Why Do Chinese Students Only Mingle with Themselves?

February 27, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

By Annabelle Liu

I appreciate any local American friend who is willing to talk to me. Not everyone I meet in New York City wants to talk to me, and the major reason is because my social skill is deeply affected by my language and cultural barriers.

I’m a Chinese student studying at Columbia University who moved to New York City last August, and prior to that, I had never lived in a foreign country outside of China. My American social skills were honed by hanging out with English speakers and interning in various international organizations back in China. Being admitted to Columbia also proves my English proficiency in some way. I thought my international experience in China would help me fit into the new environment; however, I have encountered lots of frustrations since I came here. Everyone in New York City speaks so fast and their accents make English sound like a different language to me.

In order to fit in, I take pleasure in learning American street lingo, such as “Pain in the ass!”; “You can’t have a cake and eat it too;” and “You’re a schmuck!” But still, I often feel like an outsider. I’m the only international student in my church. There are people who are welcoming when I first meet them, but once they realize that they can’t have natural conversations with me, they only say, “hi” and then move on to talk to someone else. I try to initiate conversations with others, but oftentimes even when they respond to me, I don’t know how to make the conversation flow. I wish I could be witty, but I don’t know how to do that in English. In Chinese, I enjoy making jokes and puns, which makes my personality more colorful.

There are times I try very hard to make a conversation with someone by asking questions or talking a lot by myself, but for some reason, they respond minimally and seem to want to move on to the next person. Once they find someone else to talk to, their facial expressions suddenly turn joyful and they become talkative, as if they are transformed into a completely different person when they are not talking to me.

It’s understandable that people like talking to people who they find interesting or at least are on the same page. I don’t blame people who don’t go the extra mile to pay special care to these new immigrants who aren’t experts in American culture and language. But I do appreciate people who show extra patience with me, such as continuing the conversation with me or including me in a group discussion by asking questions. It would be nice if people showed interest in me beyond small talk.

I am a social work student, and we are required to intern in agencies to practice social work skills that we learn in class. A Korean classmate told me she is not doing well in her agency because oftentimes she can’t understand what’s going on in group meetings since they all talk fast and in slang. She also had difficulty with understanding her clients’ accents. I feel her pain so much and I know we are definitely competent in terms of knowledge and experience both in school and in the workplace, otherwise we wouldn’t have been accepted to Columbia University and be able to maintain an outstanding grade point average. However, the language barrier influences our performances in the workplace and the way people think of our capabilities.

This barrier has also presented problems in my love life. My ex-boyfriend is a fast speaker, although I would ask him to speak slower, he still used his normal fast speed. He wanted to discuss geopolitics and finance which were his huge interests, but I couldn’t keep up with his words, not to mention discuss with him in depth. This was especially difficult when I was tired; trying to interpret his fast speech about deep topics was just too much for me. It’s even more discouraging when he kept asking me “Do you know what I’m saying?”, which made me feel I’m an idiot. Only recently did I find out that “Do you know what I’m saying?” is a common American colloquialism. I wish I knew this before we broke up.

I told this to an American friend, and she said I brought a new perspective to her because she thought the reason most Chinese only hang out within their groups is because they don’t want to come out of their comfort zone. There is some truth in that. However, for many of us, mingling within our Chinese group is where we can find confidence and comforts after we accumulated so many frustrations when venturing out.

Even when Chinese students want to hang out with domestic cohorts, sometimes it’s not easy because of the population makeup of their programs. A Chinese friend who is in a statistics program is envious that I’m in a program where 70 percent of the students are domestic students, while he’s in a program in which 95 percent of students are Chinese. He wishes he could interact with more locals. A Chinese girl tells me that most students in her program, both international and domestic, leave school once their classes are finished, so there is no chance to get to know her classmates better.

I write this essay in hopes that my Chinese fellows who are struggling with the same issue can relate and find solace in my story. I’m still trying to get better in this new social environment. Fortunately, I’ve made some good local friends who are a great support system to me in many ways. I got where I am because I’ve met amazing people who are so caring, understanding and empathetic. Yet not every Chinese student is as lucky as me.

Some Chinese students tell me they can’t fit into the culture. I know they must have tried. I wish more Americans can put themselves in our shoes; acts of kindness like sincere check-ins, inviting us to different activities, showing interest in us are all helpful in assisting us to find a sense of belonging in the new environment.

To my Chinese fellows: There are so many times that I want to go back to China because I think this isn’t the right place for me and people here don’t welcome me. Nevertheless, I know these pains are temporary and you can’t gain without pain. If you don’t know what to talk about with locals, start by asking questions or sharing your Chinese perspectives. If you are uncomfortable in a group of people, invite individuals to have lunch or study together. Also, when you’ve made some local friends, don’t forget your other Chinese fellows—invite them to join your activities; they may look forward to mingling with more Americans yet haven’t found people with more cultural awareness.

Newly arrived Chinese students, hang in there. We are not alone: we are facing frustrations, growing and transforming together. We need to encourage and support each other, and soon we will excel.

I’m sure foreigners or new immigrants who move to a new country that has a totally different language and culture from their original country resonate with me to some point. It’s not just about Chinese students or Americans—I wish people all over the world can have this cultural awareness and pay extra attention to the newly arrived people.

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Annabelle Liu is a student at the Columbia School of Social Work. Her work emphasizes the way social work in combination with business and communication can make a difference in the world. Before attending CSSW, she interned at UNICEF China, the American Chamber of Commerce in China and China Central Television. She will graduate with the Class of 2018.