Fashion is my first language: international students on style in the U.S.

“Style is a way of saying who you are without having to speak.” -Rachel Zoe

Miami University boasts one of the highest percentages of international students among undergraduate institutions, with over three thousand international students walking among Miami’s campuses this fall.

Students from all over the world venture to see the brick and ivy from countries such as China, Brunei, and Serbia. This diverse population of students brings more than just their intellect and culture to Miami, they also being their fashion. And while there are instances where language barriers can get in the way of the college experience, fashion is the universal language that brings us all together.

I had the amazing opportunity to interview three international students from Miami University and ask them questions about the differences they have noticed between their home countries and the United States, as well as influences that played a part in the development of their personal style.

Yaxin Guo: Personal style: colorful, comfortable and oversized

The first student I had the privilege of meeting with was Yaxin Guo, a sophomore international student from China. I began by asking Yaxin about the differences she’s noticed between fashion in China to the fashion of the students she’s seen on campus. Yaxin drew similarities and differences between China and the United States, acknowledging that while both countries favor casual dress, the meaning of the word casual is a bit different. “In China, we always like wearing (clothing in) a very comfortable way,” Yaxin explained.  “I like wearing t-shirts or a hoodie or a jacket, but I think in America, people wear very sporty clothes. Americans wear leggings, but in China, we wear pants, like jeans, but not leggings.”

Yaxin also noted the differences in the fabric between clothing in China and those in the U.S. “For me, I prefer clothes made by cotton, silk, or cashmere that feel very comfortable. Like this one, it’s made of cashmere.” Yaxin referenced to the sweater she was wearing at the time.  It was a dark blue crewneck sweater from the brand Cos, Yaxin’s favorite brand. She said they have effortless, comfortable clothes that are also fashionable and colorful. She likes the brand because they have a minimalist aesthetic, which is a style that Yaxin prefers because she believes it’s classy and looks good on everyone.

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As we continued our discussion about the difference in style between China and the United States, Yaxin expressed her belief about the importance of expressing oneself through fashion,  “…in China, students dress in uniforms for school. Even in high school, and sometimes college.” Yaxin recalled her own years in school, and how she despised the school uniforms. She says in many cases, students in China have to have their hair a certain length, are prohibited from curling or coloring it and are not allowed to wear makeup. But Yaxin has revealed in her newfound freedom of self-expression since enrolling at Miami University, “I can do makeup, I can do my nails, I can do everything I want!”

Yaxin’s description of China’s education system’s lack of self-expression got me thinking about how growing up in the midwest affected my ability to express myself through fashion. While growing up in the midwest isn’t the ideal place for a fashion-forward upbringing, I was always able to express myself through my clothing. Yes, I might’ve been the only girl wearing metallic mules in a high school full of tennis shoes or even (gasp) cowboy boots, but I still had the freedom to express myself however I wanted by the clothes I put on my back. And it seemed Yaxin shared my feelings on how important it is to be able to express yourself through clothing, “I think the fashion sense in China still needs to be raised. People should be able to express themselves through their clothes.” Yaxin explained fervently. She went on to mention how China’s lack of self-expression can even intensify the single story or stereotypes people have of China. “People in China aren’t just smart and good at learning, they need to dress up and feel confident in their outfit, and express themselves and represent themselves by their clothes.”

Talking with Yaxin made me appreciate and take advantage of every opportunity I have to share my personality with the world based on the clothes I wear. Too many times have I changed my outfit at the last minute before going out because I thought it might be too much, or because I was worried about what others would think. But Yaxin inspired me to not take my freedom of self-expression for granted, and to wear the clothes that make me feel good, not what makes others feel comfortable.

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Melati Devi: Personal style: comfortable, sporty, unique

The next student I met with was Melati Devi, a sophomore majoring in Psychology and Neuroscience. When I asked Melati about her life at home, she had several places to mention. “I’ve moved a lot,” she said. “Technically I’m from Indonesia, but in my childhood, I was brought up in Brunei and Kazakhstan, and in the last four years I was in France.” Because Melati’s lived in so many different places, I asked her if there was anything about fashion in Ohio or the United States in general that stood out compared to all the other places she’s lived. “I think here, at least around campus, people are more relaxed and more sporty and casual. But I know in other places like when I went to New York or Chicago people were more dressed up.”

After hearing this statement, I was reminded of the similar opinion Yaxin had about American’s love for casual-dress. I looked back to my years growing up in the Midwestern United States, had we always been so casual? Or has the rapid growth in the popularity of athleisure wear attributed to this casual-dress image of the U.S.?

Next, I asked Melati what fashion meant to her. “I guess it really just describes how you’re feeling today, at least that’s what it is for me.” She explained. “How you’re going to approach the day. Like if I’m feeling tired I just want to go relaxed, I’ll go for jogs and sweaters really chill and casual. But other times when you’re feeling more energetic, maybe I’ll dress up a little.”

Melati’s on the tennis team, so her go-to outfit in the warmer months was whatever she would need to wear for practice. But on days she’s free, she would opt for leggings and a sweater with her Uggs. She doesn’t understand how other people think Uggs are ugly, she thinks they are cute and “a staple.” But some trends she doesn’t agree with are Chacos and Birkenstocks. “I just don’t understand. They’re not cute,” she laughed. 

I spoke to Melati about my memories of growing up and seeing all the other girls at school wearing flared jeans and velour sweatshirts and wanting to look just like them. And of course, there were the days I went into my mom and older sisters closets and tried on all their beautiful grown-up outfits. I asked Melati if she ever looked up to her mom or older sisters for fashion advice. “I have a sister, but I don’t really look up to her or my mom for fashion inspiration. When I was younger, my sister was more of a tomboy, and I was always the girlier one, and so I think it’s more that I influenced her.” Melati recalls some of her friends from France that she would get style inspiration from, “I had one friend, and she always wears very bold clothes when she goes out…and I think that is just really cool that she’s able to wear whatever she wants and be confident.”

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Out of all the places, Melati has lived, the one fashion item that stuck out to her were the coats worn in Kazakhstan. “They would wear a lot of leather and fur, and it was from that experience that I now love coats.” To this day Melati still has a love for Winter coats and recalls the wool coats she would see in France, and her latest purchase was a gray wool coat by Calvin Klein.

Lena Babunski Personal style: classic and blue

Lastly, I met with Lena Babunski, a sophomore from Belgrade, Serbia. Lena came to the U.S. about two years ago and mentions that at first look, she didn’t notice a big difference between the fashion in Serbia and the United States. “On a day-to-day basis, I think it’s pretty much the same.” But after looking at the fashion worn by university students, Lena noticed some trends she doesn’t plan on taking up. “I think there’s a difference in what we prefer to wear when we go out. This might be because it’s college life, but here when it’s cold people will still wear a dress and no coat. When I first got here, I would just be like, how are you wearing a dress? It’s freezing!”

Like Melati, Lena is also a student-athlete on Miami University’s Women’s Tennis Team and notes that many times, her go-to outfit includes basic pieces and Miami University t-shirts and sweatshirts. But casual sportswear is a big difference from her high school style, “In my hometown at school, people would wear jeans and pretty nice clothes. But when I came to college, I saw people wearing sports pants, and I was a little bit shocked. But then later I started wearing the same thing because it’s normal.”

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When Lena mentioned how her style changed after spending time with her American classmates, I was reminded of something my parents always used to tell me: You are who you surround yourself with. When they told me this, they were just trying to ward off bad influences, but of course, there is truth to what they were saying. Just like one’s personality and demeanor are affected by the people they spend time with, one’s personal style is influenced by the people they see and the trends they are exposed to. Being surrounded by a diverse student body means students at Miami University are constantly reminded of the different cultures people come from and the different ways people can express themselves, primarily through fashion.

Lena notes the importance of individualized expression, and how the stereotypical view of fashion as a societal standard isn’t what fashion really means, “I feel like fashion is basically how you feel, fashion is what you want to wear when you feel comfortable wearing and look nice and feel good. I don’t feel like fashion is you have to wear something special, and you look like you’re from Hollywood. I think it means to look nice and feel good.”

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From China to Brunei to Serbia, all the way to Miami University comes three international students from completely different backgrounds but who all share common thoughts on fashions role in self-expression. While words might get lost in translation, fashion is something they share with unmistakable clarity. I was surprised about how many answers were shared, both Yaxin and Melati said one of their favorite trends was oversized clothing, and Yaxin, Melati, and Lena all agreed that fashion isn’t something that can be obtained by buying expensive items or only shopping at certain stores. Fashion is instead something personal that gives one confidence and sends the world a message of who someone is on the inside. 

And there’s no place better than Miami University for this tremendous diverse student body to come together and inspire each other with their own cultures and experiences. So no matter their differences or the possible barriers that could separate these classmates, one thing is for certain; fashion is the universal language that connects them all.

Special thanks to Yaxin, Melati, and Lena, as well as Fatimata Ndiaye, Assistant Director of International Recruitment for her assistance in coordinating the interviews.