How hard it is to build a cross-cultural relationship

Ask an admissions director why he has many international students on American campuses, and he will tell you of the value of a cross-cultural friendship: new perspectives and global connections. But for many foreign students in the United States, that’s just not happening.

A study found that nearly 40 percent of international students, especially those in the New York City area, report having no close American friends and wishing they had more meaningful relationships with their American counterparts. Students from China and elsewhere in East Asia are more strongly dissatisfied, and say they are struggling to integrate into the American community.

Michigan State University has 3,715 Chinese students this year, an increase of about 400 from last year.

“The biggest issue right now is just their sheer numbers,” said Peter Briggs, director of Michigan State University’s Office of International Students and Scholars. “They don’t really need to know American students because there’re so many other Chinese students as part of their community here.”

A record 764,321 international students were enrolled at U.S. colleges in the 2011-2012 academic year. The largest proportion of that group — 194,029, or 25.4 percent — was from China, according to the Institute of International Education’s new-released annual report in November.

Walk on most of American campuses, even those which have relatively few international students, and you will find at least a couple of Asian faces sticking together and talking in their own language.

Yu Hu, a public communication major at American University, which has 176 Chinese students enrolled this year, said she still manages to find her Chinese community on campus.

Yu Hu (right) is showing something interesting on Facebook to her Chinese friends after class. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

Yu Hu (right) is showing something interesting on Facebook to her Chinese friends after class. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

“I just feel that it is easy to communicate as we are from the same culture,” Hu said. “Sometimes, I don’t know the appropriate social manner when hanging out with American friends. For example, when going to the party, I am not sure whether it is okay to exchange contacts or not. When I have a plan for field trip, I am not sure whether it is appropriate to ask classmates to join or not since we are not quite familiar with each other.”

The alienation with the American community leads many Chinese students feeling alienated.

Zhuoqing Wu, 22, who studies human resources management at New York University, has been in the States for about three months. He said he feels lonely quite often, but he plays basketball, watches movies at home and chats online with his friends in China.

“I like to hang out with local American people, but I barely know anyone who would hang out with me,” Wu said. “New York is a busy city. Everyone has his own business. If someone is not a close friend of you, he may not be interested in spending time on hanging out with a Chinese guy…because we behave like we are not funny during class.”

Language problems as well as culture differences might be the biggest obstacles. Forty-six percent students in the study blamed an internal factor, such as shyness or poor English-language ability. The bewildering slang and overwhelming talking speed further petrify Chinese students.

“Some Chinese students don’t get their [Americans] points,” Wu said. “For example, we cannot always get their sense of humor…If they talk too fast…or…using some idioms, Chinese students cannot reach what they mean at [in] the first place.”

In China, there is a greater emphasis on social relationships and community ties. These students may be unprepared for American independence and more relaxed attitudes toward friendships.

“I think that we deal differently with relationship,” Hu said.“In America, people are nice. It is easy to make friends. But I find it hard to maintain a relationship,” she said. “It is easy to have a small chat on assignments or something new in life. However, I found that it seems not that easy to go deeper. Everyone is doing their own things and prefers a quite place for themselves to do those assignments alone.”

Chinese student, on the other hand,  prefer to do assignments together, as Hu pointed out. Because it acts like a “friendship incubator” to know each other, promote relationship and discuss possibilities for future dinners, movies or traveling together.

Even for Chinese students who have lots of American friends, American culture is still a mystery to them.

Zhenzhen Li, who is earning her master’s in business at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., says she has more than 100 American friends.

“Actually, I think it is easier to become friends with Americans because they are more independent and less demanding,” Li said. “My definition [of friends] is just [we] can hang out and do some casual talking. I cannot get too close to anybody. I will not feel free.”

Even with so many American friends, Li still doesn’t feel part of the American culture.

“I do not know what exactly is American culture. TV? Sports? Or anything else,” she said. “Well, I cannot understand jokes, which is a problem.”

Both American and Chinese students said they not yet given up trying, despite the challenges they they face.

“America has a really big role to play in the world,” said Elizabeth Fleming, an international politics graduate student at American University. “But that can only be fulfilled by understanding people from other cultures, so by building those relationships early… future leaders will be able to better lead.”

Asking questions is the top choice for both students who are willing to make the effort. Topics regarding family, traditions or sports are among the most popular picks. For men, playing basketball together is another effective way of interacting and “finding common ground.”

Schools also try to provide incubators for cross-culture communication. In the fall of 2010, the Office of International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University established a Chinese leadership team called Project Explore, and hired seven Chinese undergraduate students as an advisory committee to deal with their issues.

One of its most prominent accomplishments is a video it created about intercultural friendship. Two groups of Michigan State undergraduate volunteers have been engaged in a candid conversation about challenges and ways of understanding the complexities of Chinese-American student interactions.

It became a sensation and was used by Voice of America, Purdue University, Ohio State University and Indiana University in some of their training programs.

“The expectations were that it was just a discussion starter,” said Briggs, who had this idea. “It wasn’t a high-level expertise, but we wanted the students to begin the process of consulting and confronting the challenges.”

Briggs says that blaming either side just reinvigorates the challenges. He hopes students will be more persistent.

“The Chinese-American friendship is the most important relationship in the world for a very long time to come. I just think we need to keep working at it,” Briggs said.

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