Culture Klatch

Moderated by Jessica Kane (MA ’13) | Photographs by Douglas Levere

MORE THAN 5,000 UB students hail from places other than the United States. We invited three of them to Parkside Candy for ice cream and a freewheeling conversation about their experiences in America and at UB.

Seated left to right: International students Devashish Agarwal, Paula Elksne and Jin Kim at Parkside Candy.

Our panelists:

Devashish “Dev” Agarwal

Agra, India

Paula Elksne

Staburags, Latvia

Jin Kim

Seoul, South Korea

“If you pass someone in a hallway, it’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And ‘how’s it going’ doesn’t need an answer. You just walk off!”
Devashish Agarwal

Jessica: What were some of your first impressions of the United States?

Dev: I came in two days before orientation and the campus was dead! Then in two days suddenly it was so full that I was intimidated for a second. I was like, “I can’t live here. It’s too much!” [laughing] But then everything settled down after that.

Paula: I flew to LA and I come from a much smaller place so it was kind of the other way around. I took a subway and it was so many people and there were so many accents. I was like, “I’m supposed to understand English, but I’m in this country for an hour and I don’t understand anything!”

Jessica: So would you say that your impressions of how English was spoken were different from how you learned it?

Dev: Oh, completely!

Jin: In Korea, we are using it more like, for the test. We just memorize the words, but we are not really using for daily basis. So when I came here it becomes like reality, you need to communicate.

Jessica: What do you think has been the hardest to adapt to in terms of American culture—just daily life and the world around you?

Paula: What I really struggle to get used to is how to get around. Public transportation is, like, nonexistent. I’m not used to planning hours before to get somewhere. It’s just like a practical thing, but it really influences everyday life.

Jin: I think [daily life here] is much easier. The life in Korea is very packed in, everything is supposed to be on time and fast, fast, fast. People say, “Palli, palli, palli” (quick, quick, quick). But here you guys have, like, some free time to finish. And people go home really early after work. In Korea we have the culture that people stay together even after the work, eating together and the drinking culture as well.

Dev: The one major thing I was not expecting to run into, and it takes mental preparation to get into, is people are so open about everything.

Paula: That’s true.

Dev: You can start a conversation about the most awkward topics. In India if you just start talking about dating with girls, people pull back. But here you can sit down and tell everyone, “I don’t understand how this works.” And it may be an awkward conversation but they don’t take it in the wrong sense.

Jin: They’re pretty receptive.

Dev: They’re ready to have a conversation. It’s kind of sometimes uncomfortable too, like, Give me one second, is that really what you’re saying? Are we actually having that talk? [laughing]

Jessica: Paula, being from Europe do you have the same perception?

Paula: A bit. I feel it’s easy to start a conversation with everyone. You wait in a line and you’re like, “Oh, how are you doing? Where are you from?” It’s easy to make friends, or at least acquaintances. That definitely is different.

Jessica: Are there things here in the U.S. that still kind of confuse you—things people do that even though you know it’s something people do, you’re still like, “Why do people here do that?”

Dev: The most common thing is, if you pass someone, say in a hallway, it’s like, “Hey, hello, how’s it going?” And “how’s it going” doesn’t need an answer. [laughing]

Jin: That’s true, that’s true!

Dev: You say “Hey what’s up?” and then you just walk off!

Paula: That’s very confusing, I agree. I’m always like, Why do you even ask? Just say, “Hi!” Also, I don’t understand why pizza is such a big thing; it’s everywhere.

Jessica: What?

Paula: Pizza. Like for all student association events, it’s always free pizza and I’m like, How is that a thing?! [laughing] Why is that so important?

Dev: The first week of orientation we had pizza for, like, five days on a stretch and then I didn’t eat pizza for the whole semester because I was so tired. I go back home, I’m in India for the second day, and my friend says, “Hey, Devashish, I’m celebrating my birthday and we’re meeting at Pizza Hut.” And I’m like, “I’m not coming. I’m done.” [laughing] We literally changed the venue because I was like, “I’m not eating pizza anymore!”

Jin: What about when people cough and say, “Bless you.”

Dev: When they sneeze, yes. I don’t know why they care so much.

Jessica: It’s a very old tradition. They thought your soul left your body when you sneezed.

Dev: And people are so concerned. You’re in a class and somebody from the back shouts, “Bless you!” Even the professor says, “Bless you.”

Jin: In the middle of a lecture! For me, another weird thing. Here in United States we call out the name directly, whether he’s older or younger. In Korea we have another word for older people and younger people.

Dev: Yeah, yeah. And professors. You don’t know what some professors prefer to go by, Dr. or by their first name. There’s a professor in the computer science department that corrects me. I was like, “Professor Rudra” and he says, “No, Atri.” And I say, “Professor Rudra” and he says, “Atri.” I’m not used to this.

Jin: In Korea it’s impossible. That’s very dishonoring.

Paula: For us we have it in the language: “you.” I would use one kind of “you” for you two [Dev and Jin] and a different “you” for you [Jessica].

Jessica: That says something about our culture, right? That we don’t have two “yous.”

Paula: I like that, because it’s usually awkward when you switch from the one “you” to the other “you.”

Jessica: What do you think is the biggest difference between living in the U.S. and living in your home country?

Dev: The greatest difference for me is the relaxed environment. I went to a Catholic high school so we had a strict uniform dress code. We were always dressed up. And even when you go to college in India there’s a uniform that you have to wear, like a special colored shirt or polo and you have to wear trousers, you can’t wear jeans. Here, you can walk around in sweatpants.

Paula: I think it’s also interesting, from a UB perspective, that you meet so many people from so many places. Once you’ve been taken out of your culture and put into a mix of others it’s kind of really cool to just see where you stand yourself. I think you realize what’s important for you from your country, and what you like here. You make new friends and you realize, “Oh, why did I make friends with that person?” Because there are so many people and no one really expects anything from you. It’s like starting a life over, kind of.

Jessica: What do you wish people knew about international students? What do you think their misconceptions might be?

Dev: In my personal experience, people started asking me questions like, “Do you guys actually eat curry all the time?” [laughing] But at the same time that was the question they asked me after three months. They are super sensitive here, so they think ten times before they speak just so they don’t offend you. I sometimes feel that just because we are international doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy humor or poking fun at each other. I don’t think international students generally mind if a stereotypical question is asked of them, unless it’s ethnically offensive.

While Jessica has a laugh with the students, baby Aurelia eyes the sundaes.

While Jessica has a laugh with the students, baby Aurelia eyes the sundaes.

Paula: You kind of expect them. People always ask me, “Are you Russian?” and I’m like, “No. It’s fine.” I can’t get offended because I don’t know all countries everywhere. So I think people need to realize that it’s sometimes fine. If we come here, we are open. We expect to have these experiences.

Dev: International students are chill. [laughing]

Jessica: Let’s talk a little bit about Buffalo specifically. What were your impressions of Buffalo as a city?

Jin: When I say to my friends that I’m coming to UB, one or two of them had visited before and they say, “Why do you go there? It’s super cold during winter.” [laughing] I was like, “Well, I think I could survive.” When I came it was around August. It was a sunny day, but the wind was super strong! So as I’m walking, even though it’s sunny, the sun is so hot, it’s still cold because of the wind. So I could kind of imagine how the snow wind will be like.

Jessica: Jin, I’m assuming you experienced winter before you came here.

Jin: Oh, yeah.

Jessica: I know you have, Paula. How about you, Dev?

Dev: Never! The worst I had ever seen is, like, 32 degrees Fahrenheit and that’s when people start dying in my city. [laughing] Then here, it’s negative and fine!

Paula: I think that Buffalo is bipolar. It was so nice two weekends ago…

Dev: Since last Sunday it has been different weather every single day.

Paula: Yeah, I feel like I’m a grandma checking weather every day. I never did that and now I’m like, “I need to check the weather before I leave!”

Dev: If you look out the window it’s sunny but if you look at the temperature it’s below zero! So if you just look outside, you walk outside and you freeze.

Paula: It’s not good.

Dev: But it was fun when it was the snowstorm outside and UB got canceled. Me and my friend, she was from Seattle, so she hadn’t seen snow either. So we just wore like three layers, went out in Governors where they have the hill and were rolling down the hill in snow! I sent that video to my mom and dad and I got seven different phone calls in one day. First my mom calls, like, “Are you out of your freaking mind?” And then my dad calls me: “Do you want to die or anything?” And then my grandfather calls: “It’s only been a few weeks. What are you trying to do to yourself?” And then my uncle calls from Singapore, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” My cousin calls from Georgia: “Are you crazy?” [laughing]

Jin: They are very active!

Paula: Buffalo is something else. I come from a place where it snows but it’s not like here. It gets really cold in Latvia but it’s gradual. It snows a bit and then it accumulates a bit but here it’s like, it decides to snow and it snows for two days. [laughing]

Jin: One more expectation before I come to Buffalo was that I thought I would be seeing more buffalos.

Jessica: The animal?

Dev: Oh! [laughing]

Jin: The place’s name is Buffalo! I even didn’t know about the Buffalo wing, the salty and a little bit spicy sauce, I didn’t know that was from here. And that it’s good to eat! The first time it’s very salty and…

Dev: It’s very different. Vinegary.

Jin: But then, little by little, you get used to it and then when we leave Buffalo, we will say, “This sauce is from the area that I was studying from!” [laughing]

Dev: Also they say that Buffalo hot sauce is really, really hot. It’s nothing compared to the Asian spices that we [speaking to Jin] eat.

Jin: Maybe. I didn’t try the very hot. I don’t really enjoy spicy food.

Dev: I love spicy food. I came here and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll eat hot wings,” and then I was like, “Oh, no. I’m used to more. Come on, Buffalo, you can do better!”

Jessica: So you guys have all traveled around the country too. What were your impressions of the other places you’ve been, or the U.S. as a whole?

Jin: It’s like, “Wow, this country is really big!” All the different cities, and then the weather diversity as well.

Paula: Just going from state to state is like going from country to country in Europe. That’s just so interesting how the culture changes. Like from Buffalo to New York City, it’s two different worlds, and you just have that choice and an 8-hour drive. It’s still the same language, the same country, your family is still relatively close and you just have that huge difference in lifestyle. I think it’s so awesome, and I think that people who are born here sometimes don’t appreciate it enough.

Jessica: Do you feel like living here has changed you as a person, and if so, in what way?

Dev: The most interesting change that I have seen is in the attitude of my parents. When I was back in India, my parents were always a little overprotective of me. If I’m out with my friends after 7 p.m., my mom will call at 7 exactly: “Devashish, when are you coming back home?” Then I’m here, 5:30 in the morning at Niagara Falls, I just call my mom and I say, “Hey, I’m at Niagara Falls.” And she’s like, “Oh, cool, nice!” And things like … I make my own decisions. I’ve started talking to my parents about the decisions they make. You know I call them up and my dad says, “I was thinking about doing this. What do you think?” Now suddenly I am giving my opinion on the big things that I never even knew were happening. And then once you’re here and start doing your own stuff, it kind of gives you practical exposure. So when you go back to India, you have ideas about things. My dad’s friend was looking into expanding his business and because of the small things that I have done here I just went with him and suggested a few things that he could do to expand his business, and they worked. So this life has made me a little more professional in my approaches.

Jessica: Do you think part of that comes from the fact that you decided to study in the U.S. as opposed to just being older and going to college?

Dev: Yeah. I think had I not come to U.S. I wouldn’t have that kind of independence or free-thinking nature that I have now. In India, it’s more like, my dad knows someone, he’ll get things done for me. Like getting a driver’s license. I told my dad I’m turning 18 next month and I want a driver’s license. He’s like, “We’ll think about it.” And then on my 18th birthday he walks in and gives me my license.

Jin: Wow!

Paula: That’s insane!

Dev: That’s how things work in India. [laughing] I still don’t know how to parallel park!

“It was so cool to realize how different we can be but that we can still have so much fun together and work together. It’s just really life-changing to realize that.”
Paula Elksne

Paula: I think being here made me realize how much I love diversity. Latvia is very … there is no diversity really. I can’t really imagine myself, for now, being back in a place where everyone is so much like me. Because here I think life is so much more exciting. Like we are here and we can communicate even though we are so different. Being here just made me realize how big and small the world is at the same time. I was hosting a party at my apartment once and I had people from all continents. Everyone was so happy and people were putting on music from their country and it was just so cool to realize how different we can be but that we can still have so much fun together and work together. I think it’s just really life-changing to realize that.

Jin: For me, since I come here I am able to see my country as a third perspective. I am more able to see the good and bad things of my country at the same time; for here as well. It made in me a really big change in that I can somehow love more about my country. It made me think where I come from, where I really belong, but at the same time I love U.S. because it made me learn many things. It is very … something that I couldn’t learn ever if I had stayed in Korea.

Paula: Oh, definitely.

Dev: When I was in India I was always like, “There is nothing in India. India is going down the drain.” But once I’m here I realized that there’s potential for us, there’s potential for us to do better here and, if given the chance, to do better in India. That has made me feel strongly about my Indian roots and identity. I feel more patriotic and nationalistic.

Paula: You appreciate who you are.

Dev: And I feel nationalistic about issues in America. I would never have imagined that I would actually feel better about an American president going to Cuba and the relations improving.

Jin: Having more sense of what’s going on in the world.

Dev: Having more sense, and then suddenly, without realizing, connecting more with America. You think with the American perspective and then you also think with the Indian perspective.

Jin: That’s true. That’s true.

Paula: That’s a good summary I think.

Jessica Kane is assistant director for communications in the Office of the Vice Provost for International Education.

Sweet History

Founded in 1927, Parkside Candy looks pretty much the same now as it did then, with its ornate architectural moldings, intricate domed ceiling, vintage checkerboard floor and antique furnishings. The menu (and prices) at this University Heights landmark are similarly retro. An old-fashioned soda fountain churns out classic cherry-topped ice cream sundaes, while the lunch menu, featuring items like a tuna fish sandwich, harkens to a simpler time. Long a favorite meeting spot for UB students on the South Campus, Parkside Candy got national props when it was featured in the 1984 movie “The Natural.” Recognizing what Hollywood saw then—and Buffalonians have known for decades—the National Park Service listed the shop on its National Register of Historic Places in November 2015.

Dorothy Sterlace

I loved the interview with the three foreign students. It would be great to have this (shortened version) in every issue.