For Chinese students, ‘culture shock,’ then adjustment

Thursday, April 2, 2009

When Jiacui Li ’12 arrived on College Hill, it wasn’t just the size of the campus that surprised him.

“I thought everything American is 1.5 times the size of what it is in China,” he said. “The cars, the food, the people.”

Despite the language difference and the ever-increasing portion sizes of American food, many of the 26 first-year students from China say they are adjusting well to life at Brown.

Webber Xu ’12 first came to the United States in 2005 to attend the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. “When I first got here, it was like a culture shock,” he said.

Xu said the language difference proved especially challenging. “I already spoke English well,” he said, “but I wasn’t fluent, especially with slang.”

Many students agreed that the transition to a new language was the hardest part of their adjustment to Brown.

“The language barrier is the biggest problem,” said Nancy Li ’12. “For example, I can’t say the names of streets correctly when asking for directions. Ordering food is kind of a problem and (so is) understanding people’s conversations.”

Ben Zhang ’10 said he had trouble adjusting to the format of humanities classes. “American students are really good at making arguments,” he said. “They can think and talk at the same time. I think first. … It’s hard to keep up with the pace of discussion.”

Nancy Li said going to an American university was “a little dream” she has had ever since she was young and she read a book about a girl who goes to Harvard.

“To a little girl, that’s very inspiring,” she said.

Xu said he was attracted to college in the United States because of the opportunities it would provide.

“You get more resources for research. You get a lot of resources for study abroad, which there aren’t in China,” he said. “The facilities here are excellent.”

“The people here are pretty friendly, and it’s a very comforting culture,” Jaicui Li said.

Nancy Li said the resources Brown provided helped ease the transition.

“My academic advisor was very helpful, very nice and patient, willing to answer every question,” she said. “People here are very nice.”

Xu agreed.

“Everything’s normal now,” he said. “I’m making friends.”

Some students found Brown’s International Mentoring Program helpful in making the transition smoother.

Started in 1999 by international student Maithili Parekh ’02, the program matches each incoming international freshman with an older international student.

“The (program) offers social, academic and educational programming to assist with students’ transition to Brown and the United States,” Kisa Takesue ’88, associate dean of student life, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

IMP hosted a “meet and greet” in February specifically for students from China to welcome them to Brown. “I think most of us can gradually adapt to the school by making some friends with other United States students or getting some help from the advisors,” said Qidong Chen ’12, a Herald photographer, adding that the mentoring program “definitely helped.”

Brown also has a chapter of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, which serves Chinese-American students nationwide. Jaicui Li said members of the organization helped him with logistical problems when he first arrived in the United States. “A bunch of Chinese graduate students came and picked me up at the airport,” he said.

But Zhang said he thinks Brown’s support programs are “not quite adequate.”

“It’s good, but I do think they could be better,” he said. “In some schools, they match incoming international students with local families. That would be very helpful, just to know what it’s like to live in an American family. It would be a real opportunity to explore family life, the traditions.”

Zhang is currently in the process of starting a student group called Undergraduate Students from China. He said the group might be a way for students from China to work together on projects such as hosting lecture series or organizing workshops open to the entire Brown community.

“We were all scattered,” he said. “I thought it would be cool to bring people together and work together.”