I spent two years in Beijing, China working as an English teacher. It was a fascinating opportunity to see a different culture and immerse myself in a completely foreign world. I was afforded the opportunity to travel throughout the country and have many treasured memories of my time there. Additionally, it has made me sympathetic to the challenges faced by international students attending college here in the US.
Like these students, I too was suddenly a minority in a country where I was not a native in the language. The sights, sounds, food, and customs were all very different. There were new social expectations placed on me and new etiquette to understand. For instance, America is a country where “please” and “thank you” are used quite often – so much so that we may be offended if a transaction happens in a store or between friends without these niceties. In China, however, it is commonplace to omit please and thank you in some situations – it is understood that the person is behaving politely and these terms are not needed so frequently. Just as I was surprised by the “rude” behavior of not hearing these words, Chinese students coming to the US may be just as surprised at this “overly formal” American behavior.
I was unprepared for this new environment and I had insufficient coping mechanisms for the difficulties I faced. Fortunately, there were many non-Chinese people I met who were facing the same homesickness and confusion as me. Sharing our stories and laughing at our similar mistakes helped me to feel less alone, and I realized that there is a learning curve in adapting to a new culture. In addition, I met many Chinese people who were quite kind to me and who helped me to better understand their way of life.
As counselors, we have the opportunity to change this situation for international students at college campuses around the country. At this unique time in history, with the rapid growth of globalization, counselors have the chance to truly make a difference in the lives of students and immigrants coming to the US. As a future counselor, I hope to use my experience with acculturation – the homesickness, the sadness, the understanding, and, eventually, a new integrated worldview – to help students, not only from China, but around the world.
Tara Overzat is a counselor-in-training at Mercer University in Atlanta. Her interests include multicultural issues and acculturation amongst college students. She also blogs at shyextrovert.com.