EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting school in a new country can be tough, but for many of Williamsport’s international students the culture shock is often replaced by a strong sense of community. Follow along with On the PULSE during our week-long series to discover the unique experiences of students who come here from across the globe.
Po-Ju Sung, or “Po,” a senior from Taiwan at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, seems to have college life all figured out.
His smile is bright, his voice confident, as he explains how he is almost done earning his bachelor’s degree in Applied Management, the second part of the school’s Two-Plus-Two program, of which he acquired an Associate’s Degree in Heavy Equipment and Technology during the first half.
The Penn College Motorsports Association, he says, is his favorite club on campus; he loves working on cars and talking about them, even racing sometimes, and PCMA fills that need. He loves getting together with like-minded individuals, and feels a sense of belonging as part of that community.
However, Po wasn’t always so self-assured. During his freshman year at Penn College in 2016, he describes himself as a shy freshman, staying in the dorms and feeling too nervous to socialize. It was only his second year in the United States, his first in Williamsport. He had learned basic English at a school in West Philadelphia and was now taking ESL classes at Penn College to improve his English proficiency, a requirement for all international students at the college..
Being away from home for the first time was tough. Everything felt different — the people, the environment, the language.
“The first year you have been culture shocked,” Po says. “It’s just like, oh, too much information right now! And you can’t digest, because everything is different and you have to adapt.
Food was one aspect of American culture hard for Po to digest. To him, it seemed entirely wheat-based — very different from the tasty variety of grains, noodles, vegetables and meats he was used to in Taiwan. To calm himself down and alleviate homesickness, Po started to learn how to make his favorite dishes from home.
“The first time wasn’t the best,” he says, laughing. “And so I started cooking, cooking, cooking, cooking, and I found that I am actually interested in cooking. So right now, I cook pretty much every day — just for cheaper options, and also healthier. So I can eat the food that I want, or that I miss.”
Like many students, Po hit a stride during his second year at school. He joined the motorsports association and made friends in his classes, even inviting some over to his place to try out the tasty meals he made. He grew comfortable enough to explore Williamsport, enjoying drives out to the country and going to the shops and restaurants downtown.
Now, he works part time at a bike shop in Lewisburg, where he gets to interact with people off-campus.
“I like it here,” he says.. “I feel like I grew up here.”
Of course, Po still loves going home for breaks, where he can see his family and old friends. But his comfort level there has shifted a bit.
“The second year I went home for winter break, I actually felt kind of weird. When I’m home, I feel like I’m being culture shocked again, just because I adapted to the American culture already.”
Po is quick to point out the great differences between Taiwanese and American culture — namely, in how people communicate. Americans, Po says, are quick to smile and make eye-contact with strangers; a custom that does not exist in Taiwan.
“I think it’s a huge difference because America is based on individualism,” he says, adding that in Taiwan, and any other Asian country, “we’re more group-oriented.”
As Po-Ju looks ahead to his post-college future, the possibility of staying in Williamsport is very appealing. But ultimately, the job market will determine where he goes next.
“Ideally, I would like to stay here, because it’s such a good area. I like it. Like I said, you can go to the store really quick and then go to the country in 20 minutes. So, I think if I have to leave here today and never come back here, I’ll be really sad . . . But it all depends where I get the job.”
Even though Po-Ju loves his American home, he takes care to never forget his Taiwanese roots. Living in Williamsport has made him even more appreciative of his native country, and proud of where he’s come from.
“Now, I know there’s (some things) we only have in our culture. So that’s why I’m more appreciative of it (now). It’s not saying my culture is the best, or something like that, but I see the difference. And wherever it’s good, I will take it. Wherever it’s bad, I will compare it and try to see what we can improve.”