More than a decade ago, I flew to Syracuse, NY with US$1900 and two suitcases, anticipating an easy transition to a rosy life in Syracuse, NY, which was in my mind similar to New York City and thereby similar to Shanghai, another metropolitan where I used to live. Boy was I in for a surprise! Looking back, I survived many challenges. My application for a credit card was denied again and again as I did not have a credit history. The first car, which cost almost half of my savings (800 dollars), died in a few weeks of transmission failure before I even got my license. I failed driving tests twice before passing it the third time, which left a bitter taste as I had rarely failed any test before.
Then my wife and daughter joined me, when Syracuse was starting to have its famous lake effect storms, leaving the city covered in several feet of snow, from October all the way till the end of the “spring” semester. We developed border cases of cabin fever being crammed in a small apartment converted from the attic of a music professor’s house.
Surprisingly language posed another challenge though I majored in English. I went to MacDonald, the easiest place to order a meal, and I was asked if I wanted “catch up” with my fries. Why would a human being catch up with some dumb fries? I was pondering what kind of American humor this was, when the waitress shook her head and simply handed me a few small packages of tomato sauce. The meaning of “ketchup”, which I had mistaken to be “catch up, came to me like an epiphany.
Adjustment for Chinese in a foreign land had always been tough, but the issue receives little attention until recently, when countries start to open floodgates to Chinese students. China now sends the largest number of students to American colleges or universities. Unlike older generations like us, new crops of students come mostly from affluent families. Many of them start in undergraduate programs or even private high schools, which rarely provide full scholarships. Tuition from these students has become a sizable source of income for many schools. These students are no longer seen as third-world students with the potential to become the financial liability of other countries. They are good customers to pursue. Some Chinese students buy new cars immediately after coming to the United States.
Yet today's students deal with adjustment issues of a different kind. They feel frustrated that they are perceived as an “alien” group of people who do not get integrated into the academic and social environments. According to a recent Atlantic article, (“We’re not this alien group
”, Lauren Davidson, Nov 1, 2013), a quarter of Chinese students are reported to drop out from Ivy League schools they invested so much to get in. Adjustment issues are at least partially to blame for this phenomenon.
Student failure to fit is in part due to school's lack of effort to internationalize its campus resources and curriculum. Over the years, a number of Chinese students have told me, truthfully in my opinion, that schools sometimes just pay lip service to “diversity” and keep it mostly in mission statements. International students do not get sufficiently oriented to get up to speed. Sometimes there is just an expectation for one-way adjustment: that international students should just learn and become acclimated, when it should benefit a school to provide better services and resources for international students, and to allow them to enrich the school and local community with what they can offer. Many teachers teach with only domestic students in mind. For instance, it is assumed that every student knows which academic bibliography style to use. Sometimes professors also wrongly make assumptions about student familiarity with the kind of instructional methods used in American classrooms. It is often assumed that Chinese students are more “collectivist” in thinking, therefore they should feel comfortable with group work when in fact most new Chinese students have had no experience with collaborative assignments. In this light a little orientation to faculty will go a long way, while persistent miscommunication and misunderstanding hurt the rapport between students and their schools.
Students themselves are also guilty of not doing enough to learn from, and associate with, their new environments. When communication issues arise between them and domestic students, some choose not to keep trying but to retreat into cocoons of Chinese circles. Some even move to off-campus rental houses to live with fellow Chinese students even though they have paid for boarding and meals on campus. They speak Chinese among themselves and spend way too much time on overseas Chinese tabloid websites to consume junk information. When they have a question about a course, they do not consult the syllabus or ask the professor, but choose to ask fellow Chinese students whose information may be inaccurate. Some Chinese students also rely on top performers’ notes for "standardized" answers when they are expected to contribute original solutions and independent thinking. Such behaviors further confirms faculty suspicion that some academic dishonesty must be brewing among them.
In addition to some conscious work on both sides, it also takes time and experience to deal with adjustment issues. More than ten years ago, I encountered difficulties so daunting that I thought I would not be able to survive them all. I constantly thought of going back, just like the Pig Monk in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, who often considers returning to his comfort zone, the Village of Gao. As Faulkner would say, we endure. We should also trust the good will of people around us who, in spite of their difference from us, may be willing to help. That's certainly the case in my experience when I thought of the numerous people who have blessed us every step of the way.
We should also know that there will always be adjustment issues moving to any different environment. I say we lean from such issues and deal with them as they come, while be prepare to live in difference and diversity. In the meantime, we should note that international versus domestic is but one way of looking at people. While Chinese students find it hard to fit in with “slang-speaking, booze-guzzling” classmates, some other Americans frown upon them too. There are times when not to fit in is a good option.