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丹尼尓

What are your experiences with fitting in with international Chinese students at your university? (outside of China)

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丹尼尓

This post is about American - international Chinese assimilation in the U.S.

 

My school has a really large number of Chinese international students.  I could write on and on and on about my experience with them, but to keep it short, it was very difficult fitting in with them.  

 

As for my Chinese level, I don't consider myself native-level fluent, but I'm still pretty advanced.  I've never been outside the U.S. before, but I've been studying it for a few years, and my level is still higher than some of my peers who have lived and studied in China.  Nonetheless, there's still a major language barrier present.  On top of that, I rarely see any Chinese and American interact with each other, it's very segregated here.  The end result is me looking like a stupid laowai trying to fit in.  It's extremely frustrating because I work hard on my Chinese to the point that it's an obsession, yet I can't make any meaningful connections with the Chinese students at my university.

 

And so, I was curious if other people like me are in a similar situation.  I thought, is it me, are all Chinese like this, is it the school, is it the studying abroad, etc. etc.  Share your experiences below! (whether it's in the states or not!)

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大肚男

Chinese students where I am from (Miami) tend to keep to themselves, they hang out together, eat at Chinese restaurants, and pretty much create a mini China bubble around themselves. Based on my limited experience with Chinese students in other places, that seems to hold true.

I think that, unfortunately, the only way to properly break into that group would he to date a Chinese girl or guy.

You can try to make friends with some, but I feel that if you are not some chinese student's plus one, you would not be invited to any events.

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ZhangKaiRong

@丹尼尔

 

Do you want to get in touch with them because you want to polish your skills (so just because they're native Chinese), or do you really care about them, and would like to know them better? I think there is a big difference between the two, and you should give up trying so hard to make friends with them if you're seeking a language buddy...

 

My experience is the same as 大肚男's. I attended a regional top university in Europe, which started to focus in attracting mainland Chinese students in the early 2010s. They also introduced a buddy program to help them integrate better to the local university life. I was one of the few students with advanced Chinese at that time, I became a buddy of several Chinese students, so I spent a lot of time with them. I see them kind of dumb, as they're really want to keep themselves in the "Chinese bubble", and don't want to get out of their comfort zone, but at the same time they're whining a lot that their English is not improving, and they still can't say a proper simple sentence in the native language here. I suggested them to make friends with the local students, or if they're too shy, we can switch to English or the local language . We agreed that it will be OK, and when I started to speak with them in languages other than Chinese, they refused to try to speak on that language... They continued to live their lives just if they're in China: if they wanted to eat out, they went to a Chinese restaurant; they attended events the local Chinese community organized; they went to KTV when they wanted to party; they picked other Chinese girls/guys as partner in romantic relationships. Even though I spent a lot of time with them, I never felt myself a real part of the group, I was just the Chinese-speaking local guy who do the errands for them. There was a girl who asked me to help with her homework. I said OK, no problem at all, however when I started to help her (explaining what to do, how to do, etc), she said it would be OK just to do the homework, she doesn't want to know the details. When she failed her first test, she was furious that she did all the homeworks, so how dare the professor let her fail? This much dumbness is kind of funny, though...

 

I have much better experience with Chinese working here in white-collar jobs. Some of them are expats, some of them came here long ago, so they're not the same as university students, and they are all quite interesting in their own way. Even though some of them also want to live in the Chinese bubble, most of them are quite open to the local culture, and want to mix with local/international people. 

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eion_padraig

To be fair, as a non-Chinese person living in China, most of my friends are non-Chinese here. Part of that is cultural differences related to preferences I have for my life. And I speak intermediate level Mandarin, so it's easy enough for me to talk with people about day to day issues, though admittedly more sophisticated issues can be challenging for me. I struggle when more than 3 Chinese speakers are socializing together because the thread of the conversation gets away from me. It's even worse here in the south where I'm at because so many people prefer to use Cantonese.

I probably have 4 to 5 good friends after living here for 3 years. There are a wider group of Chinese folks I know through playing sports and I'll go out with them to have group meals after games, but I don't know much about them beyond where they're from and if they're students or working. Besides playing the same sport, I have almost nothing in common with these folks. A number of them are university age and I'm well into my 30's too. I think Chinese university students tend to be much less mature and worldly than other Western country university students, which can account for some of the issues. 

Most of my colleagues who are also foreigners have few or no Chinese friends. They almost entirely live in ex-pat bubbles, though often people of different nationalities tend to spend time together. A big part of the reason they live here is to make good money and to have good vacations to travel internationally. I have some foreign friends who have married Chinese and are going to live here long term. Some of them have really studied Chinese seriously and others have pretty mediocre Chinese language skills. 

Why should Chinese students who study abroad want to learn about the country that they are studying in? What makes the place so interesting that they should care? To generalize a bit (I've worked in internaitonal university admission, so it's something I do know about), most Chinese students studying in the country because their own educational system isn't very good. These days a good many students probably plan to return to China though some will want to secure a foreign passport before they return.

Am I interested in living in China and learning about the culture, language, and history? Yes, but that's a very personal choice. But most of my foreign colleagues don't care that much about China either. I certainly don't expect Chinese students studying abroad to be that different. Now, does this mean that there is a problem when foreign universities in the West are promoting international students as a way to bring diversity and cultural understanding to their university when there is limited engagement on local and international students? Yes, I think it does. But largely enrolling Chinese students in foreign universities is about the revenue it brings the universities. 

To the OP, I think outreach on an individual level is the best approach and there may not be many out of the 120 students who are interested. Sports are a good way to break through cultural barriers. Maybe you can get an intramural team together that some of the students will join. 

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dementior

this is one of these complex topics without a straight-forward answer... My question is: if you have been studying it for a decade, what are you waiting for to buy a ticket and experience the real thing?

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Wurstmann

I think it depends on what they are studying and why they want to study abroad. Most of the Chinese students just want to get a degree and don't care about the language and people of the place.

But I also met completely different ones. They were studying things like German or Japanese and had a lot of interest for things other than their degree. 

I met my wife on lang-8.com. She corrected some of my writing; later we discovered that we lived in the same city and decided to meet up. She already had a degree from a Chinese university and came to Germany out of other interests.

As a result her German is very good (much to the detriment of my Chinese) and she had more "foreign" (from her perspective) friends than Chinese ones. Her cousin on the other hand went just for a degree. He more or less lives in a bubble like some of you mentioned, so even after graduating his German still sucks.

I think you can't blame students like him. It's all a matter of interests. 

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Lu

I've had a number of language partners in Holland over the years, and one Chinese boyfriend, and occasionally they have invited me to activities or included me in things. I never really sought it out though. It seems to me that the people who have their entire social life in the Chinese community will be almost impossible to really make friends with, as you often won't be able to follow their conversations and cultural references and they won't be very interested in slowing down for your sake. But the people who are interested in getting to know non-Chinese are also often more worldly and (thus) easier to get along with and get to know.

 

I think, as others already mentioned, that the trick is finding people you personally think are cool/interesting. You might not become part of the group that way (because they often aren't), but you might make some real Chinese friends.

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Flickserve

It seems to me that the people who have their entire social life in the Chinese community will be almost impossible to really make friends with, as you often won't be able to follow their conversations and cultural references and they won't be very interested in slowing down for your sake. But the people who are interested in getting to know non-Chinese are also often more worldly and (thus) easier to get along with and get to know.

it is this. Many years ago when at University, the majority of Chinese students in the UK came from HK. And most of them did exactly this. Stayed in their own groups with little interest in interacting outside. I remember having one HK friend who I met during karate and open minded enough to go exploring different societies. At the time, I spoke no Cantonese and eventually dropped out of trying to integrate and learn a bit more.

The next significant milestone came when I started working in HK. At a time when my Cantonese was still fairly elementary my colleague said a joke which I didn't get at all. He explained it was a reference to a TV advert ten years back. Obviously I hadn't seen it because I was back in England at the time. But it struck me that I was never going totally get on the same wavelength as local HKers because of a different experience growing up. Now that I have better Cantonese, anything to do with work is fine for interaction but I find culturally, I still cannot quite fit in and I find I find myself drifting into groups where people have grown up overseas and moved to HK for work. Language is still a problem because there is some vocabulary I am not familiar with and I also cannot process Cantonese at speed. Am I the problem?

Here is an example. If I said to another English person "have a break" in a certain way, they would immediately know I am referring to a kit kat as well as having a rest. Can a person not from UK have a chance of understanding?

Different cultures like different things. I found I quite enjoyed group meals whilst at University whereas most English people prefer to head to the pub, have a drink and talk about the most boring nonsense. Now, I can go to the pub but doing it 5 or 6 days a week seemed a bit excessive!

I think it's true that not every international student wants to learn English and integrate with local culture. It perhaps is a pity but many people just want the comfortable life. Learning in another language and just passing exams is a struggle enough without some American trying to hang on to your back and wasting your time on your smartphone. And basically, although China has its faults, the criticisms shouldn't be aired in public continuously whereas many Americans are very open about giving opinions on things that they do not have near enough knowledge of. From my experience on the other way round, it is really hard to integrate and the best way is to mix with common interests in a natural way.

For America, this is really difficult. The food is different and the sports are really different. All Chinese know what badminton is but Americans are like 'it's only a backyard sport and I can totally own it'. I play badminton (and play to a high level) - it's an ice breaker across all Chinese communities, from Canada to Taiwan to Australia to China. After an initial assessment period when I get sized up, I get lots of invitations to play and talk, have a meal etc. Lucky I happened to pick such a sport.

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wibr

 

After dinner all the Chinese students wanted to play cardgames, or some kind of murder mystery guessing game. My Western/other friends were horrified. The whole thing seems very childish to them (and to me. I generally leave once the Wii or card games come out).

 

What's childish or horrifying about cardgames?

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LiMo

This is a very interesting discussion. I'll add my two-cents for the sake of it but most of it has been covered by others already. 

 

Most people don't realise just how much they connect with their friends and other people in their society through unspoken cues and (to outsiders) extremely niche pop culture/high culture/historical references and so many other things. I was once somewhat like the OP but I've resigned myself to probably never having a group of "real" Chinese friends that I can effortlessly gel with whenever I want to practise my Chinese. 

 

As others have said, most Chinese international students keep to themselves, they live in a Chinese bubble, eat Chinese food, watch Chinese TV, leave it for a few hours a day during lectures, and return to it pretty rapidly. While this is disappointing to those of us who want to connect with them, it's best to take a look around and remember that the vast majority of other students do exactly the same thing. I myself left university with not a single close friend who wasn't British. Mind you, I made no effort to segregate myself from others and I have friendly acquaintances of all colours and creeds, nevertheless, my background predisposes me to making friends who are similar to me already.

 

Despite this, my Chinese is getting pretty good now, I keep up with news on China, I'm gradually learning names of some Chinese celebrities, and eventually I'll get to deepening my knowledge of history and literature which ought to really help me connect with people. But I'm no longer holding out for friends and have lowered my expectations significantly. Out of perhaps 3 and a half years, I think I'll probably have another real Chinese friend (i.e. not Chinese British) by the end of this year, which brings me to a grand total of 2  :D  (strictly sticking to your criteria it would be 1, I met the first in China)

 

The most I can advise you to do is to try and throw yourself into Chinese pop culture and keep up with the most important news items (if you haven't already, you say you're pretty advanced so I suspect you have). This will allow you to connect over current affairs as, chances are, many Chinese students won't be following local events (in the US?) too closely (at least the ones I knew in the UK weren't. see answers about language difficulties, pragmatism etc.). This helped me a lot because, as others note, small talk runs out very quickly otherwise. 

 

You're on the right track, you're reaching out. You just have to realise that, at least as far as Chinese from China go, you're likelihood of hitting it off is significantly decreased. Good luck!

 

edit: I looked up a few papers on this. Apparently this kind of segregation is quite normal, unfortunately. It's nothing to do with you or your school, academic research suggests it's a lot harder to create a trans-cultural campus than it is to create a campus of many different communities, coexisting, but rarely having any meaningful interaction.

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lips

To give one example of huge cultural differences, I once brought some Western friends to a Chinese house party. After dinner all the Chinese students wanted to play cardgames, or some kind of murder mystery guessing game. My Western/other friends were horrified. The whole thing seems very childish to them (and to me. I generally leave once the Wii or card games come out). They just want to drink and chat or go to the pub.

Matthew 7:3-5.

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Lanchong
Most people don't realise just how much they connect with their friends and other people in their society through unspoken cues and (to outsiders) extremely niche pop culture/high culture/historical references and so many other things
The part that puzzles me is: how come it's different with students from some other countries?

 

Friendships between people from countries which share a common language (eg. US/UK/Aus) are understandable, but how come international students from Germany and Sweden seem to do a good job of integrating when they're studying in the UK or US? What's the difference between Chinese students and them?

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Flickserve

The part that puzzles me is: how come it's different with students from some other countries?

Friendships between people from countries which share a common language (eg. US/UK/Aus) are understandable, but how come international students from Germany and Sweden seem to do a good job of integrating when they're studying in the UK or US? What's the difference between Chinese students and them?

they are from Europe, not China.

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stapler

I think there's something particular about East Asian cultures. While getting along with Europeans is fairly easy given there is actually a huge amount of shared culture, I don't think it can be put down entirely to level of cultural difference. For example, on the whole I find it much easier to get along with say Indians, Africans, Iranians than I do Chinese, despite being way more familiar with the later and even  being able to speak their language. The former will be quick to invite you around to their place, tell you about their country, be quite willing to go out and do new things, etc. It's much rarer for Chinese to act in that way. I imagine it's the same with Koreans and Japanese too.

 

@lips That's completely unfair. I don't tell Chinese people what to do. I'm simply reporting how I and my friends feel. I fully acknowledge that Chinese can be/are just as mortified by the kinds of stuff Westerners do.

 

@wibr - It just feels like I'm at a children's birthday party or something.

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丹尼尓

@LiMo - Wow, that's interesting, and very insightful - After reading your post, I thought: what if I had been born and raised in China, and had come to the states to study, just like them?  Like this, I would have full knowledge and access to the cultural references, pop culture, history, etc., just like any Chinese.  Would I be able to make meaningful, hopefully long-lasting relationships as I'm seeking?

 

See, what I'm thinking is this: perhaps I could work hard on my Chinese and bring it up to a level where I am native-level fluent and I know all the pop culture and historical references (let's ignore the 'how' part for now).  As such, I would hopefully be seen as approachable and worth-getting-to-know in the eyes of Chinese, and hopefully my flexible cultural competency with both Chinese and American will add extra value.

 

Because here's my theory: Imagine a bubble, a circle, in open space.  The bubble contains many, many dots inside it, each of which represents a single Chinese person.  The membrane of the bubble is the border between the Chinese population and the outside, and I am a dot standing on the outside.  Now, let's consider scenario #1: I, the dot on the outside, take the initiative to connect, and I start to move from out to in.  My goal is to penetrate the membrane and land on the inside, which really means that I have successfully connected with Chinese people (on a meaningful level).  Throughout this process, the mentalities of mine and the Chinese would remain constant: I want to connect, and the Chinese don't want to connect.  Because of this, it would be impossible to connect with the Chinese because a connection requires a mutual desire to connect.  So this scenario would fail.  Now, let's consider a second scenario #2: I bring my language/social skills to the level I have explained in the second paragraph, and would essentially add value to myself.  I would be able to make Chinese people come out of the bubble, toward me.  This would require a change mentality, one from 'don't want to connect' to 'want to connect'.  At the same time, even though I am not taking initiative as I usually would, I am still secretly craving a connection.  Now, because there's a mutual desire for connection, it will be possible to make a connection with them, or at least someone.  :P

 

Anyways, I kind of diverged onto a mini-rant in the third paragraph, but I think it could be useful nonetheless.  :P

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丹尼尓

To what extent do you guys think personality plays a role?  Consider someone who is shy, doesn't talk a lot, doesn't like to be around people vs. someone who is outgoing, funny, and gregarious (exaggerated example, but you get my point).  Obviously there are many different personalities, but humor and extroversion are two particularly strong traits for making a connection.  I'm thinking, would I have to be extra outgoing and extra funny to fit in with a population that is particularly hard to connect with?  

 

I think that the answer yes, and that I would get along with them very well, but I think the relationship would remain superficial because of the lack of familiarity with Chinese pop culture, historical references, etc.  But anyways... I wouldn't really know because I don't have much experience... if you have had or seen any experiences to refute or support this, please share!

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lips

@stapler Sorry, that was a low blow from me. I apologize. The occasional gospel admonition habit that I picked up from my college days in the US was hard to get rid of.

Actually I did the same thing myself in college parties. Booze was fine by me, but I always left when the weeds started to come out and before the third thing started, which was what every other person at the party, male or female, had in mind in the first place.

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Flickserve

To what extent do you guys think personality plays a role? Consider someone who is shy, doesn't talk a lot, doesn't like to be around people vs. someone who is outgoing, funny, and gregarious (exaggerated example, but you get my point). Obviously there are many different personalities, but humor and extroversion are two particularly strong traits for making a connection. I'm thinking, would I have to be extra outgoing and extra funny to fit in with a population that is particularly hard to connect with?

I think that the answer yes, and that I would get along with them very well, but I think the relationship would remain superficial because of the lack of familiarity with Chinese pop culture, historical references, etc. But anyways... I wouldn't really know because I don't have much experience... if you have had or seen any experiences to refute or support this, please share!

I think you are correct. It is a blend of personality, language and cultural differences.

If my experience in HK is typical, forming friendships takes a long time. Far longer than in Western cultures.

It is quite hard to generalise but being over friendly can also make people feel uncomfortable. There are social boundaries and people have enormous variation on where their boundaries are.

For instance, touching or hugging a person in western culture can be interpreted as normal manners - not for the Chinese that I know where a handshake will suffice.

I once patted somebody I knew on the shoulder. They explained to me that it was not common to do that as it meant bad luck. Maybe that's a HK thing. But the point is there may be small things you do that might make people feel uncomfortable.

**edited**

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Lu
Friendships between people from countries which share a common language (eg. US/UK/Aus) are understandable, but how come international students from Germany and Sweden seem to do a good job of integrating when they're studying in the UK or US? What's the difference between Chinese students and them?
I think numbers is a big part of it. There are enough Chinese students on most campuses by now that they can find a significant social life within the Chinese community. When I was studying at BLCU, the Japanese and the Korean students mostly stuck with their own nationality as well, partly I think because they could. I was with a Dutch group of 13 people, and we spend a lot of time together as well. While if you put one Japanese and one Korean in a Swedish university, they'll probably seek each other out.

 

There are always exceptions though, like the Korean guy at BLCU who had mostly American and European friends, or the Chinese guy I know here in Leiden who has all kinds of non-Chinese and even Dutch friends, even though he also seems to know all the Chinese.

 

I think wanting to fit in with 'the Chinese group' is an understandable and noble aim, but at the same time a bit pointless. You don't fit in with any random group of your own countrymen either - you seek out and build a group of people that you particlulary enjoy spending time with, because you share a background or an interest or a hobby.

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