One of the great joys of having international students at your school is the different perspectives that they bring, and the perspectives that they can give to your students. When new ideas enter the marketplace, students and teachers alike can enter debate and have their views shaped and altered, even slightly. It’s exciting for everyone. But it does come with some difficulties.
These difficulties are probably most present for history teachers. It isn’t a surprise that different countries have different ideas of what shaped history: national stories, generally agreed-upon, are what tend to make up the fabric of shared social memory. This is the same in America as it is everywhere else, and while broad elements of history don’t stir much debate, there are differences, both subtle and large, that can cause tension in your classrooms. More than causing tension, it can have a significant impact on the experience of an international student, and color their education and perception of their host country.
For most Americans, WWII would seem like one area where there isn’t much ambiguity, and there really isn’t. It’s as close to “good vs. bad” as there can be. But in a high school classroom, there are limitations of time that prevent the presentation of the whole story. This can be frustrating for international students, who understandably have been taught the story of their particular country’s experience during the war, and might be confused at lack of knowledge evinced by their new classmates. This is especially true when it comes to Chinese students.
The Chinese WWII experience is not very well known in America. US students are less aware of America’s role in the Pacific, having learned more about the European front and D-Day. So it stands to reason that for most high school students, there simply isn’t enough time to learn about the role the Chinese played.
The Horrible Statistics
Without dwelling too much on the horrifying and shocking details, between soldiers and civilians China lost an estimated 14 million people during the war, which for them started with being invaded in 1937. This was perhaps as much as 4-5% of its population, a truly staggering number. The horrors of war were personified by the Nanking Massacre, wherein tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered.
So think then how you might feel if, while learning about the war in your new history class, you hear virtually nothing about the impossible suffering your country faced. You may think that your contributions, perhaps even your humanity, was entirely diminished. At best, you would probably be confused.
Adding to this bewilderment is the fact that America probably wouldn’t have been able to win in the Pacific, or at least not on the timetable that it did so, without the fierce fighting spirit of the Chinese, both Nationals and Communists. It would have been much more difficult to liberate Burma and to get supply lines across the Pacific, for sure.
Moving from the Abstract
But the point of this post is not necessarily to spur a conversation about the importance of various factors in World War Two, or about forgetting allies. All countries do this, to an extent (it is doubtful the Chinese national story talks much about American involvement in their liberation). We’re not even bringing this up in a ham-fisted attempt to explain everything about modern China, though it would be silly to diminish its importance.
Rather, we want teachers and students to be aware of the potential tensions that can come from these different views of history. It is doubtful that, on this front, students will come to blows or harsh words will be exchanged (future articles will talk about more sensitive areas). It is to address the subject of potential alienation.
An international student is almost by definition brave and adventurous- it takes moxie to leave behind the familiar and dive into the unknown- but they are still coming from a specific milieu with its own specific stories. To not hear any mention of it can become disorienting, in both the figurative and literal sense of the phrase. But teachers can help to minimize this discomfort, this heightened sense of loss.
If you’re teaching history, and something important like WWII is taught, you should ask your international students what they have been taught about it. Generally, these will be complementary, not contradictory, and will fill in gaps in your students’ knowledge. A future article will discuss how to handle when there are contradictory stories, but these are somewhat few and far between.
It doesn’t just have to be for global events, either. What, if anything, have your international students learned about the US Civil War? The moon landing? What they have, or haven’t learned, can be a launching point for understanding the different idea of history held by different nations.
Not only can this foster a dialogue, but it can help to validate a sense of belonging for the international student. You don’t want someone to feel they can’t talk, that they are in the wrong and ignorant for not having learned about an event the same way. Having them open up about what they have been taught is a great way to encourage a shy student to assert themselves. Remember, integrating an international student into the general student body isn’t accomplished just by having them attend football games and become “Americanized”, but by allowing them to add their experiences to the whole. History is a great place to start this.
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.