Actually Good Questions to Ask International Students Instead of “So What’s the Time Over There?”
Being a freshman is tough. Being an international freshman is tougher. Being a remote international freshman starting your college experience online in the middle of a pandemic in an election year is possibly the worst combination. And although we appreciate the looks of awe and well-meaning pity when other students find out that we do, in fact, stay up for 12 a.m. classes and 3 a.m. club meetings, try out these better conversation starters than, “Woah, what time is it over there?” to chat up the international freshmen in your Zoom class or club.
Anything food related
“What’s your favorite food?” is a safe question to start the conversation. Everyone loves good food, and it's a pretty universal topic to kick off a spicy (or salty) conversation. International students take great pride in having amazing cuisines in their home countries and love talking about them! From Korean barbeque to Anjera (sour flatbread) to Murg Makhani (butter chicken) to Wali wa nazi (coconut rice), international students have a wealth of cuisines they’re willing and happy to share.
Best places to visit in their country
We can only speak for African tourism, but in case you’re wondering: We have, in fact, seen a lion — multiple times, sometimes outside on the street right next to our acacia tree. We’re joking. Talking about all the cool underrated things to do in your country outside popular tourist activities is a breath of fresh air from the clichés we always hear about. From white water rafting, to cave diving, to waterfall bungee jumping, to snake taming, international students have some pretty cool stories to tell if only you ask. We could tell you about the time we kissed a giraffe, but instead let's talk about that one time your neighbor's uncle’s cousin's girlfriend went on a safari in the Savannah (another joke). As much as we appreciate the tourism revenue, we know you know.
“What's your favourite song/album/artist?” is a nice, mildly interesting question. Talking about music can go many different ways — either you’ll bond over the musical genius that is Dua Lipa’s “Nostalgia” or disagree over Beyoncé’s latest album. Music is a great way to get people talking and connect through Spotify playlists. Another bonus is you never know what new cool genre you could discover!
Hobbies are a great way to find similarities and common interests to start a budding friendship. International students are pretty impressive, so don’t be surprised if you find out someone is a nationally acclaimed athlete, artist, musician, or Math Olympiad gold medalist. Hobbies are a nice way to bridge the gap between you and the other person; despite differences in culture, you’re both teenagers finding your way through college and life.
If you’re really struggling to find a topic, and the breakout room doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon, you can always rely on good ol’ weather to save the day. A simple, “So how is the weather where you are?” could be a good start. Weather is a universally boring topic, so hopefully someone saves you from that awkward conversation. With autumn in full swing, feel free to drop in a few anecdotes about your favorite seasonal activities or drinks. Snow stories are another crowd pleaser, especially among us tropical and equatorial weather people.
Chances are, if you are speaking to an international student, English isn’t their first language, so you can always ask them to teach you a few words or phrases in their home language. While this won’t get you a pass out of your language requirement, you can at least learn something that you can use to flex on your friends. However, we can’t guarantee that you won’t meet a cheeky international student who will trick you into thinking that you are saying, “Hi, my name is ___,” in their home language when you are actually saying some sort of profanity. While that is something we would be tempted to do, we generally avoid it.
Traditions and customs
A great way to learn more about an international student and their background is to ask them about traditions and customs from their home countries. International students would love to share the best parts of their home culture — you might find something you have in common or learn something new about a different country.
Most international students grew up watching American media, so we know quite a lot about American culture. Americans can sometimes seem like strange creatures to us internationals, so we might find some of your “Americanisms” a bit weird. Feel free to ask us what we find confusing about Americans, you’ll probably get some interesting responses. Like, what is with your obsession with seasons? Why do you hang American flags everywhere? What is so special about pumpkin spice? Why do you write your dates wrong? What’s up with daylight savings? Chances are you might find yourselves a bit weird too.
In our completely unbiased opinion, international students are the best part of Harvard. You will probably have many interesting and fruitful conversations with any international student you meet. We love it when other students show an interest in our cultures and backgrounds, and we love learning more about our American peers. Feel free to distract us from our time difference and remote learning struggles by using these conversation starters to get some good conversations going!