I recently came across an interesting article on the Voice of America news written by a Chinese student who had studied in the United States. The article, titled “Why Is It Hard To Make Western Friends?” hit on key concerns that nearly everyone looking to study in the United States feels: essentially, will I be accepted? Will I be lonely? How difficult will it be making friends when studying abroad?
There are a number of direct obstacles that make for immediate worries, with the language barrier being the most prominent. There is a lot to cover on this- for the students coming over, for their teachers and classmates, and for the host family. We’ll deal with all of these in upcoming articles, but right now, I want to talk about a deeper issue, and one that is the backdrop to all linguistic and cultural dramas. That backdrop is perception.
In the article, Chinese international student Jemince talks about her Chinese classmates living in shared housing, basically huddled up with each other, and scared of going out. This, she said “made me feel helplessly lonely and anxious about staying at home, because I didn’t know anyone here and none of my housemates or any of my Chinese friends would go to bars or any party with me. They seemed to have a natural fear of bars and were scared of going there, because in Chinese culture, there is no tradition or custom of going to bars or staying up night at parties.”
Later in the article, she talks about differences in not just the words people used, but it the way they used those words. Westerners, she said, were more blunt, more willing to initiate conversation, more willing to assume a potential friendship. Chinese students, on the other hand, were quieter, shyer, and more reticent. Being something of a bridge between the two groups, she had American students tell her that her Chinese friends were too quiet, and vice-versa.
Now, I am sure a lot of people reading along are silently nodding and perhaps murmuring assent. After all, this certainly seems to jive with our ideas of cultural norms, and not even in a bad way. And no one could seriously pretend that there aren’t broad outlines one can draw around a culture, or that culture is at least one of the factors in personality development.
But it also would be wrong to imagine that the baseline, broad outline, or the median can be used to understand the whole, and certainly not to understand any component parts. Knowing that the market as a whole is going up doesn’t tell you about the particular stock you’re invested in, and seeing the magnificence of a complete Seurat from a distance can’t tell you the beautiful story of an individual splash of paint.
It’s the same with making an assumption about a classmate because they are American, Chinese, Russian, French, or anything else. Jemince’s friends perhaps heard that all Americans were loud and drank a lot and only partied, and there certainly are a lot of people like that. But there is also a good chance they fell into a sort of selection bias, where they only registered the people that fit their already-conceived notions. Maybe they assumed to know what Americans were going to be like, and perhaps didn’t notice that there were Americans who weren’t like that, or that even the ones who drank and yelled had other sides to them as well.
The reverse is also true. Perhaps many Americans would assume that Chinese students will be quiet and not talk to anyone but those within their small social circle, and so won’t go out of their way to introduce themselves. They’ll later tell themselves that they tried, because that’s what people do. We remember things in a way that’s beneficial to ourselves.
And then what happens is a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies, reinforcing each other in a strip of skewed perceptions. Groups make assumptions about each other, and then choose to see their assumptions fulfilled. It’s human nature, but that doesn’t make it less of a problem.
Luckily, it is one that can be remedied. And it isn’t even really difficult. As corny as this may seem, just attempt to approach people with preconceived notions. If you are coming to America, try not to assume that you know how every American will act in any situation. It is true that, due to communication technology, that we don’t just base our ideas on movies, and that is great- but even the stories a friend or older relative has told you is just about their one particular situation. If someone had a bad experience, that is indeed unfortunate; however, you won’t be in that same scenario. The reverse is 100% true for Americans. Just because the student from China last year didn’t want to make friends doesn’t mean this one is the same. It’s a cliché, but one that we always have to remind ourselves: everyone and every situation is different.
This is both good and exciting. This isn’t to say that, given a chance, everyone will be nice. That isn’t the way it works, unfortunately, as you probably know from situations at home. That’s the thing: America is full of saints and sinners, of poets and louts, of slobs and snobs (sometimes these are all in the same person). It is this way everywhere. It may be this way in the very neighborhood grew up in. But you won’t know who someone is unless you give them a chance. That’s the most exciting part of studying abroad. Do your best to not be a prisoner to ideas and assumptions. Know that there will be problems that will be difficult to overcome. This is one challenge you can handle on your own, and it will make everything that much easier, and exponentially more enjoyable.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.