Doctoral student Marlene Lee came to the United States in 1997 from Malaysia to attend an undergraduate psychology program at California State University, Fresno. She recalls some of the questions her American classmates would ask when they found out she was from Southeast Asia: "How long was the boat ride?" "Do you live in trees?" "Do you have cars in your country?"
"It's both amusing and frustrating," says Lee, 26, who graduated with a bachelor's in 1999 and is in her third year in a clinical psychology program at the University at Albany of the State University of New York. "Stereotypes are prevalent, and I don't deny that foreigners do not have stereotypes of American people....Evidently, there is still a lot that we can learn from each other's cultures."
Lee was studying law at Nottingham University in England when, after the first year, her interests turned to studying human behavior. "I realized law was not what I wanted to do," Lee says. "Psychology eventually won out....And if I wanted to study psychology, America was the place. It's where the action takes place."
Lee graduated with a 4.0 grade point average in two-and-a-half years from the University of California, Fresno with her bachelor's degree. She took a year off before starting a PhD program, working parttime as a waitress and at a group home for physically and sexually abused boys. "It was very challenging," Lee says. "But I found it to be a really good experience...because it was a tough population to work with."
She also says she hasn't really experienced culture shock since she was raised surrounded by Western cultural influences and spoke English in Malaysia.
Lee says she values her experiences as an international student--even the not-so-pleasant ones such as some of the discrimination she has faced and difficulty in obtaining research funding since she is not a U.S. citizen.
But her experiences, she says, have taught her to be more aware of the tensions that exist between racial groups and different cultures.