Adjusting and reverse culture shock

I graduated from boarding school in Switzerland and pretty randomly decided to go to Mills College in Oakland, California. I had lived overseas most of my life and didn’t really know much about my passport country. My friends told me I would like California because I was kind of nutty and I was used to warm weather. I didn’t care that much where I went since I had no special ties to anyplace.

Mills College was originally founded in 1852 as a young ladies’ seminary. It was the first women’s college west of the Rockies.

Aurelia Reinhart

Aurelia Reinhardt, PhD, was born in 1877 and served as President of Mills College in Oakland, California, from 1916-1943. My grandmother was born in 1886. Somehow or other, my grandmother knew somebody who knew Aurelia Reinhardt. When she learned that I was going to Mills College she gave me a photograph album of the campus from the early 1900’s. Later, Mills made headline news in the 1990’s when economic troubles threatened to force it to go coed. The students and alumni rallied, protested, and raised enough money to keep it all women.

My first year was very difficult. I was in “reverse” culture shock. Many of the people I met, especially at first, had gone to public school and had never been away from home, let alone outside the U.S. They thought it was a big deal to go to school in the San Francisco Bay Area. For some that was even too much and they went back home after the first year. I figured at least they made the effort and maybe they learned something.

I landed in California after spending the previous two years in Europe where it was considered the norm to travel and have wine and beer with a meal. These girls went to American high school where cheerleading and proms and staying out late sneaking beer were the big stories. They loved to tell stories about what they did in high school. So I told stories back. They didn’t like my stories and a few of them told people that I was bragging and lying. It got to the point where if I started to talk, people would turn away or ignore me. I didn’t understand why, and I thought there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I fit in?  I had never had a problem fitting in before. I could not identify with these people at all and they couldn’t identify with me either. The thing was, I looked like them, I talked like them, but I really was a foreigner.

I was very naive about the U.S. I had no understanding of the racial problems that existed. I had been in multicultural, international environments my entire life. I knew there were bigoted people but I didn’t know much about U.S. history. One day I went to lunch in the cafeteria and I saw a long empty table and I thought “I’ll sit there and then maybe I’ll meet some “new people” because the place was filling up and people were bound to sit there and there wasn’t much space otherwise. Also it was in a different part of the cafeteria than where I usually sat so I figured maybe I would meet a different breed — they couldn’t all be strange and nasty. Well, as the lunch progressed people did sit around me but they were all black and none of them would speak to me. The next day I commented on it to somebody and they told me whites are not “allowed” to sit at that table. It was for the black girls only. Black and white did not mingle. It was too bad because surely they had a different experience than I did and I probably could have learned some things from them about their perspective of America.

The reality that was my first experience with Black America made me very confused. I did not understand why they were so angry at me. I didn’t understand why I was being blamed for all the bad things that had happened to them or their ancestors. Since I was literally coming from a home in Africa, it made me even more confused because I knew that their “own people” had sold them into slavery and I knew how the Africans treated each other in Africa. Most of those girls wouldn’t have survived two minutes in their “homeland”.

I know the black girls at Mills were a little like me. They wanted to fit into American society because they really weren’t African. They wanted civil rights and to be treated equally IN AMERICA. I didn’t even know there was segregation in the United States as recently as the 1960’s and frankly I was pretty shocked to find that out. The interesting thing was that many of the problems the Blacks had were also problems that women generally had in the U.S. and around the world. I would have thought that in a place like Mills there would have been a lot more understanding about the common plight of all “minorities” including women … but it just wasn’t like that.

An old friend from my high school in Switzerland showed up about halfway through my freshman year and he confirmed that I had not lost my mind. He assured me that the problems I was having were not because of me, it was them, or just the situation. But definitely, nothing wrong with me. It made me feel better but by that time my chameleon instincts had kicked in and I had learned from my initial experiences. I no longer told anybody where I was from or anything about my past. I just kept my mouth shut and went with the flow. I eventually fell in with a more worldly, interesting group of people and made some very close friends. In retrospect, had I known I was a Third Culture Kid or had more of a support system with people like me around to talk to, I think my experience would have been much different.

In some ways Mills was like being in the womb. It sat in the middle of East Oakland, which at that time had one of the highest crime rates in America. The Mills campus was a little oasis where everything was lush and beautiful. Eucalyptus trees lined the avenues and a pleasant stream ran through it. The dormitories were mainly made up of single rooms that shared porches. California was sunny and warm. No men were around to hassle you or hustle you or dominate the classroom. Mills was just women looking after women and I did learn a lot about what being a woman was all about. I realized the strength and the power that we had and also the limitations and the problems that we were up against. I learned that there were women out there who were doing a lot and who were very successful. I guess I was enlightened at that point but I was not motivated.

My junior year I decided I needed a break from Mills. Mills had an exchange program with several women’s colleges on the east coast so I applied to Simmons College in Boston. I was accepted and off I went. It was the American Bicentennial so it was a fitting place to spend it.

My parents were living in Ibadan, Nigeria, at the time so I traveled from there on a Saturday and spent the night near the airport in Lagos. The next night I had a layover in Frankfurt and I arrived in Boston on Monday afternoon not knowing where I was supposed to be and then arriving at the correct dorm only to find they had not heard of me. After climbing up and down five fights of stairs several times, it was finally sorted out and I moved into my room.

Old North Church
Old North Church

Simmons College was just down the street from Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox played baseball, right in the middle of Boston. I could hop on the subway and be anywhere in minutes. We were just down the street from the Harvard Medical School so ambulances with sirens screaming went past our windows day and night.

The first week of school, I saw flyers for a party. When I walked up to the door to buy a ticket, the black girl sitting there told me it was for Blacks only. It was being sponsored by a Black organization and whites were not welcome. I said, “You’re kidding, right?”  She smiled and said “No”. It seemed like she felt I was getting a taste of my own medicine. It freaked me out. What a strange place this America was. So I went to the school’s pub for a beer instead and ended up spending the evening with a Nigerian, an Italian who was half Ethiopian, a Sierra Leonean, a Frenchman who was half Algerian and my friend Penny.

The next week there was a dance where whites were allowed (and blacks too) and I met a cool guy named Chris. He rode a British motorcycle and offered to show me around the Boston area since I had never been there before. I accepted and learned a lot about Americans through his eyes. For example, Boston is a very “ethnic” area where people have their own neighborhoods. Italian, Irish, Greek, etc. He identified everybody by where they had come from whereas I always just thought of people as American without really considering their country of origin.

In all my years of school, I only had one year of U.S. history. We visited many significant places like Concord, Salem, the Mayflower, Boston Commons, Bunker Hill, the Old North Church, Harvard Square, Cape Cod, and Walden Pond. It was probably the best American history education ever.

That fall I returned to Mills to graduate.





One thought on “Adjusting and reverse culture shock

  • November 6, 2013 at 2:45 PM

    Your struggle as a hidden immigrant returning to a home where she has never lived is very familiar… I, too, was confused and saddened by the racial tensions I found when I moved to my “home” country to start college, and the very provincial views of some of my fellow classmates. The attitude toward outsiders is still alive and kicking and the theme is raised in several of the contributions in the two anthologies I’ve co-edited. Thanks for sharing your stories.

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