For Chinese Students in America, It's Hard to Make Friends

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By Lucia Pierce

SHANGHAI, China -- Having just completed a trip in which I visited 14 of my students at 11 colleges and universities, I thought I'd finish my blog with some thoughts on what my Chinese students have said about their lives in American academia.


With the exception of one student, all the students I visited were freshmen.  The last student I saw was a junior and it gave me a good perspective on how the next years may look for the others.  Some of my conclusions are probably more about being a freshman rather than pertaining only to Chinese students.  Going to college is a rite of passage for all students and the freshman year is a time to try on new personalities, experiment with alternative living styles, and begin life without parental supervision.  Thus, it is not uncommon for freshmen to take a while to learn how to manage their time well, learn how much partying they can do (and attendant drinking -- illegal as it is, it is ubiquitous), and make new friends.  Things often begin to settle down their sophomore year and, as my junior said, there is little connection between seniors/juniors and sophomores/freshmen.  By the last two years of school, many students are focused on what comes next.

That being said, there are some specific issues that I found shared by every Chinese student I visited. 

Without exception, the students find the party scene baffling and uncomfortable.  Parties with drinking, close dancing, loud music are pretty much unknown to these kids. A few have gone to one party but found the experience so uncomfortable they have not gone to any more. 

Also, without exception, the freshmen said that their dreams of making good friends with Americans were hard to realize.  Some of this is the freshmen syndrome -- it can take a year or more to develop close friendships.  On the other hand, there does seem to be a difference in how friendship is defined. It's not uncommon in the U.S. for friends to enjoy each other's company but not do everything together; often different friends enjoy different activities. In China I've observed that friends are almost always together both doing fun things as well as studying together.  A friend is someone with whom you spend most of your time.  Thus, one student said she felt that Americans were kind but superficial in their friendships because there wasn't the intensity of togetherness. Alternately, many American college students I've met over the years tell me how hard it is to be friends with Chinese because the Chinese students "study all the time" or don't seem "interested or curious" about things that interest the Americans.
Chinese students have told me they feel it's rude to ask questions when they are with a group of Americans. Americans may talk about movies, movie stars, music, musicians, sports and assume the Chinese know the context.  I now make it a point to encourage my students to ask questions -- that the American students will be happy to explain and would like to see the interest shown by Chinese students.  

I've also encouraged my students to attend campus sports events. Chinese high schools do not have competitive sports teams so Chinese students don't come to school in the U.S. with much knowledge of sports (except, for many, NBA basketball), or the role it plays in American culture.  The Chinese students I talked with do not watch much if any TV or follow the news very carefully.  They tend to stay away from, or be silent during, political discussions.  This reflects their focus in the States (get the degree) and the rarity of informal political discussion in China.  But since sports, TV and politics are part of American students' lives, there can be a disconnect in conversation.

There was one area in which I saw a big difference within my group of students. Those who are attending smaller liberal arts colleges seem happier with their academic work and are a bit more integrated socially. Those in larger colleges and universities feel less satisfied academically, less integrated, and spend more time with other Chinese students. While not surprising, the difference between the two groups is stark.  Larger schools have large introductory courses and most of the students attending the larger schools have no classes of less than 50 students and have little or no contact with professors.  This will change as they choose their major and begin to take higher level courses.  

Those students in the smaller schools are thrilled with seminars and find it energizing to take part in class discussions; they tend to have a lot more interaction with professors.  Because the classes are smaller it gives them a chance to interact more with other, non-Chinese, students, and I saw a fair number of hand waves to American classmates as I walked with my students.

The junior whom I visited (in a small liberal arts college) is much more relaxed than she was two years ago. She seems at ease with campus life; has American, international, and Chinese friends; feels that, with few exceptions, her professors are excellent in the classroom as well as always available to talk; she said she is finally understanding different forms of humor; and she is looking towards her next steps. She said that in retrospect her freshman year was rough but it was worth it.  

In general, the Chinese students I visited are pragmatic. They are in the States to get a degree that will help them in their career success.  Most are interested in learning about American culture, but their main focus is the degree and, depending on their English skills, that means usually more time studying than their American classmates. While there is much that is different and much that is disappointing, there is also much that they like and they don't believe that feeling self-pity or fussing is helpful. They are determined and clear about their goals and eager to move forward.

Warm thanks to Jim for inviting me onto this week's blog.

Lucia Buchanan Pierce is an educational consultant living in Shanghai. 
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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