Research on international students has identified important issues of acculturation stress and cultural shock. According to Oberg (1960), culture shock involves such aspects as strain; a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation; being rejected or rejecting others; confusion, surprise, or anxiety; and a feeling of impotence. Oberg argued that “cultural shock is precipitated by anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (p. 167). Oberg regarded culture shock as a normal reaction to an unfamiliar environment, as part of the process of adapting to new cultural surroundings.
In this study, Chinese students reported that they experienced high levels of culture shock and encountered great difficulty adjusting to life in the United States (M = 2.76, SD = 0.99). These findings are consistent with the findings of other researchers on Asian students’ culture shock (Yang and Clum 1994). Yang and
Clum (1994) studied the life stresses and suicide rate in the Asian student population in America, and they concluded:
In a society, the culture always provides normative information to guide an individual’s behaviors and thoughts. The absence of the normative information produces a good deal of life-stress. Entrance into one culture from another often results in a temporary vacuum of information regarding behavior appropriate to the new culture. The more different the two cultures, the more stressful the adjustment is likely to be (p. 127).
Chinese students come from different cultural backgrounds. When they enter a different culture, most of the familiar cues are removed and are followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety. They are unable to understand, control, or predict other people’s behavior. They are confused in roles, expectations, and values. They feel impotent on many occasions because of their inability to cope with the new environment. Chinese students’ coping experiences are likely to be more difficult compared to those of students from European countries or even those students from other Asian countries, as China and the United States have been identified as having a maximum cultural distance (Samovar and Porter 1991). Furthermore, research has indicated that international students who come from non-European backgrounds, the third-world countries and/or Eastern countries, tended to suffer more stress in adjusting to American campus life (Lin 1998; Perkins 1977). China is all of the three: a non-European, a third-world country, and an Eastern country. Chinese students encounter the challenges and difficulties people from all three of these backgrounds encounter. With so many difficulties, Chinese students should expect to experience much more sociocultural anxiety than students from other countries do.
Most research subjects described their experiences of culture shock primarily in terms of what they expected based on their preconceived ideas about the United States. Students often felt disappointed with their experiences, particularly if their expectations about life in the United States had been high. A loss of familiarity (including a familiar support system) combined with unexpected negative events resulted in anxiety and frustration. A male student expressed his disappointment about his experiences his first semester in the United States. Not only was he adjusting to life in the new culture, but he was also adjusting to the loss of his preconceived ideals, which was a double frustration for him.
Chinese international students’ tendency to interact mostly with co-nationals is consistent with the findings of previous research on international students. Students talked about wishing for greater social contact with Americans but found it difficult to initiate. “Building friendships with Americans” (M = 3.73, SD = 1.10) and “successfully communicating with Americans” (M = 3.50, SD = 1.28) were the most difficult things for Chinese students to adjust to at an American university. Most Chinese students attributed their social ineffectiveness to the cultural distance between China and the United States. The interview transcripts showed most of them felt it was difficult to decipher the rules and the norms of discourse and social engagement. Few of them participated in social activities, partly because they did not know how to participate or behave in social situations. All of their confusion was compounded by their language barriers. A general lack of appropriate language and social skills among Chinese students often led to feelings of social isolation.
Although research has suggested that interaction with host nationals is the single best predictor of successful adaptation (Bochner 1981), Chinese students in this study indicated that social and emotional needs were best met by interacting with their co-nationals. None of the students identified Americans as their primary social network. Most of them, however, acknowledged that their tendency to withdraw from social activities and confine their interaction to their own community increased their isolation from American culture and negatively impacted their cultural adjustment and English language proficiency improvement.
Interview transcripts also revealed that American people’s values of openness and individualism, their tendency to exhibit self-centered behavior, and their ability to confront and to criticize were not well accepted by the Chinese students. Some of respondents felt they had to transform themselves in order to succeed or simply to survive at an American university. For instance, some students made “deep sociocultural transfers” in values such as “aggressiveness versus humbleness” or “manual labor versus mental intellectuals” against their instincts. They made behavioral adjustments as they began to understand the cultural bases for accepted behaviors.