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Dormitory Serves as Cultural Mixer : First Residents of International House Say It's a Melting Pot Without Cliques

October 18, 1987|TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

In China it is traditional that a person journey home to celebrate the Moon Festival with his family. But as a student at California State University, Long Beach, Rong Fang knew it was impractical for him to return to Taiwan.

What he did instead was introduce the festival to his new "family"--his fellow students at the university's International House.

Open since the start of fall classes, the two-story, $2.5-million International House is the dormitory home to 88 students--44 American and 44 foreign--who share rooms and life styles in a way that officials hope will broaden their educational experience.

"This gives the Americans a chance to immerse themselves in a different culture for a year," said Maurice Harari, dean of CSULB's Center for International Education. "It is a part of the university's commitment to internationalize the institution." At the same time, the foreign students get a closer, more personal look at Americans.

Of the 27,000 students on the Long Beach campus, 1,700 are visiting from other countries. And those who live at International House represent 17 nationalities from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Canada and South America.

Second of Its Kind in State

Harari said the dormitory is only the second of its kind in the state--the University of California, Berkeley, has a similar student facility.

"Ideally, our goal is to have 44 foreign students representing 44 different countries," Harari said. Filling the American slots was easy, he said, but getting foreign students moved in was tougher because many have their tuition paid by their governments and the checks tended to arrive late.

The brick and tinted-glass dormitory already has become a popular addition to the campus. And those who live at International House are excited about being its first residents.

"This will be an experience I wouldn't get in a normal dorm," said Karyne Murphy, a freshman comparative literature major from Glendale. "I know a lot of the people living here want to travel and they want to learn a lot about different cultures."

The residents say the house has become a melting pot, without the usual cliques associated with college life.

"At the dining hall, you'll find tables of the International House students sitting together and not all of the Americans at one table and the foreign students at another," said Kris Schmidt, 18, from San Diego. "It doesn't matter where you're from."

The house is designed to facilitate communal living; each suite has three, two-person bedrooms and a common bathroom. The suites surround a common lounge that contains a library, but no television that might distract from conversation.

The quiet, reflective life style of the 26 Asians living in the house has had the greatest impact upon their house mates, both the Americans and Europeans said. Most said they envy the Asians' apparent discipline.

"They have very strict moral codes," said Murphy, 18, who has a Korean roommate. "They know exactly what they believe. We live in a very loose society. It almost depends on where you are from to know what you believe."

"They are very, very polite," said Steve Soo, a second generation Chinese-American, whose life style admittedly emphasizes the latter part of his heritage. The 20-year-old junior said of the Asians, "They bow to you, talk quietly to you. We Americans are kind of casual."

Fang also has observed the contrast, but from a different perspective.

"We (Asians) are more conservative," Fang said. "We are more concerned about the appearance of what we are doing. Americans seem to enjoy life" in a more robust fashion.

Atmosphere Is Relaxed

Ibrahim Dajani said the relaxed atmosphere of the house is a refreshing change from the rigid life he knew as a Palestinian in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"For me, being one international student, if everybody here had the same culture, I would not be comfortable," Dajani said. Foreign students, he said, tend to be overwhelmed in a regular dormitory. That was his experience during a summer stay at one, he said.

"There are usually only one or two foreign students in each building and the Americans dominate," Dajani said. He believes the average American student is not interested in tales of his homeland. However, those at the International House are different, he said.

"The most important thing is that everybody here is friendly and is interested in learning something about other people," Dajani said.

Harari agreed and said that lack of interest in world culture by Americans has led the United States to a precarious position internationally.

"Not enough people in this country knew the difference between Shia and Sunni Moslems until this Iran-Iraq thing blew up," Harari said. (The conflict is approximately 1,300 years old. Shiites dominate in Iran but are a minority to Sunnis in the rest of the Middle East. Shiites believe that the prophet Mohammed designated his son-in-law Ali to be his successor and that Ali's male descendants are blessed. Sunnis hold no such belief.)

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