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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A Big Trade Surplus in Higher Education: What Chinese Students Give to the U.S.

An increasing number of international students pouring into the United States for higher education contribute not only to campus life and to dialogue within classrooms, but also to the U.S. economy at the local, state and national levels. During the 2010-2011 academic year, international students and their dependents contributed approximately $20.2 billion to the U.S economy, according to an economic analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) statistics, the majority of international students studying in the USA come from Asia, with China and India ranking first and second, respectively. China’s ascent to the top spot is a recent phenomenon. Its year-over-year increase of 30 percent helped it overtake India in 2009.

That is generally good news for a slumping U.S. economy. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports higher education is among the country’s top service sector exports, as foreign students provide considerable revenue not only to the host campuses but to local economies of the host states for living expenses, including room and board, books and supplies, transportation, health insurance and support for accompanying family members.

“International students contribute financially not only to U.S. academic institutions, but also to the local communities in which they live,” said Rachel Banks, director of public policy at NAFSA. “Their contributions also help support programming and services on campus that benefit all students,” she added, “and support local businesses in the community through such expenses as rent, transportation, groceries, etc.”

There’s no denying that colleges like international students because they’re a good source of revenue. Unlike domestic students, international students, especially those at undergraduate level, have little, if any, financial aid. That means they pay almost 100 percent of tuition and fees.

As the NAFSA report shows, among graduate international students, 49 percent relied primarily on personal and family funds, but for undergraduate international students, the percentage climbed to 81 percent, which makes their larger numbers a potential boon for U.S. colleges.

The University of Southern California (USC) this year welcomed the most diverse student body in its 132-year history, and has 3,338 Chinese students, making it the top U.S. institution that hosts international students.

Timothy Brunold, dean of admissions at USC, said that USC saw a rapid rise of Chinese students especially during the past three to five years, and despite the gunshot that killed two Chinese students of USC this April, the number of Chinese students still increased 825.

Xu Zhong, a Chinese student who has just embarked on the master’s journey in computer science, said he was excited about studying at USC.

“I am sorry for the gunshot, but you can’t reject the opportunity of studying in such a prominent school just for something negative,” Zhong said.

After living in Los Angeles for a few months, however, Zhong began to complain about this “expensive city.” He has already paid about $19,000 for tuition and fees for this semester, but has to spend around $1,000 per month on living expenses.

“I live around the campus, where rent is much higher than that in downtown area,” he said. “And expense of entertainment is higher in that LA is a large city.”

But not a problem for some wealthy Chinese students.

“I know a few Chinese students here who spend a lot of money every day,” Zhong said, “ They purchase luxuries, have meals at top grade restaurants, and go to bars…”

Seeing China a huge potential market, however, Brunold said USC does not have any recruiting adjustments that target Chinese students.

“We don’t have any special programs that are exclusive for Chinese students,” he said, “We have sent representatives to China to reach out Chinese students, but we’ve also sent them to other countries as well. So for us, every international student is the same.”

Harvey Charles, vice provost for international education at Northern Arizona University told the Slate that many institutions have seen the international students as a source of revenue. “An increasing number of colleges view them as cash cows but don’t have the requisite infrastructure in place to support them,” Charles said, “That would be a recipe for disaster.”

While acknowledging the economic contribution Chinese students have made, Brunold denied the idea of describing them as a “cash cow.”

“The flood of Chinese students do have a large impact on the State’ economy. In 2011, international students contributed almost $3 billion to California. But our motivation is not money, but building a global community,” Brunold said, “At USC, everyone pays the same tuition, so there’s no difference for that. Chinese students bring money to USC, but more importantly, they bring varied views and perspectives to the classrooms. I think that’s what we really value.”

Brunold said USC has always had a positive impression on Chinese students. “They usually work hard,” he said. “We have Chinese alumni who are very successful in their career.”

Banks agreed on the indispensible role that foreign students play in the U.S. economy.

“International students from China become leading innovators in our economy, and therefore, contribute to job creation,” she said, “Also, more international students tend to study in so-called STEM fields than U.S. students do; until the U.S. is able to generate a stronger domestic supply of STEM talent, we rely on international talent to fill this need.”

Chinese Students Flock to Studying in the US

For each summer and winter, the price of flying from China to the United States soars. Tens of thousands of young Chinese in ponytails or sneakers eagerly head to their dream factories — American colleges — with bulged backpacks hiked up on shoulders and heavy suitcases rolling behind. After a more than a 13-hour journey, they present customs officers with neatly arranged sheets and pamphlets showing their destination to the exotic land: New York University, Boston University, the University of Florida, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, among others.

In the past decade, China has witnessed an explosion in the number of students studying abroad. The Institute of International Education (IIE)’s annual report says the number of Chinese students studying in the United States surged 23.5 percent in the 2010-11 academic years. China has been the top country of origin of international students since 2009.

Undergraduate students are the major force driving the growth.  By the 2010-’11 academic year, the number saw a 43 percent rise, with a total of 56,976 students comprising one-third of all Chinese students living in the United States.

Jawee Perla, senior advisor of International Student and Scholar Services at American University, said Chinese students now account for 12 percent of the international student group, at the largest at American University. Though the number of undergraduate students is still less than that of the graduates, its rapid rise cannot be overstated.

“There are 43 Chinese undergraduates in 2011, but this year the number is 52,” he said. “We see a large number studying in a range of disciplines in Kogod School of Business, Washington College of Law and School of Communications, etc. ”

For Chinese graduate students, the numbers of applications also continued to increase dramatically in 2012. Applications from prospective students increased 18 percent in 2012 following a fluctuation of 21 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2010. This is China’s seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth, according to the survey from Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

Unlike domestic students, international students, especially those at undergraduate level, have little, if any, financial aid. That means they pay almost 100 percent of tuition and fees.

“It is a large amount of money,” Perla said, “For undergraduates at AU, they have to pay $38,982 for one academic year, but that only covers the tuition. The actual cost includes mandatory fees, rooms, health insurance, etc. All of that together is about $57,000.”

With so much money to pay, Chinese parents are still willing to send their only child to the States. Perla said there are several reasons.

“With the expanding Chinese economy, the increased prestige of foreign education, and with certain economic factors, such as China’s one-child policy … it (is) possible for families to support fewer students for higher education, spend more money and pour more resources to their only child to study overseas,” Perla said.

The flood of Chinese students studying in America is also a new manifestation of Confucianism, which emphasizes education. Even before middle school, children from middle-class families begin to pay close attention to the information of meiguo liuxue — studying in the USA. They devote hours every day after classes preparing for American standardized exams from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). With the support of education programs and test trainings, they often score in the top quartile of those exams.

Eric Kuang, a first-year public relations graduate student at the University of Florida, has been in the States for only two months. Recalling those days of preparation for tests, he describes them as “a pleasant misery.”

“Compared with TOEFL, I think (the) GRE is a more difficult task for me. Memorizing thousands of words is very hard, and I usually devote three to five hours to that. But studying with some of my best friends made it less hard. We encourage and help each other to overcome the difficulties,” Kuang said. “So even if I’m not satisfied with my final scores, I still think it was a good journey to me.”

Kuang said he enjoys his new life.

“It is a totally different experience compared to my previous life in China” he said. “But there’s still far to go to completely adapt to this environment.”