On Sailor-Cats and Aliens

by Fiora Macpherson
August 10, 2014

Fiora Macpherson '16 is a Social Innovation Fellow and the Director of Expansion at the Student Language Exchange.

I’m at a Halloween themed party in July, where the ceiling is streaming with ghosts made out of toilet paper and everyone is dressed as half sailor, half cat. Obviously, I’m already confused, which is pretty much my modus operandi these days. Then a girl taps me on the shoulder and says: “Oh, you’re the European girl I saw on the bus!” I take a moment, giggle something inarticulate and then excuse myself to go ruminate on my unforgivable and inescapable foreignness.

So this girl has found me out. I want to cry; because I recognise her and I know which day she was talking about. It was one in which I was jolly-well-pleased with myself for putting my subway ticket in the machine the right way round, and convincing the world I was American. I also want to cry because no one told me this party was themed and so I missed a stellar opportunity to dress as a sailor-cat, but that is irrelevant to the central point, which is: Being foreign is hard.

This post is about aliens, both the way that the US Department of Immigration defines them, and the more common, existential-angst type. We all think of ourselves as an alien every now and again. We all know what it means to feel foreign.

It means you’re the only non-sailor-cat in a room full of sailor-cats and all you want to do is have a conversation, but everyone else seems too busy being sailor-cats.

At the Student Language Exchange, we train college students of diverse backgrounds to share their language and culture with their peers. I often talk about the benefit that has for American undergraduates. We build cultural literacy, along with concrete language skills. We open them to a world they didn’t know existed, and in doing so prepare them to engage in our ever-expanding global society. But I want to talk about our incredible fellows, who put their energy and efforts into building a more collaborative, communicative and culturally diverse campus.

The Student Language Exchange gives these fellows a home. Or moreover, it brings their home to college. Living a bi-cultural life is tough. We give them a place to talk, to connect, to have a whole room full of people all ears.

And these students give us an incredible opportunity. A record number of international students, 820,000 according to the International Institute of Education, came to US colleges in 2012-2013. This doesn’t even take into account the wealth of multi-culturalism within students who are American citizens. The world is on our doorstep, and we just need to start talking.

Nobody told me how difficult studying abroad would be, that my shoes would look weird, or that the already-terrifying world of dating would be a minefield of cultural inferences, or that I would spend 90% of my time confused and the other 10 exhausted. I left home 4 years ago, and I still don’t know how to put my subway ticket in the right way round. Of course, it’s also a fantastic experience. I’m beyond grateful.

My favorite days are the ones when someone listens intently to my blabbering about my mum’s emoji addiction, my grandparents’ toucan collection, or my sister’s dried blowfish. And then responds with a story about their brother’s pet blobfish, thus proving that the world isn’t really divided into sailor-cats and non-sailor-cats, but that actually, if we start talking, we’re maybe not that different at all.