New country, new life, new challenge

Updated: 2016-01-15 08:00

By Wang Fan and Yuan Yue(China Daily)

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Every year, thousands of young Chinese head overseas to study. For many, the thrill of moving into a new environment is overshadowed by feelings of alienation and a lack of friends in their host country. Wang Fan and Yuan Yue report from New York.

On a summer day in 2010, 18-year-old Jane Yu quick-stepped through the cool morning wind in Iowa in the central United States, a backpack slung over her shoulder. She was a freshman at Iowa State University.

"I fitted in to the new environment quickly, but sometimes it was a little bit awkward when an 'American joke' popped up during a lecture and the whole class burst into laughter, except me," she said.

"But I would still laugh along, even though I did not quite get the joke," she said, with a laugh. "However, it was a little frustrating - seeing myself as a cultural outsider on occasions like that when the students interacted with their professors."

To acquaint herself with popular US culture, Jane regularly watched The Daily Show, a satirical news program, which was then hosted by comedian Jon Stewart. "It's one of my favorite news programs. I love it because it delivers something very serious through humor."

Fast forward five years and Jane is now a graduate of Columbia University. "If you spend a lot of time learning about American culture, you will gradually get the jokes. But they are still my 'blind spot'," she admitted.

Jane's endeavors to navigate through a different culture and her feeling of being an "outsider" are shared by many Chinese students who have studied at schools in the US over the past few years.

Recently published statistics show that more than 304,000 students from China studied at US colleges and universities during the 2014-15 academic year, accounting for 31.2 percent of the international students in the country.

A growing middle class at home and US universities' push for global education have contributed to the influx of international students, particularly from China, analysts said.

However, while US schools go to great lengths to recruit Chinese students, the influx of international students has also left academic institutions unprepared to help the newcomers assimilate in local communities.

A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of international students in the US reported having no close American friends. Moreover, students from China and elsewhere in East Asia said their efforts to fit in at school were, more or less, a struggle.

"When Chinese international students come to my office, one of the very first questions they have - rarely an academic one - is 'how do I make American friends'," said Sebastian Cherng, an assistant professor of international education at New York University.

"It's difficult," he said. "We are a very diverse society, but we are also a very segregated society.

"There are reasons for concern. Take a stroll on the campus on any given day and one can easily sense the nuanced boundaries: most students will be hanging out with schoolmates of their own ethnicity."

Although most US students believe Chinese students are a positive addition, making friends with them is a different matter. For their part, despite all their efforts to mingle, most Chinese students sense an invisible barrier.

"Most Chinese students will actively participate in social networking events, but it is hard to maintain and develop relationships," Ya Lin, an alumnus of Fordham University in New York, said.

Linda, also a Fordham graduate, said it's easy to make the acquaintance of local students, but hard to forge closer ties.

According to Cherng, one reason for that is people's ingrained tendency to seek friends from similar backgrounds.

"Even in places like NYU, which is incredibly diverse, people stick with what they know. Your English sounds different from mine and if I make pop-culture references, you may not understand. We may not watch the same TV shows, we may not like the same food. So it takes a lot of effort to make friends and cross those boundaries."

Cherng believes the onus for crossing those boundaries lies with the US students. "I think Chinese international students are very willing to make that effort, and I think a lot of responsibility needs to be placed on the American students."

He urged universities to offer more programs that facilitate mutual understanding and interaction.

Peter Kwong, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College in New York, agreed that universities should make efforts to help foreign students fit in.

"But whether they see that as a priority is a different story. The pressure is not there," he said. "They don't see their responsibility in terms of bridging the cultural gap."

However, change is in the air.

According to Cherng, many universities are expending considerable time and efforts to attract a greater number of international students, and to ensure that they are supported academically.

Jia Wei, an MBA student at NYU's Stern School of Business, told Xinhua: "Stern has a very good orientation program called 'Launch'. During the two-week activity, there is a lot of interaction between us and the other students. That will help us adapt to campus life.

"Meanwhile, we have different societies. I am on the board of the Asian Business Society. We make a 'cultural trek' to Asia every year, and a lot of US students subscribe because they are eager to learn about Asian culture through the program."

Back at NYU, which boasts the highest number of international students in the US, Cherng is working with an international graduate student who is designing and running an Intergroup Dialogue course for undergraduates on the subject of race, immigration and international students.

"Since coming to NYU, I've worked with the Center for Multicultural Education Programs. Part of its mission is to run workshops for both NYU and non-NYU groups that model how to have conversations that are important for both domestic and international students in the US," he said.

"We need to be better; we cannot invite so many international students, but not be trained, and not have a conversation about what it looks like when so many classmates are not from your context, not from your country. We cannot just assume that because we are all in the same place those relationships will happen," he added.

Wang Fan and Yuan Yue are reporters at Xinhua News Agency

(China Daily 01/15/2016 page6)