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.


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10 Responses

  1. Jonathan Chang says:

    Hey Annabelle,

    Thanks for the great read! I am a Fall 2017 MSW-applicant and I appreciate that you bring your diverse background and perspective to the field, Columbia University, and our city. I currently work primarily with high school students who are immigrants from China. In addition to the language barrier, the idea of multiculturalism is new to Chinese culture in general.

    Speaking and learning English is not a priority for the youth I work with, but instead — utilizing their strengths and exploring their interests are! What you have been through sounds similar to the experiences these students are having daily. As my work is predominantly in Flushing, many of these students have ties to other Mandarin-speaking groups and individuals in their networks. They struggle with attending classes that are taught in English and feel ignored when other students, who don’t speak Mandarin, do not acknowledge their presence. It’s tough, and it must feel like they have to conform/adapt to this new way of life. Our education systems need to reflect and acknowledge diverse backgrounds, such as yours, and promote integration of culture and identity instead of conformity and assimilation. Columbia University is lucky to have you.

  2. Miranda says:

    Hi Annabelle,
    It is such a coincidence that I came across your article today. The title of your article caught my eye. I am also an international student from China. I graduated from another social work program two years ago and I faced with a lot of the same challenges that you talked about here.
    During the two years of my graduate study, I felt lonely most of the times. Besides the academic pressure that confines you to studies, it is the social exclusion. And nobody really talks about it. However, I was also lucky enough to have a few American friends who, as you said, were willing to go to the extra mile to talk and make friends with me.
    The message that you are sending is really powerful. It not only acknowledges the difficulties that many Chinese students have when first arrive in the country, but also calls for cultural awareness and real appreciation of diversity. Thank you for this amazing article.

  3. Harden says:

    Hey Annabelle, Thank you for sharing this great essay, which is quite practical and useful for other Chinese students in foreign countries I think. Shall we re-post it online at our official WeChat account: phdworkshopchina in hopes that more students would learn something from you and experice a smooth student life outside China?

    Thank you.

  4. Mena says:

    Ni hao Annabelle,
    Congratulations on your acceptance to Columbia University and your brave move to the US. Your positive attitude and perseverance will continue to help you acclimate to this new culture. You are a leader and offer good suggestions to your Chinese peers.
    My husband and I have adopted our 2 daughters from China. They are now 18 and 21 years old. When our daughters were in high school we had an exchange student from China who attended a private high school that had over 80 students from China. Our exchange student was one who limited himself with socializing with the American students and instead of continuing his studies at the school he transferred to a school in Queens NY where there are mostly Chinese students. Some of the students were more open like yourself and made friends with the American students. Keep on expressing your feelings and you will do well. Good luck with your journey!

  5. Hannah Johnson says:

    Hi Annabelle!

    Thank you so much for writing about your experience. I am an MSW applicant for the Fall 2017 and am in my undergrad BSW now. I have been able to meet and get to know a lot of the Chinese international students here at my university and have heard some of the same challenges that you mentioned from them. It continually breaks my heart when my friends from China have felt the challenges of becoming friends with Americans. I am encouraged by your persistence in hard times and putting yourself in situation’s that are hard. I know that your voice is helping other Chinese students who have had similar experiences to you. I also hope your words and experiences can awaken American’s and help them see the ways they can pursue more meaningful relationships across language and cultural barriers. Because the friendships are so worth it! <3

    Thank you again for sharing and I know that you are impacting Columbia with your experiences and wisdom. Keep it up!
    I hope to meet you this fall!

  6. Oyin says:

    Hi Annabelle,

    Thank you so much for your story, it’s really eye-opening. I am a Nigerian living in Nigeria. I work in a school and we currently have a new Chinese student (high-school) who is having a lot of trouble settling in. I wonder if we could connect offline and see if there are some tips you could give or any other even more practical help.
    Personally, I lived in London for a little while and made quite a few Chinese friends. It didn’t happen overnight though. I had to be consistently patient, helpful, friendly and generally just genuinely lovely towards them. English was not their first language and for a few of them, they were speaking it for the first time. I realise however that not everyone was ready to put in the same amount of work which I did. Majority just felt the Chinese students all wanted to keep to themselves only and talk to no one else. Taking the effort to make those friendships was one of the best things about my living in London. We always had a good time (albeit with a lot of stares!) and they are still my friends till today.

  7. Muktar says:

    I had the same issues studying in China for two years. I only had two chinese friends who had studied in America.

  8. Joy says:

    Hello Annabelle,
    I am a Graduate student in Europe and here the studies are demanding but not that time consuming and I am an engineering student. I am Chinese although my nationality might say otherwise. It was this September I started my program where I met countless International Students from Mainland China. From the beginning I was very open with them as I myself wish I had gone to University in China, but as time passed I noticed that they showed no interest in me as if I was not really apart of their community because of my nationality. They could not confide in me which me me an outcast really. Now I leave them alone and hand out mostly with the national students or other international students from my class. After thinking in those thoughts I notice that it is really still my fault. I should take my time and give the Chinese students another chance but due to the mental pressure of the course load I tend to do what is easy for me. I will need to re-organize my personality somewhat 😉 thank you for your post which made me understand something important. Patience is important during cultural interaction.

  9. Jasmine says:

    Hey Annabelle,
    I found your essay really interesting!
    I’m a university student in Canada, and at my university there are many international students from China. 99% of the time I see them in the library, they are always in big groups hanging out together. I don’t really see any Chinese international students mixing with domestic students. I’m the kind of person who LOVES learning about different cultures and I’ve been wanting to go on international exchange myself , so this year I started to become more aware of the international students at my university. I put myself in there shoes and thought that it must be hard to go to a new country and not have the locals try to befriend you because of the language barrier. Because of this I have being trying to be extra friendly to international students, but it kinda hard to initiate a conversation to get to know them better. Do you have any advice and tips on this?