When Murad Jah (’18) arrived at ASL in Grade 8 from a British school, he never felt more alone. He didn’t have many friends and because of his Turkish origin, he didn’t fit into the American cultural norms. Furthermore, his grades suffered because of it. He felt different. Over time he “started learning a bit more about how people [acted] and how to adapt.” Eventually, “everything just picked up socially and academically.”
Although American by name, ASL is accustomed to international students and teachers coming from a wide spectrum of locations around the world. While there is a multitude of countries represented amongst the community, some students and teachers believe that a diversity of cultures is not always visible. Instead, an American culture dominates the school community.
Learning Specialist Jeri Byrom, who identifies as a black American, came from Malaysia before teaching at ASL. She believes that there is a compulsion for both students and teachers to assimilate to the “white western culture” that she believes is the cultural majority at ASL. “I think the school is really trying to pay attention to the [different] cultures and making sure people can come as their whole selves, [but] I don’t think that’s a reality right now,” Byrom said.
Jah believes that many people change themselves in order to fit in with the dominant culture. “I think they change the way they think about things, the way they look at things, so other people will agree,” he said.
Byrom believes that her culture differs from the cultural norms of many at the school. Specifically, Byrom feels like the way she styles her hair is impacted by perceptions that she receives from the westernized culture of ASL. “When I change my hairstyle, I normally get a lot of attention at school so I have to prepare myself for that,” she said.
Many people ask Byrom questions about her hair, which can frustrate her. “It’s different from the dominant culture, it’s black hair and I can do things with it that maybe other people from other cultures can’t do.” she said. “You want to touch [my hair] and you want to know, ‘how does it do that?’ It just grows out of my head like yours does.”
Effie Ogino (’19), who identifies as Japanese, believes because she is not American she feels a stronger expectation to conform to the American culture, especially around holidays. “Everyone is really excited for Thanksgiving throughout November. [Other students] kind of expect me to be cheery, but I am not because that is not a part of my culture,” she said.
The ways that the social norms of Ogino’s culture differ from that of ASL is also evident in how people communicate, such as by making jokes that have American cultural references, which are foreign to Ogino. “Communicating is a big obstacle, even if you do speak English,” she said
Jah believes that for students who are culturally American, it is easier for them to succeed at ASL both academically as well as socially. “I think it’s easier to make friends, easier to talk to people and easier to interact with teachers,” he said. “If you don’t [fit in], you don’t make friends, you don’t understand the system, so you don’t learn as well as you probably could.”
Byrom agrees with Jah and also realizes that if she conformed fully into the western culture at ASL, rather than retaining her own culture, she would be accepted more among the ASL community. She believes that if she completely assimilated, “life would probably be a little easier.”
World Languages and Cultures Teacher Patrick Marinucci, who identifies as a French-Canadian, shared a similar experience to Byrom upon his arrival to ASL, in that he also identified a strong culture that dominated the community. “Most teachers come from the Western World [and are] mostly caucasians,” he said.
In contrast, Chaznane Fidahoussen (’19), who has lived in Madagascar for most of her life, joined ASL from a British school this year. She believes that being a non-American international student at ASL made it easier to fit in when she was new. “It is easier for someone who is international, because they have a different culture and they have more things to talk about,” Fidahoussen said. “I think it is good to have differences in order to learn about other people’s perspectives.”
Fidahoussen believes that the more liberal attitudes of both ASL and London helped her to transition. “Before I came to London, I saw a completely different culture, I think it was very different from where we were in Madagascar, because we didn’t have mainstream shops or restaurants or cinemas and the way people thought and the sense of people not caring what you wear,” she said.
While Marinucci was aware of the dominant culture, he did not feel the need to conform to fit the norms of the school community, especially as the school is located in a cosmopolitan city like London. “[Although] I’m not American and working in an American school, I never felt that I was not part of the group,” he said. “You could be different and be totally accepted.”
Although Byrom acknowledges that “there’s a diversity mission statement, and there are funds that are relegated to professional development for all the faculty to understand diversity and inclusion of racial, ethnic, learning,” she believes that there needs to be more of an “institutional way that we approach kids and help them…express their culture.”
Even though there are clubs and activities that allow people to express their cultures, such as the South Asia Club and their South Asia night, Ogino believes that the school should do more to allow people to express themselves and their cultures. “It’s amazing that there is a club like [South Asia Club], however that is not enough,” she said. Ogino believes that it is important for students to be more informed about different cultures. “I think the more you understand about other cultures, the better you are as a person.”
Written by Features Editor Ananya Prakash and Features Editor Quinn Whitman