Sociocultural Concerns

Sociocultural concerns include the following categories: (a) interactions with Americans, (b) language deficiency, and (c) value clash.

Interactions with Americans

Although a majority of the respondents agreed that most Americans were nice and friendly, quite a few indicated that the friendliness was somewhat superficial. It was difficult for them to develop a “close friendship” with an American, because they always kept a distance between friends. A computer science student claimed:

I felt that the friends here were not as “iron” as the friends in China. In China, in the circle of “iron brothers,” we always look after one another and do “special” favors for each other. Also, as friends, we know what occurred in each other’s life. There is not any secret among Chinese friends. In America, things go totally different. It seems to me that Americans emphasize privacy, and, even among the best friends, the distance is kept. (Participant 15)

A female student echoed:

You can feel that your American colleagues are polite and friendly to you, and you are trying to respond in the same way. But no matter how hard you try, you still feel somehow there’s something missing in that polite and friendly atmosphere around you that makes you feel the distance. There seems to be something that stands between you and everybody else, and it prevents you from becoming one of them. You may have many friends, but few “true” friends. (Participant 4)

From Chinese students’ opinions, American people tend to be much more individualistic. Their emphasis on privacy often prevents them from establishing intimate friendships. In most Chinese students’ minds, the concept of “friendship” referred to two things. On the one hand, friends are supposed to do something special for each other; on the other hand, friends should know each other’s business. The Chinese concept of “friendship” is closely related to “connections” or “guanxi” (Frank 2000). To Chinese, the “friends’ network” is very reliable and effective when help is needed. In contrast to the Chinese concept of friendship, Americans hold quite different expectations regarding what friends should do. To Americans, friendship is not typically based on exchanging favors. Because Americans did not treat friends in the same way as Chinese do, Chinese students might not have gotten the help they expected from their American friends. They were confused, frustrated, and depressed. An industrial engineering student complained:

I know an American guy. He is my neighbor. I think we got along very well. [We] watched football, played tennis, went to bar, things like that. I treated him like my buddy. Last semester, I needed to have someone proofread my term paper. So I asked him for help. His response made me shocked. He said “Wow, 15 pages! Well, buddy, each page, five dollars. The total is 75. I can give you a discount: 50 bucks.” I am kind of speechless at that moment. In China, when we do our friends a favor, we never look for money, because the friendship is much more important than money. However, it seems to me that Americans do not easily offer help without monetary gain or other interests. In their minds, friends are friends, but business is business. (Participant 10)

Besides differences in their concepts of friendship, interpersonal relations in America also posed a challenge for most of the respondents. Chinese students came from a more hierarchical society and were sensitive to others’ evaluations of them. Chinese students’ sense of self-esteem faced a great challenge, because American people were much more direct in asserting their opinions. An educational psychology student talked to me about her unpleasant experience as a teaching assistant:

I feel it is hard to be accepted totally in this society because of my appearance and foreign accent. I have a prominent accent, and some American students cannot bear my accent. I can sense that some of them do not like me at all. When they were forced to listen to my lecture, they showed annoyed or irritated faces. I felt humiliated, embarrassed, and stressed.

I cannot change my accent or my appearance. I feel it will not be an easy task for me to be accepted in this country. (Participant 16)

In China, indirectness is known as one of the major Confucian virtues. Growing up in China, these Chinese students inevitably acquired these traditional values. Most of them had learned to be careful and considerate in what they said or how they spoke to others. Direct confrontation should be avoided at all costs. Therefore, when facing Americans’ direct criticism, Chinese students were frustrated, stressed, and confused. One sociology graduate student described a clash between her and an American faculty member:

I have faced a lot of pressure from my coursework, and I feel even more stress because of my experience in the department. Before I came here, all of my information about America was from Hollywood movies, which had a tendency to over-idealize American society. I felt very frustrated and disheartened when I found the disparity between my expectation and the reality. For instance, when I first got here, my department assigned me work as a research assistant for a professor. I thought I already did my best, but she seemed not very satisfied. She did not talk to me directly but wrote a letter to my department chair and my advisor suggesting the department should not support me anymore, because she thought I was not qualified. I was shocked when my advisor told me what she did to me. I do not know how to describe my feelings, embarrassed, humiliated, insecure, frustrated, and anxious. Later on, I found out she had a reputation for being mean to students in my department. So, most of students did not take her words seriously. But back then, I felt my future in America would be ended by what she did. I was so stressed that I cried at night. (Participant 2)

A music graduate student concurred:

I live with an old American lady in her house. We do not get along very well. I have to wash my clothes by myself, because the washer and dryer could ruin my dress. You know, since my major is piano performance, lots of my professional dress is so expensive and I do not want to take the risk. However, my landlord hates me using water to wash clothes. She said she has to pay extra money for water I used. Many times, she is so angry when she saw I washed my clothes. I feel so guilty although I paid the half rent. I dare not to wash my clothes when she is at home as well. (Participant 12)

Owing to the different cultural norms and their lack of English proficiency, most respondents felt great difficulty in interacting with American people. Eight participants indicated that they did not have any social contact or sense of friendship with Americans. They mentioned that most American people with whom they interacted were elderly people, such as landladies, missionaries and Christians, or their host family. They felt frustrated that they had very few or no “peer” American friends. As one student pointed out, “Although I have ample opportunities to see Americans on campus, actual communication with them is rather rare” (Participant 9). Ties with the home world were lost, and new ones were difficult to make. They felt lonely, isolated, and anxious because of the lack of social effectiveness.

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