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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Sandy Hits Northeast America, But What is its Impact on Chinese Students?

Flooded Battery Park Tunnel after Hurricane Sandy. Photo searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

Hurricane Sandy demonstrated its power as it hit the nation’s Northeast Coast Monday and Tuesday, affecting millions in the country’s most densely populated region. The storm changed the coastline of New Jersey and New York, knocked down trees, cut off communication and transportation and left more than 8 million people without electricity Tuesday.

Among them is Jiamin Wang, 23, from Beijing, who is studying Human Resources Management at Pace University in New York City.

“My roommates and I woke up this morning and found there was no electricity and gas in our house,” Wang said.“But we knew it would happen sooner or later, so we were not that surprise.”

The storm made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., with maximum sustained winds of about 80 miles per hour, and has killed at least 98 people, causing havoc and leaving a moonscape of disarray and debris in New York City and several counties in New Jersey.

A Dodge Durango feels the impact of Hurricane Sandy on Armstrong Avenue in Great Kills, State Island, N.Y. Waters rising 15 feet must of carried this half way up the block. Photo searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

“There was chaos, and the road around my apartment became rivers when the hurricane arrived,” Wang said. “I’ve never experienced hurricanes in my life, and I called my family and friends immediately.”

The power and gas outage forced Wang to stay at her friend’s house temporarily. With no Internet access, all she could use to reach out the world was her friend’s mobile phone, and the signal was extremely weak.

The tropical storm formed south of Jamaica a week and a half ago and began to cruise north since then, dutifully following the predicted track. Washington, D.C. was also in Sandy’s path. The teeming federal city turned into a ghost town when the federal and state governments and schools closed.

“It was terrible and damaging,” said Peiyue Huang, a public communication graduate at American University (AU).

Huang is from Guangzhong, a city in southeast China where storms and typhoons frequently occur in the summer.

“We don’t have hurricanes in Guangzhou, but to me they’re the same,” Huang said, “It made me feel like I was at home.”

But there was one thing that Huang felt different: the school alert.

“I appreciated [the] AU alert,” she said. “It was very comprehensive and updated, from the hours of library, shuttles, to cafes. I don’t remember schools in Guangzhou … as thoughtful as those in the States.”

In fact, the hurricane here made some Chinese students start to compare the different handling methods between the two countries.

Cars submerged in floodwaters around a residential block after heavy rains in Beijing on July 21, 2012. Photo by Ching Chin/EPA

Last July in Beijing, urban areas were hit with an average of nearly nine inches of rain over 16 hours — the heaviest the Chinese capital has seen in six decades, according to the Xinhua news agency. Seventy-seven people were killed by drowning, electrocution, lightning and collapsed structures. The storm stranded cars and buses and turned the city into lakes of waist-deep water.

“The rain was pouring down, and everybody was running and trying to find a place to hide or get a cab,” said Dongyu Li, a student from Beijing. “But it was extremely hard.”

Li went to a concert with her boyfriend on that day despite the storm.

Li said she didn’t want to waste her ticket. “I didn’t get any alerts saying that the rain would be so devastating,” she said. “All I knew from the weather forecast was there would be a heavy rain today.”

As a graduate student in Washington, Li was “fortunate enough” to experience another superstorm Sandy on this foreign land. In contrast to the lack of information in Beijing, she was, instead, overwhelmed this time by all sorts of news about Hurricane Sandy.

“I searched the Internet to track the news of the hurricane,” Li said, “I found that both the New York Times and the Washington Post had updates on the current situations with their local angels, which were very helpful and informative.”

Wang agreed that the media played an important role during the hurricane here in the States.

“I used Sina Weibo (a Twitter equivalent in China) to find what was going on when the storm hit Beijing,” Wang said. “But here I felt like there were more channels, whether it was official weather report, or news alerts.”

Chinese Students Get Together to Celebrate Halloween

Costumes, beers, DJ and prizes. Chinese students in Washington spent a colorful and wonderful Friday night at Rhino Bar near Georgetown. The Chinese Students and Scholars Associations of American University and Georgetown University co-hosted a Halloween party called Halloween Pumpkin Pie, to get together all the Chinese students and young professionals in the District.

More than 70 Chinese students from American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Howard University dressed up and crowded at the small Rhino, chatting, drinking, socializing, and making new friends. Those who wore costumes would expect a surprise at the end of the celebration.

Chuan Ping, the president of the Association at AU said earlier that it was their intention to combine the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations in Washington to provide better service for Chinese students, and this was just one of their series of attempts.

Halloween Party held by Chinese Students and Scholars Associations.

Mid-Autumn Festival: A New Way to Celebrate for Chinese Students in Washington

For Chinese people, the full moon resembles reunion. Jmtimages’ photo via Getty Images, searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important festivities in China, dating back more than 2,000 years. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the 15th day of the eighth month is the exact midpoint of autumn, and the moon appears to be at its roundest and brightest, a symbol of family reunion. On that night, families in China usually gather together to eat moon cakes and appreciate the full moon.

But for Sheng Fei Yang, a Chinese student at American University who just came to the States in August, this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a little bit different. Not only because it’s the first time that she spent it without her parents, but because of an exceptional experience she had on that night.

George Washington University Chinese Culture Association and American University Chinese Students and Scholars Association this year co-organized a special dating game to help the single Chinese students in Washington get socialized and make friends.

“This kind of dating show is very popular in China. So I hope such an activity will attract a lot of Chinese students to attend,” said Chuan Ping, the president of AU’s association.

And he succeeded.

Hundreds of Chinese students from AU and GWU, as well as from Georgetown University, came to Betts Theater at GWU to enjoy this non-traditional celebration on Sept. 30.

Twelve single women from AU, GWU, and Georgetown U are waiting for the first male participant. Photo: GWU Chinese Culture Association.

Called “If You Are the One,” this dating game originates from a Chinese TV dating show with the same name. A pool of 12 single women watch each of the six male participants’ video about their lives and histories and asks questions about them. If interested, the young women can press a flashlight to determine which guy will stay on the stage and continue to be tested. In return, the six men will secretly choose their favorite woman before the game starts. Those who survive the trial in the end may have the chance to date her if she says yes to him.

As one of the 12, Yang dressed up and sat on the stage along with other female participants. With the flashlight on and off in hand, Yang examined each of the six bachelors, sometimes laughing at the jokes they made, sometimes applauding for the remarks they lobbied. Though the night only saw two “potential couples”, yet everyone was amused and enjoyed.

“I think the event is very interesting,” Yang said. “Though I didn’t find my ideal person, I made many friends. Also I think it’s a special experience in my life.”

Todd Morrill, a junior at GWU, was the only American participant of the game. He was also one of the two lucky guys who found his dream lady. Morrill said he never expected that.

Todd Morrill is introducing himself. Photo: GWU Chinese Culture Association.

 

“I guess I didn’t go there with high expectations. I wanted to go have fun… kind of connect to the Chinese community,” he said,  “But walking away with a girl was definitely a nice plus. It’s a lot of fun.”

Morrill has been learning Chinese for years and joined several Chinese culture activities. He thinks culture plays an important role in language learning.

“Chinese language is very different from American English. Every word has its history. Learning Chinese is more about the language itself, but the culture behind it. Like today’s dating game, though I didn’t completely understand what they say, I put myself into the context and tried my best to learn,” he said.

Seeing the dating show a success, Ping envisioned more events alike.

“Actually it’s our ambition to combine the three universities to provide a better service for Chinese students here in Washington,” he said.  “So this is just the first step, and we will have more activities to achieve our goal in the future.”