To my international students at Bryn Mawr College, America is an enigma that is easy to like but hard to understand. Take the mystery of macaroni and cheese, for example.
Foreign students, especially those from Asia, are repelled by this great American comfort food. The texture of it, its gooeyness, the smell of it as it wafts through dorm hallways while it heats in microwaves.
It has a yuck factor that far exceeds students' bafflement over peanut butter ("I was so shocked by peanut butter," one German student confessed) and their dislike of applesauce ("I assume it is delicious, but to me it looks disgusting," a Chinese student told us).
How do we know in such detail their likes and dislikes? Because we asked them. I teach a course in journalism at Bryn Mawr, which also is patronized by students from Haverford College, and each year we do a class reporting assignment based on a particular topic. This year, we called it "The American Experience," focusing on what international students (calling them foreign is taboo) think of the United States.
Like many American colleges, both schools have a growing contingent from overseas. International students make up nearly 8 percent of the student body at Haverford and 19 percent at Bryn Mawr.
Today, the two schools include 345 students from more than 60 countries. As part of our project, we interviewed or surveyed about one-third of them.
Naturally, with such diversity, they are not of one mind, though bafflement over American food seems to be a tie that binds. (Keep in mind, a lot of their experience is in college cafeterias, not exactly epicenters of fine dining.)
For starters, there is what I can only call a "too muchness" to our food. Supersized servings, an over-abundance of choice, vegetables that are either over- or undercooked, huge pieces of chicken in what is supposed to be a "health salad."
"The size of things here, even the serving size, it's all 20 times bigger," one student from Rwanda told us.
That "too muchness" spills over into other areas. We have drugstores that are larger than supermarkets back home. And don't even mention Walmart. When the Rwandan student went to shop at one when she first arrived, her jaw dropped. She had just stepped into the largest building she had ever been in.
Another thing about American food is that it is not . . . well, American. Most of it seems borrowed from other nations, a polyglot of Asian, Italian, French, German, whatever. "I feel like Americans don't have their own authentic food," one Chinese student told us, "though maybe hamburgers and fries count."
These students see American society in the same way, a polyglot of colors, ethnic origins, and religious beliefs that somehow coheres. To these students, there seems to be little Americans have in common except for being American.
"Since the country is so big and it is a melting pot, it often gets overwhelming to understand what America means," said one student from South Korea. "It seems more like a chunk of land rather than a culturally bonded country to me."
America has somehow managed to achieve unity without cultural uniformity. To these students, that is refreshing and even inspiring.
"What I like most about the U.S. is that it has the capability to embrace other countries' culture," one Chinese student told us. "Though discrimination does exist, its mainstream culture still ties closely to tolerance."
In our survey, 74 percent of our student respondents agreed with the statement "America has a more open society," and 76 percent agreed that "There are more opportunities in America."
To give the other side of the coin, 71 percent said they thought Americans were too self-absorbed, and 63 percent said we were friendly, but in a superficial way.
A number of students mentioned that when an American asks, "How are you doing?" they really don't want to know how you are doing - certainly not in any detail.
"In my country," said one student from Zimbabwe, "you have to stop and actually explain, give a whole rundown of your life. Whereas here, it's, 'How are you doing?' and you part ways."
They are also surprised - and offended - by American ignorance of other countries and cultures, an ignorance they ascribe to the arrogance of being a superpower.
Despite our flaws, 52 percent of the students who took our survey said they were very or somewhat likely to stay in the United States once they finished school.
Their reasons varied, but it is clear they - like those who came before them - view America as a land of opportunity, with an open society where you can be what you want to be.
"It's going to sound cheesy and American-dreamy," one sophomore from Lebanon told us, "but what I've liked most about the U.S. is that if you actually work hard you can get somewhere."
But the enigmas remain, such as our habit of putting ice in our drinks.
"Americans," one junior from India told us, "do not seem to understand the concept of room-temperature water."
Tom Ferrick Jr. is a former Inquirer columnist who is editor of the news website AxisPhilly.org.