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I, a second-generation child of immigrants, self-proclaimed woke teenager and attendee of DukeEngage Academy’s many sessions on cultural awareness, was not expecting an eye-opening transformation of my view of American culture that usually accompanies others’ extended travel out of the country. I’d like to think that critiquing the assumptions that make up our formative fabrics is something that comes naturally to me.

But alas, it seems the introspective force of cross-cultural interactions leaves no one untouched.

Sitting down at the dinner table two weeks ago, I noticed my 14-year-old host sister giggling at an Instagram story on her phone. It was the eve of a set of important exams that marked the end of her eight years of Serbian ‘elementary’ school. As evidence of her family’s experience with confused exchange students and her own impeccable manners, she responded to my inquisitive look with an explanation of her amusement:

“People are posting a ‘cheating guide’ for tomorrow. If someone asks you for an answer, you tap your forehead for A, nose for B, chin for C and neck for D.”

I looked up, expecting some sort of admonishment from her parents sitting across the table. Instead, her dad laughed and chimed in,

“Wow, you all really have gotten smarter since our time!”

I asked if this was normal exam behavior.

My host sister responded, “Yes, of course, everyone does it”

My host dad added, “It’s rude if you don’t help other kids actually. Because you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life or why they’re asking for help”.

The topic of discussion quickly digressed from the quotidian cheating practices towards my host sister’s recitation of the Pythagorean theorem (mathematics being her first exam). However, the discussion lingered in my mind for the rest of the night.

I assume this to be universal amongst Americans, although it very well may not be, but I hold a strong disdain for cheating. I am not someone who believes in the equity of the American dream. I don’t see guaranteed success as the righteous consequence of hard work. Or at least I thought I didn’t. Although well armed with the knowledge of the existence of vast differences of schools in different areas of the United States, and the powerful impact that money can have on academic performance, school in a personal context for me has still been strictly meritocratic, a contradiction I’ve only now discovered upon reflection. For me, cheating seems like an affront to my hard work and dedication to my studies. I’ve never really dwelled on the fact that personal circumstance (e.g. learning disabilities, financial hardships, familial strife) could be reasons that some students seek peer assistance during often grueling and stressful exams. In addition to my undoubtedly present personal drive, I’ve also had the benefit of a stable and supportive family, psychological health and ample monetary resources, all of which have left me with a lack of reason to desire cheating.

I believe my own derision for cheaters is an apt reflection of a certain aspect of American culture, the one that places high emphasis on “rugged individualism”. In comparison, Serbian culture (through my limited experience here) seems to place a value on collective well-being. On further reflection, the negative stigma of cheating seems contradictory, especially upon examining the behavior of the American elite. Do they not also use intrapersonal connections for personal gain? These acts of networking and using available resources are pushed as prudent and shrewd, as can be seen regularly at elite institutions like Duke. What happens to the push for individualism, hard work and perseverance when it comes to legacy admissions or parental connections in industry? Don’t these practices exist in the same metaphysical place as cheating?

These musings on cheating probably won’t change my personal attitude towards it, which I believe is born more from a deontological belief in its immorality. They do, however, make me more considerate of the deep effects of American culture and thought on the opinions I believe to be independently founded. Although I am doubtful that any of my professors at Duke would be disposed to see cheating as the newest form of proletariat revolution, I do see this ultimate conclusion of my reflection as paramount.