“Culture is central to the experience of living overseas”. Although Robert Kohls, in his book Survival Kit for Overseas Living (4th ed. 2001), wrote, “for Americans planning to live and work abroad”, international students in the States certainly share similar experiences of cultural adjustments and transitioning while pursuing their studies. No matter how well the international students offices prepare the incoming students before their arrival, they are bound to experience some kind of culture shock and, as a result, find ways to adapt and survive. Even for international students who have studied the English Language since kindergarten, they may still have difficulties, at least for a while, in listening and understanding American English in a cultural context. The following are some of the feelings and survival tips expressed and provided by the international students and advisors.
Feelings of Being Overwhelmed
The excitement of living in a new country and environment, meeting new friends, tasting new cuisines, but at the same time being homesick, are common feelings expressed by new international students. Although Americans are friendly and welcoming to international students, sometimes their “openness and political correctness can be overwhelming”. The details of housing arrangements, noise level in the dormitory, different means of transportation, too many choices and decisions to make, or frequent invitations to orientation sessions, can be mind boggling. A comprehensive orientation program, which tries to provide all the academic, social, intercultural, and immigration information, can be “over-stuffed”. Students feel that they do not have the “down-time” to adjust, and reflect.
Culture obviously reflects one’s values and international students sometimes may face with conflicting values with their American counterparts. Americans are goal, action (stress on what you are doing) oriented and individualistic. Whereas, people from some other cultures tend to be process, “being” (stress on who you are) and group oriented. To some Americans, being friendly is a goal or action of an individual. However, international students may be looking for someone to “befriend” and develop a long-term relationship with. Friendship is taken as more superficial in some cultures than in others. A simple “how are you?” is only a greeting, which does not lead to a conversation to find out how somebody is feeling. It can be surprising to see international students actually stop and prepare to respond how they feel, only to find that the greeter is already 10 feet away, walking towards another destination.
International students will also become aware that the real America is so different than what has been portrayed by the media and pop culture. Hollywood movies, celebrities, TV programs, fast food, and other chain stores “are not necessarily good representations of a very complicated U.S.A.”. Some of the campus communities can be very insulated and thus not represent the true American culture. Depending on individual campuses, “diversity” may have different meanings or carried American flavor. “Hate-love confusion” and a little disappointment while transitioning and understanding the culture are normal, and students will adapt and accept gradually. Especially with communication styles: body language, eye contact, personal space, or facial expressions; it takes time to find out “where cultural difference stops and where personal difference starts”.
The American Classroom
International students also find rapport with professors and dynamics in the classroom interesting. Depending on undergraduate, graduate, large lecture, or small discussion classes, the classroom culture can be quite different from home. Some of the common observations include: calling the professor by his/her first name, informal/ casual dress and behavior in class, students eating, reading, and sleeping in large classes, particular roles of teaching assistants and departmental secretaries, direct communication styles: speak up, speak fast, challenge the professor, the seriousness of plagiarism, expectations of independent work from students, or professor’s admission of learning from students. In addition, students may not be accustomed to the professor openly criticizing and complimenting them. One student said she is “not used to having people telling us when we did something bad. Or when people in our group don’t like what we’ve done in our project. On the other hand, we are also not used to having our professors and colleagues give us compliments when we do something good”. Some of these can be regarded as differences in communication styles and values, expectations of professors and students, teaching and learning, or simply culture.
Survival Tips for International Students
- When you feel “overwhelmed”, you should talk to people. One on one especially with someone who has the time and patience to listen, and then gradually into groups where you will meet new people”. Or you may want to “hang out with people from a common background, other international students who can empathize with your feelings”. While designing the orientation program, the International Programs Office should provide relaxation sessions such as social/tea/coffee hours, movie night, or “buddy night” for international students.
- To prepare for “homesickness”. Students recommend buying international phone cards as a ‘must-have’ because talking to loved ones can really strengthens you through hard times. Also, bringing some memorabilia, photos, posters, music, or artwork from your country can make the transition as smooth as possible. The more you can imitate the feeling of home in your room, the better you will be able to cope with homesickness. You can also keep yourself occupied with studies, work, by hanging out with friends, or volunteering in student or community organizations. The busier you are, the less you will think of home.
- Be patient and open-minded. It takes time to “use” a new language, “slang”, or to get used to the food, customs, and “live in a culture”. “Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Americans are always friendly and willing to offer help”. “Those who are ashamed to ask will eventually lose their way”. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Try to initiate a conversation at appropriate times. Sometimes a simple American greeting like “what’s up?” or “what’s cooking?”, and a “high-five” gesture can go a long way in “fitting-in”. It shows your effort of learning the culture.
- Stay active and healthy, get involved, and be inclusive. Although you may feel comfortable speaking your language, hanging out with friends from your own country, and participating in the international student organization, try to include Americans in your activity or discussion. Speak English when there are other students around, and avoid building an “exclusive club” of your group. Be proud to be your cultural ambassador. Americans are eager to learn from you about your culture. Eat, sleep and exercise to stay both physically and mentally healthy. This will sustain a positive attitude while adjusting and adapting to a new culture.
Lastly, remember that you come to study in the States “not only for grades and degrees, but also for a social life and community, and learning the culture”. Allow yourself to be integrated into an on and off campus community, and participate in departmental and student activities, registered student clubs, and other volunteer organizations. If resources are available, take advantage of the time you are in the States, go travel and see different parts of the United States. This will enable you to enjoy your experience!
Editorial provided by Mr. Richard Yam, International Student Advisor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.