By Katherine Duke '05

Photo by Jessica Mestre '10

Have Americans ever struck you as strange? Have you ever wondered about Americans’ obsession with sports like NASCAR, “football” or baseball? Did you grow up without American TV shows? Do you find it strange how Americans are constantly interrupting one another? Or asking “How are you?” and not waiting for an answer?

Students from the "Strange Americans" Interterm course attended the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Amherst Regional Middle School on Jan. 16. Instructor Ryan Milov '10 is on the far right.

So begins the description of the new Interterm course “Strange Americans: Exploring American Culture in the Pioneer Valley.”

“There are so many different kinds of Americans that it seems to be impossible to locate one and say ‘This is the representative American,’” said the course’s instructor, Ryan Milov ’10. “So when we talk about the strangeness of Americans, we’re really going to have to talk about many different kinds of strangeness.”

Milov, who works on campus as area coordinator of the first-year experience, developed the course, in conjunction with Dean of First-Year Students and Professor of Chemistry Pat O’Hara, in order to give international students an opportunity to explore and discuss the aspects of American culture and behavior that they find puzzling and challenging.

At the class meeting in Porter Lounge on Jan. 13, Milov and the students reviewed some of the oddities that they had already begun to address—for example, the rules and rites of American football. “We decided we’re going to have a Super Bowl party,” Milov told me, “where we participate in the ritual of purchasing and consuming lots of fatty foods and watching either the game or the commercials.”

The class had talked about different styles of eye-contact, and each person had practiced whichever style was the least comfortable for him or her. The student from Myanmar had found that averting his eyes while he spoke to people made him feel “unsafe,” while one of the two students from Japan felt that looking directly into people’s eyes was “stressful.” Americans seem to exhibit a wide range of eye-contact behaviors (though I was reminded of a trendy Amherst T-shirt from a few years ago that read, on the front, AWKWARD, and on the back, AVOIDING EYE-CONTACT SINCE 1821).

The Japanese student had, during the previous class meeting, described an incident in which a devoutly Christian American student had told her she would go to hell for being an atheist. She had known about religion before, she said, but not about religious people. (A few days later, to give them some historical insight into the tensions that have arisen between religious and secular worldviews in the United States, especially in the South, Milov showed some students Inherit the Wind, the 1960 film fictionalization of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which a science teacher was charged with breaking a Tennessee law when he taught Darwin’s theory of evolution rather than the biblical account of Creation.)

The class then discussed the first of their several planned “excursions”: the previous day, the students had gone to Rao’s coffee shop in the Town of Amherst to practice striking up, and keeping up, conversations with Americans. The Burmese student found it odd that, in 20 minutes of conversation, the two strangers he spoke with didn’t ask him anything about his home country. The student from Singapore said he was very conscious of his own facial expressions—he was genuinely interested in what his interlocutor was saying, but he was trying extra-hard to show his interest. (Later, the class came to a general agreement that Americans tend to be quite animated and explicit in our expressions and gestures; we’re “easy to read.”) The excursion was interesting but exhausting even for the American student in the class—she and a second Japanese student spoke with two strangers for nearly half an hour with (she timed it) no more than 3 consecutive seconds of silence at any time.

The first Japanese student brought up an interesting article she had read contrasting communication styles in the United States and Japan. “The communication American people usually have is like the tennis: you have to hit the ball, and the other person has to hit the same ball back,” she said. “But the communications we usually have back home is like a [game of] bowling: you have to wait until that person finishes his or her talk, and then the next person goes.”

Milov loved this metaphor; he began thinking about why he, an American, feels the need to “play tennis” in conversation. “Let’s say you told me a story about how, yesterday, you went out and you ran into a flock of wild turkeys, and had a brief conversation with their leader, and then returned home,” he said. “If I didn’t ‘hit the ball back’ and say, ‘Oh, what color was the turkey’s head that was the leader?’ then I would worry that you were going to think that I wasn’t listening.”

“One of the characteristics of tennis-style conversation is that you have to keep going—even if you’re not interested, even if neither of you are interested, you have to keep going till the end,” the Japanese student added. “And sometimes you can play doubles, so someone [else] just jumps in.” (This might be where that whole “constantly interrupting one another” stereotype comes from.)

“That’s so true!” Milov laughed (interrupting her).

But, the Japanese student said, if she doesn’t have time to be silent and think about what she really wants to say next—if she must always rush to “hit the ball back”—the conversation often feels superficial.

Milov reminded everyone that deep conversations and close relationships are tricky and rare for everyone, including Americans, and that “the responsibility for all relationships is shared.” He encouraged the students to speak up to their friends about what ways of interacting feel most comfortable for them, and to consider the possibility that what might come across as awkwardness, indifference or superficiality in a person might actually just be a different communication style.

The question arose: Do Americans expect international students to assimilate—to learn to “act American”?

People’s expectations vary, Milov said. But he pointed out that one of the things that attracts many American students to Amherst is the chance to get to know classmates from different countries and cultures—and he reminded the international students to remember why they themselves had decided to travel to this country for college. American and international students alike, he said, crave closer, less awkward relationships with each other. He suggested various strategies for reaching out and establishing friendships with Americans, such as “tagging along” with other students as they walk from class to class, or inviting a small group of classmates to a TYPO dinner.   

In preparation for their next excursion—to the Martin Luther King Day community celebration at Amherst Regional Middle School on Jan. 16—Milov closed the class meeting by reading the students King’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. As he read, the parts of the speech that struck me most were the references to school integration—to the dream of young people from all backgrounds coming together to learn with, and learn from, one another.