At a breakfast table in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Alina Abdurakhimova didn’t consider the person eating alongside her – Yana Khon – to be a close friend.
In fact, the two barely knew each other.
Abdurakhimova did know about Khon’s tennis abilities, they rarely spoke off the court.
During this meal, though, the conversation turned to tennis, specifically the collegiate game in the United States. Abdurakhimova knew she would be attending Temple in Fall 2014, but was unsure of Khon’s plans until that morning.
“During breakfast, through conversation, we realized that we were both going to play tennis at Temple,” Khon said. “It was such a weird coincidence.”
“[Yana and I] just knew of each other, but we weren’t friends,” Abdurakhimova said. “It was kind of funny when [Yana and I] discussed our college choices, and we both realized that we were going to the same place.”
More than 6,000 miles away from home, the pair has helped each other adjust to a new country.
“I was happy when I found out that someone I knew would be on the tennis team with me,” Khon said. “Alina knows Russian, so it will be easier to communicate and adapt to this type of environment because someone speaks the same language as you.”
For most international students, the language barrier in the U.S. can present its share of challenges. As both freshmen speak Russian as their primary language, the daily transition off the court, let alone on the court, proved difficult.
“My first semester here was hard,” Abdurakhimova said. “For the most part, I had absolutely no clue of what the professors were saying and that was hard for me to take.”
While the process of learning a new language can be challenging, Khon and Abdurakhimova said time has only helped.
“Learning English is still a learning process, but we can understand most of what people are saying now,” Abdurakhimova said. “It is just hard for us to express how we feel.”
With a 10-player roster that consists of six international athletes, coach Steve Mauro said he created a rule to help his international students adjust to speaking English.
“We have a team rule that when you are around the team you must speak English,” Mauro said. “That rule helps them because the constant influx of English forces them to understand it and, after a semester or so, they begin to.”
Abdurakhimova and Khon both said their first moments in Philadelphia were shocking. Cultural behaviors exhibited by those around them, they said, were some that they would never see in their home country.
“People have more freedoms here at Temple than they would in Uzbekistan,” Abdurakhimova said. “The way people dress and the way people have their hair colored was different for me, and I think for [Khan] as well, because we are expected to act a certain way, which isn’t what happens [in Philadelphia]. People speak loudly and quite honestly that would not happen at home … we are allowed little self-expression.”
Education was the main focus in Uzbekistan, as both Khon and Abdurakhimova never combined athletics with education at once back home. At Temple, though, combining both education and sport is part of the daily routine.
“It was hard to adapt to the education system here,” Khon said. “Back home we would only play tennis or go to school, not both. So it has been tough trying to get all of our assignments done when we are always practicing. It was hard to combine everything instead on focusing on one aspect at a time.”
Now living together, Khon and Abdurakhimova have found the friendship they hoped for on their journey to the states.
“Our relationship has grown into a close friendship,” Khon said. “Now that we live together and see each other everyday, we have bonded throughout our time here and that would have been hard if we were in different places. I’m glad Alina is here with me.”
Dalton Balthaser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DaltonBalthaser