How my Old Impressions of America(ns) Have Changed

Contributor: Jorge Rojas Ortega                          

Country: Costa Rica                                  

STUDYING: Political Science                                                   

Silc Fall 2014 | Academic Spring Semester 2015 

My perception of the United States and its people has definitely changed since I got involved in the University of Arkansas community. In this sense, my views have changed concerning two main aspects: the “rich America” and the discrimination against immigrants. Moreover, dear readers, I would like you to know that I will be very glad if I change your perspective simultaneously as you read this brief article.

First and foremost, as almost everyone knows, the U.S. is really a developed country -economically speaking- because it has one of the largest economies in the world. In regard to this, one generally associates America with luxury material possessions and rich people, among other stereotypes. However, now that I am living here, I have learned that not everything is like in the movies for a lot of people (fun, money, well-being, and the like). For instance, there are many who must survive with difficulties in their day-to-day lives, such as homelessness, unemployment, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and so forth.

Packing meals along with the UofA community at the Arkansas Union’s Connections Lounge

Packing meals along with the UofA community at the Arkansas Union’s Connections Lounge

No worries! Let’s talk good news! It turns out that many local organizations, in conjunction with the non-profit “The Pack Shack,” brought nutritious ingredients to the Arkansas Union in order for us to pack them and help fight hunger in Northwest Arkansas. The idea was to pack 17,000 meals and give them to our neighbors in need. While having conversations with the organizers, faculty members, and fellow students, I learned that 27% of children in Northwest Arkansas are at risk of going to bed hungry tonight. Additionally, this experience taught me that through generosity and volunteering we can promote a problem-solving community, and combat poverty in the most vulnerable parts of the world, regardless if it comes to a developing or developed country. On this occasion the best part of helping others was receiving the satisfaction that many more will go to bed with food in their stomachs, without sadness, and with more energy to face their next day.

Secondly, the other viewpoint that has undergone a considerable change is the one regarding American discrimination against foreigners. I used to think that discrimination against Latinos and other ethnicities was very common in America, especially in the South. Nevertheless, now that I live here, I am finding that this is not completely true. Fortunately, American society is learning about immigration and inclusivity little by little. The more we educate ourselves about the importance of learning from diversity, the more we welcome people regardless of their origin.


Christmas dinner with the Artts in Dallas, Texas


Thanksgiving Day with a friend of mine and her family in Hope, Arkansas

Finally, I would like to say that I was very lucky to be in the U.S. to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, because two friends of mine invited me to go to their houses for such traditions. I had the opportunity to visit the town of Hope in Southern Arkansas and Dallas, Texas. Contrary to what I used to believe, Southerners are known for their hospitality, friendliness, and their interest in learning about diversity. For example, my friends’ families hosted me with a great desire to share cultures and values. Living, eating, shopping, playing board games, and laughing with them made me feel at home and not simply a stranger. In addition, I felt welcomed at the beginning of April when I had Easter lunch at the Fenderson’s, a very open-hearted family that lives in Fayetteville, very close to the campus.


Easter lunch with UofA students and the Fenderson’s in Fayetteville

To conclude, I would say that our perspectives of what surrounds us changes frequently, and we see the realities around us differently every day depending on what we want to see. In my case, in particular, I have overcome my fears of change, and now I see the United States and its people with very different eyes. Also, as I have said, the UofA has helped me to recognize the importance of diversity, sense of community, and inclusivity toward those who want to have a better life. No matter if we are abroad or at home, we should always seek changes in order for everybody to have the basics to be happy, and not like in the movies, in which only some are portrayed with a smile in their faces.

Fatima’s U.S. Experience – VII & VIII Football and Rock Climbing

Fatima is a Visiting International student from Pakistan. She spent the Fall 2013 semester at the U of A. She shares her experiences in a series of blog posts.

VII – Razorback Football

The Razorbacks have been having a bad season. They have not only lost every single game they have played, they have lost very, very badly. Hence I was not all that geared up to attend a football game. The fact that I am not a sports person might also have something to do with my lack of enthusiasm.

The game experience was pretty much the same as my baseball experience. I did not understand it much or enjoy it much (that partially being due to the fact that it was very warm, and I was feeling nauseous). Also, we lost without me ever finding out why we lost. We were playing South Carolina that day.

But what was great about the going-to-the-game experience was the free stuff you got of it. I got a free t-shirt, miniature rubber football, a Chick Fil-A coupon for a free cookie. It made you wonder what kind of stuff we would have gotten if we had actually won.

Here are some words I learned: Scrimmage, quarterback, touchdown.

This game was the homecoming game, so it was a huge deal. Alumni had returned to tailgate before the game and the homecoming queen was to be announced – ‘The Most Beautiful Girl on Campus’.

The band and the cheerleaders and the twirlers were highly entertaining, so even though I am not a sports fan at all, I was not too bored. I loved the twirlers in particular.

I was relieved when the game was finally over. Twirlers or not, I will never comprehend why people are willing to stand in the sun for hours watching men toss a ball around – cricket, football, or whatever other godforsaken sport there is.

VIII – Rock Climbing

Rock Climbing!!

Outdoors activities or sports will be the death of me.
I say this because one day, my Resident Assistant Jenna told us she was taking a bunch of girls out to one of the lakes in Fayetteville, Lincoln Lake, and I agreed to go along even though I did not know how to swim hence would not be able to cliff-dive or go swimming.

It was a beautiful location though. Quiet and secluded, it looked like something out of a painting. It was amazing. Thankfully, there were things for non-swimmers like me to do. For instance, Rock-Climbing. I had never tried it before so I thought then was a good chance.

Beginners are never recommended to try climbing real rocks because it is always harder to find footing in them. I was a beginner trying to climb a real rock – you can imagine how it turned out. I started off well, but pretty soon my arms were screaming out for me to stop and I was just swinging mid-air, gasping for breath and asking to be let down. You could see the incredulity in the (extremely good-looking) instructor who was holding down the other end of the rope. I vowed to start practicing from that day on until I was good enough to climb real rocks.

I only went to the HPER once after that for rock-climbing. Just goes to show – I am incurably lazy, whether I am in Pakistan or the United States.

Fatima’s U.S. Experience VI – Holidays Abroad

Fatima is a Visiting International student from Pakistan. She spent the Fall 2013 semester at the U of A. She shares her experiences in a series of blog posts.

 For me, holidays at home have always been stressful. Not particularly having ever been a people person, I do not like to be inundated by guests and rambunctious relatives for too long, so I assumed that Eid away from home would be a calm, relaxing experience.

It was not.

When Eid came around, I found myself feeling lonely. Hence, I jumped out of bed early in the morning to go pray the Eid Prayer at the local mosque, something that would always induce groans out of me back home. I could not dress up as I did back home because I had to run back home and change for classes. But it did help to alleviate my loneliness somewhat.

The Muslim community in Fayetteville is highly diverse and integrated. You have people from all over the world – Pakistanis, Bengalis, Syrians, Egyptians, Saudis, Nigerians, Cameroons, etc. Eid Prayer at the mosque was an interesting experience – I had never been surrounded by so many nationalities at a mosque. There were also a couple of American Christian girls who wanted to find out more about the Eid Experience, and I really hit it off with them. We ended up talking about music and turned out to have the same taste. They were responsible for introducing me to the band Local Natives, who are now on my favorites playlist.

Eid Festival

All in all, Eid away from home did not really feel much like away from home – only a little different, and if there is anything I have learned in the past two months, it is that difference can be good.

Fatima’s U.S. Experience V – Crystal Bridges & Little Rock

Fatima is a Visiting International student from Pakistan. She spent the Fall 2013 semester at the U of A. She shares her experiences in a series of blog posts.

My ifriend Gina Gray is an amazing woman. She is big-hearted and generously thoughtful. Hence, one day when I mentioned that I had not been able to go to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with the International Cultural Team, she volunteered to take me one weekend, and I eagerly took her up on her offer.

Pow! Bam!

An interesting fact about Fayetteville that I have not mentioned in my previous posts is that the first Wal-mart was opened in Rogers, which is a town not too far from Fayetteville (a 20 minute drive, I’ve been told). The owner, Sam Walton, was originally from Oklahoma, a neighboring state of Arkansas. Before opening Wal-mart, he had opened up a five-and-dime store in Bentonville, which is also a town 30 minutes away from Fayetteville. Because of Wal-mart’s prominent presence, Fayetteville enjoys a thriving, vibrant arts scene. The Waltons have donated generously to various projects over the years. The Crystal Bridges Museum of Modern Art is one of those projects that was funded by the daughter of Sam Walton.

Gina and I, along with one of Gina’s colleagues Christina, set out on a rainy Saturday to visit the museum. The museum is built to blend it with its very beautiful forest surroundings. The roofs are curved downwards like the back of a beetle, so when it rains the water slides down them and into the lake that it is built over. The museum itself is divided into various sections. We started off with the more realist, baroque-style paintings of the early 1600s and moved on to the more impressionist paintings. Some of the quoted prices of the paintings were very interesting – to quote one fellow visitor exclaimed, ‘I feel like I shouldn’t even be standing so close to them!’

The fact that I could recognize many of the modernist American greats – Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Wyeth, Rockwell – before even reading the label accompanying them filled me with pretentious art-connoisseur pride. I knew more than my American guides in the era, so much so that Christina asked me how I knew so much about art. It helps to be painfully pretentious at times.

Later, Gina treated Christina and me to lunch at the museum café, and soon we were ready to head back. We could not visit the tracks surrounding the museum that day due to the persistent raining, but it still was a surprisingly productive and fun day.

Little Rock

The International Students Office organized a trip to Little Rock for (surprise, surprise) International Students. I signed up immediately. Little Rock is the capital of Arkansas, and there are a lot of people on campus from Little Rock.

We visited the Farmer’s Market of Little Rock, as well as the Arkansas Museum of Natural History. Interesting as both places were, I was truly moved by the Museum of African-American History, or as it is better known – the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. I have read about slavery in America before, but here were some of the truly, movingly powerful moments from that part of American history. Here we learned about the lynching of John Carter and the North Little Rock Six (amazingly, the receptionist at this museum was the younger sister of one of the six students). These were stories of true courage – to stand up in the face of millions of people and demand for a basic right.

African-American history has always fascinated me. I loved listening to old-school rap during my younger days (Tupac, Wu-Tang) and I have been a huge admirer of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison’s writings. Hence, this Museum was a very meaningful experience for me.

Fatima’s Experience III & IV – Baseball and Motorcycles

Fatima is a Visiting International student from Pakistan. She spent the Fall 2013 semester at the U of A. She shares her experiences in a series of blog posts.

III Baseball Game

Baseball game

Texas Rangers Vs. Minnesota Twins

Most countries have their one sport to compulsively obsess over. Pakistan has cricket. The European countries have football. America, apparently, has baseball and football.

On our Dallas trip, our hosts thought it would be a good idea to take us to a baseball match. There would be a fireworks show later, they told us, which is why we got what are called nosebleed seats.

Not such a good idea.

Not only did I not understand much of what was going on (my friend Michelle tried to explain, but all I remember now are the words innings, fair, foul, home run, loaded bases – most of which I cannot remember the significance of). We were watching the Texas Rangers play against the Minnesota Twins, and towards the end something happened that was apparently ‘every baseball fan’s dream’ – all 3 bases were loaded and, well, something else that I also do not remember. Texas Rangers won.

But what did interest me was how involved people were with the game. Halfway through the game, a tiny voice from somewhere in the crowd started chanting ‘let’s go, Rangers, let’s go’. I strained to look, and found a little African-American kid held up in someone’s lap urging the players on – ‘letsgorangersletsgo’. People began to join in. Soon everyone was chanting in unison (I too joined in – mob mentality at work). Someone added a clap to it and soon we were all chanting to a beat. You could still hear the little boy above that roaring cheer.

I was also amusing myself by observing the two men sitting in front of us – burly, heavyset, full-blooded men – who would on occasion scream at the players. They had a little kid with them. Between the innings, when music would play, they would robustly join in, nudging the little kid playfully, ruffling his hair, head banging intensely to the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, standing up in exaggerated silent reverence when the national anthem was playing, etc. At one particularly bad play, the bigger of the two men jumped up and shouted at the players’ ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!!’. His shorts were riding low at that point. ‘He’s cracking,’ my friend Michelle said to me as I tried to suppress a snort and looked away.

There were no fireworks that night. We were very disappointed. People left the stadium in surprisingly non-excited groups (of course, I say this in comparison to the hyper-excited masses that storm the streets in Pakistan after a cricket victory). Tim, our group guide told us he had tried to get a booking for us at one of the many halal restaurants in Dallas, but they were had all closed at that point (it was really late). We were really touched though, and told him we appreciated the thought, but he did not have to go through that trouble on our behalf. We ended up going to IHOP at midnight (another American cultural experience, to be fair) and had pancakes and cheese sticks.

IV Bikes Blues & BBQ

Fatima (Me!) on bike

There are some things that can shake up even the Americans here sometimes. Thousands of unkempt, wild-looking bikers all clad in leather from all over the United States driving into Fayetteville – long, wiry hair and all – for the Bikes, Blues and BBQ festival was one of those things.

For one long week, the peace and quiet of Fayetteville roads and streets were pierced by the loud vrooming of Harley Davidsons and other Bulky bikes. You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t walk anywhere without sighting a couple of these threatening-looking bikers and their women clinging to their backs, riding around town and disturbing the calm that is specific to small towns like Fayetteville. If I had a dollar for every time an American nervously told us foreign students ‘Americans aren’t like this’, I would have probably had ten dollars by the end of the week.

I was excited. I had never seen anything like it – I guess this would be the American equivalent of Pakistani Truckers driving around in groups around Islamabad, disturbing the somber gray of the city by their flashy, gaudy artwork. Taking my roommate and her friend, I went down to Dickson Street to see the bikers.

Dickson Street is a usually happening place, but it’s never crowded. You can walk up and down it without running into a lot of people – on normal days. Those days, however, if you could take five steps without someone ramming their elbow into you, it would be a miracle.

Big, shiny bikes were lined up next to the pavements. Sometimes people would stop and take pictures next to them. There were food stalls – the Turkey Leg was a huge hit and I also had my second encounter with the funnel cake here – and there were also other souvenir shops.

One time I was on a bus that week, and two guys were talking about the festival. One of them wondered about how these run-down looking bikers could afford such expensive bikes, and the bus driver answered him that most of them were normal people with blue-collar jobs like dentists and bankers and biking was their hobby – the get-up was all part of reinforcing the vagrant biker look. I found that fascinating and luring and made me want to abandon my blue-collar education and go biking around the country. Maybe one of these days I will.

Greetings from Fatima the Future Biker!


Fatima’s U.S. Experience I and II – RAs and Dallas Trip

Fatima is a Visiting International student from Pakistan. She spent the Fall 2013 semester at the U of A. She shares her experiences in a series of blog posts.

Me sucking at Sand Volleyball, with Jenna in the background posing for my picture.

I have decided that my American experience has so far been marked not by events, but by people who have made those events special. I have met many, many unique individuals during my time here in the states – many kind, wonderful people. Hence, I have decided to talk about my experiences in terms of the people I have met.

Jenna Turner is one of the first in the long line of amazing people I have met here in Arkansas. She is a Resident Assistant in my dorm. Jenna is the poster All-American girl you’ve seen on TV or heard songs about or read about in books – blonde, athletic, Christian. When I first met her, she spent ten seconds repeating my name so she could get the pronunciation right. I did not care much – I had just moved in that day, and desperately wanted to go to sleep. The next morning as I was walking towards the elevator, I noticed a note with my name on it stuck to the door of the room next to Jenna’s (she had thought that that was where I lived). It was a really sweet welcome note from Jenna saying she would really like to hang out some time and to call her if I needed anything at all. I decided then that I would like her after all (yes, I’m very picky when it comes to liking people – I usually just barely tolerate people). I stuck the note on my study desk, and it is still there two months later.

Later on, I would meet the other RA – Kendra – and eventually the rest of the Holcombe Family (Holcombe is the name of the hall we live in), and we go eat Mexican food with the rest of the group and play sand volleyball (a game that for some reason is very popular here in the south – also, a game I will never be good at) and have movie nights watching old Disney cartoons, but those first few days were what really mattered. Jenna showed kindness to a baffled, socially awkward foreigner who may or may not have come as aloof because of not knowing how to act in social situations – and she continues to be kind and thoughtful to this very day.

II Visit to Dallas and a church

Over the labour day weekend, Chi Alpha, a campus Christian fellowship, had arranged a two-day trip to Dallas, TX. They were offering a reasonable rate, pleasant companionship and security – so I signed up along with a couple of other international students.

The most cliched tourist-y whim was indulged for a day and half in Dallas – visiting a theme park (Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor). These are are strictly not cultural experiences (unless you count the very sugar-y funnel cake that I bought and consumed there) so I won’t talk about that. There is not much to talk about anyway (we went on as many rides as we could – rollercoasters, etc. – and took many pictures). Instead, I will talk about our visit to a Church that we made on our second day there, an experience that I found very interesting.

I am truly fascinated by the very modernist architecture that many churches are built according to here. As a friend remarked, this was not what I thought of when I thought of a church (admittedly, I’ve always thought of them to be more like the gothic structures that most Catholic churches follow, which is in retrospect a very asinine expectation). But the architecture of the church was not the only non-conventional aspect of the church. I had expected a solemn-faced man dressed in black to stand behind a pulpit and talk to us monotonously for an hour or so. Instead, we were greeted by what one international observer in our group described as a ‘mini-concert’ – on the well-lit stage at one end of the room, four singers – two women and two men – backed by a band complete with an electric guitar and drum set, sang a couple of hymns. Many of the attendants got up and sang with them, some waving their arms in ecstatic devotion while other silently swaying with the rhythm.

It was after this that the preacher came on and began to address the audience. Even the preacher’s general appearance was slightly surprising. He had on not black robes but an open collar polo shirt and khaki pants. He talked about faith and doubt for about half an hour and then called some people to come to the front to lead the prayer.

Because the Church that we were attending was one that a member of our group, Eric Betencourt, went to with his family, the preacher acknowledged our presence, welcomed us into the community and had some people distribute $25 gift cards to all of us. We all walked out very happy.

Surprisingly enough, the Church experience was unique not only for us, but also for some of the Americans in our group. There was a very interesting conversation about the different worship styles in the different Churches later on.