When Te-yi Chung applied for housing at CSUN, the Taiwanese native was worried about the ethnic makeup of her potential dormitory roommates.
Chung, who goes by her American name “Katie,” is an Intensive English Program graduate student in mass communication major at CSUN who attended college in Taiwan, where she graduated with a major in speech communication.
She came to the United States five years ago and attended an adult school in San Francisco, where she interacted with Chinese Americans, as well as Mexican, Spanish and Italian students.
“I learned that some people from Spain are very passionate,” Chung said. “They like to kiss each other in front of everyone. In Taiwan, we are very conservative, so that doesn’t happen.”
Soon after moving into University Park Apartments Building 9 this April and meeting her roommates, Rei Fukada, Melissa Merrill and Misha Thompson, Chung felt comfortable around them. Fukada is from Japan. Merrill and Thompson are Americans of Jewish and Italian descent respectively.
Chung said she enjoys sharing a room with three women of different ethnic backgrounds. Her fears of having communication problems quickly went away.
“It’s very interesting because we can (learn about) the different cultures,” Chung said. “My roommates are so great and wonderful. They make the room feel warm. I’m not scared anymore.”
Chung said she believes culture is important to learn about. She described a Chinese ceremony that takes place during the month of July called the Ghost Month, or Ghost Festival, where many different kinds of foods are prepared for ghosts. The people minimize interaction with the ghosts – it is considered bad luck – by not leaving their homes.
Fukada, a Japanese undergraduate in the IE program, is undeclared but is considering majoring in psychology or social work.
Fukada is very shy, but with the help of Chung and Merrill, she explained that like Chung, she had reservations about living with people of different backgrounds but has enjoyed living with her roommates.
“At first, I was very worried about (the) situation,” Fukada said. “I can’t speak English well, and (my roommates) speak English well. I thought we wouldn’t communicate.”
Both Fukada and Chung speak heavily-accented English, but do not have much of a problem communicating with others and their roommates.
Fukada said her roommates have been helpful in trying to understand her and make the effort to listen to each other.
“It’s difficult to understand each other, but many people are kind (and that makes me) comfortable,” Fukada said.
Fukada said she would have been relieved to live with Japanese roommates simply because there would be no language barrier. She prefers her current living situation, however, because she can practice her English.
Melissa Merrill is a freshman liberal studies major and part of the Integrated Teacher Education Program for credentials in special education.
Merrill, who is Jewish, said growing up in Long Beach, her friends were from different ethnic backgrounds. She also has a cousin who is black.
Merrill said living in the dorms was the best choice she has made in college so far.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else on campus,” Merrill said.
“We (the dorm residents) have weekly meetings on our floor,” Merrill said. “(It’s) a structure (meant) to get the American and international students to communicate.”
Merrill said she was not aware she would be living with international students because the university does not know ahead of time how many of them will apply for housing. She only knew she would room with U.S.-born Misha Townsend, who is of Italian descent.
“I think it’s really awesome to live with (people of) different ethnicities,” Townsend said. “We get to eat lots of different and good food.”
Townsend said she knew a little about Japanese culture because her stepdad is half Japanese. At first, there was a bit of awkwardness between the women, she said.
“The main thing was that we didn’t know each other,” Townsend said. “It was hard to understand Rei and Katie at first because of their accents. We were trying to get comfortable with each other.”
Well past their two-day awkward stage, the roommates now exchange ideas readily.
“We like telling each other about our culture,” Townsend said. “We’ll explain different things about our culture to each other.”
Townsend said having a black aunt, uncle and cousins has helped her to avoid stereotypes about other cultures.
Merrill explained that international students have summer session before the fall semester at CSUN begins. They live in the dorms and take courses for two months before the first official day of classes of the fall semester begins.
“I was excited, but still a little nervous about communication,” Merrill said.
Merrill is straightforward and helpful with Fukada and Chung when it comes to communication. If questions were not clear to Fukada, Merrill would rephrase them and Fukada would be able to answer them. When Chung had a hard time thinking of a word to say, Merrill was there to fill her in.
“Both (Chung and Fukada) have improved (their English) a lot since we moved in,” Merrill said. “I embrace them and teach them (about my cultures) as best as I can.”
Merrill said that it is difficult to explain things about the English language and American culture to Chung and Fukada because it is new to them. She says that building 9 will soon take a large group of international students to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
“That way they can have exposure to the civil rights movement and the African American movement,” Merrill said. “They can be exposed to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.”
Fukada said most of her friends are Japanese, and some are Korean, Taiwanese and black. Chung said almost all of her friends are Japanese. Merrill and Townsend said they have a mixture of friends.
Fukada admits she had stereotypes about Taiwanese and American people.
“I thought Chinese (people) were angry because they speak so quickly,” Fukada said. “Before I came to America, my mother told me to be careful because Americans have guns and drugs, but Americans are very friendly and kind.”
Chung had also heard unflattering things about Americans.
“My friends said that Americans are selfish, but it’s not true because (Merrill’s) not selfish,” Chung said. “She’s a very generous person.”
The roommates like baseball, shopping, ice cream and eating different foods. However, Chung and Fukada don’t like horror films.
When a commercial for a horror flick appeared on the television in their dorm room, the two looked away and waited for the commercial to end.
The women said they have each cooked different dishes from their culture so that the other roommates could try them. They have also gone out together to different restaurants, including Chinese and Italian.
“We have more similarities because I think if (one of us) is not used to a certain activity, we’re willing to try new things,” Merrill said.
Their differences vary from taking showers at morning versus night, to going to bed at 10 p.m. versus 3 a.m.
Townsend said it may seem like there are many differences among she and her roommates, but they share a lot of things in common.
“A lot of things are similar among us. We just express it in different ways,” Townsend said.
Cynthia Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.