wealth of cultural diversity and knowledge that international students bring to a campus, it only seems fair for such institutions to provide the support necessary for them to flourish. Even though institutions aggressively list a myriad of resources in brochures and student handbooks, sometimes all it takes is for one professor to correctly pronounce a name that appears foreign to make an impact.