Beyond the Borders: Ghanaian Jonathan Tanlongo, happily navigating American culture

Jonathan Tanlongo is genuine with a bright smile and keen eyes. He is in a new culture and happily himself in its differences.

Tanlongo is a first semester sophomore from Accra, capital city of the western African nation Ghana. In August 2007, he came to the United States as an exchange student to Niskayuna High School, approximately 20 miles from Albany. During this time, he learned of the SUNY system and returned in January 2009 to attend Geneseo.

As an international relations major, Tanlongo said he believes the U.S. will offer opportunities for a higher salary than his native country. After graduation, he plans to seek a position in the United Nations or attend law school, perhaps to be a lawyer or enter national politics in Ghana.

Tanlongo said he appreciates the varied teaching methods of American professors. In Ghana, students memorize textbook readings and complete exams. "I wouldn't say one [educational system] is better than the other," he said. "In Ghana you are pushed more to study … here, it is less stressful, which is also good."

On campus, Tanlongo is a member of the Ghana project, described by its Facebook page as committed to building and sustaining a school in Ghana. He is also involved in M.I.L.E.S. (Men Incorporating Leadership Empowerment and Service) and is a second floor representative on Steuben's hall council.

Tanlongo said one of his prime passions is soccer, or as Ghanaians call it, football. Citizens come together to support Ghana's national team, the Black Stars. "There is lots of activity from people of all ages," Tanlongo said. Personally, he said he cheers loudest for England's Chelsea Football Club.

During his time in the U.S., Tanlongo has traveled to Oregon, Wisconsin, Delaware, Vermont, New York City and Philadelphia. When comparing Accra to American cities, Tanlongo said he sees pronounced cultural differences. In Ghanaian cities, hawkers regularly approach cars to sell toys and electronics.

Water and ice cream are also big sellers in a city where 75 degrees is a cold day. This interaction is part of everyday life, which Accra's citizens handle gracefully. "People in Accra are much more hospitable and less rude," Tanlongo said. He notes that Ghanaians place a higher importance on the elderly. "Even though you're a younger person and you might be right, whatever the older person says is what you should listen to."

Family tradition is also significant. Tanlongo said a person's "hometown" is wherever his or her father's family comes from, even if that person has never been there.

There is also a distinct difference between Ghanaian and American cuisine. Tanlongo said he finds himself wishing for goat meat, okra soup and banku, a corn-based dish similar to doughy mashed potatoes.

Some of Tanlongo's perspectives have changed since coming to the United States. Many of Ghana's political philosophies are based in Christianity, the nation's leading belief system. Though he is a Christian himself, Tanlongo said he appreciates the separation of church and state existing in America.

Other notions have been altered as well. According to Tanlongo, the average American is seen as "rich, snobbish, and difficult to deal with" in Ghana. His time here, however, has convinced him otherwise.

"Everyone is different," he said. "There can be snobbish Americans, but there are also really nice Americans, too."