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Published on March 13th, 2014 | by BU News


US friends & food can be tough for Chinese students

BU: Lily Lingxiu Ge, a freshman from Nanjing, and Alyssa Crippen met on the first day of lab last fall in their “General Chemistry for the Engineering Sciences” course.

Directed to pair up with a partner, most of the class stood around awkwardly. Not Ge. “She just walked up to me and said, ‘Do you want to be my lab partner?'” says Crippen, a sophomore geophysics and planetary sciences major from Rome, New York.

“I was impressed. I said, ‘Okay, why not?’ Rome has 30,000 people. It’s smaller than BU. It’s predominantly Italian. When I came to college, I thought it was fascinating to have students from all over the place. I love learning about other cultures.”

During lab, Crippen told Ge she would be spending spring semester studying abroad, in New Zealand. After that? Maybe China. She has always wanted to go. “She said, ‘You should definitely go to Nanjing,'” Crippen says. The eastern city of Nanjing, with more than six million people, is now on Crippen’s list.

Ge is nearly fluent in English. Her native language, which she enjoys speaking with classmates from China, is Mandarin. Crippen does not speak Mandarin, but it doesn’t matter. In lab, they share the language of science. They both talk about their love of the process of discovery. “My lab partner is good at everything,” says Ge. “She’s been teaching me a lot. We have fun. I enjoy that time.”

Even with the university’s growing support system, Chinese students say they face daunting challenges—mastering the language, coming to terms with the food, and making American friends. For some, four years in Boston is a vexing social adventure, and many Chinese seem to get to know America much better than they get to know Americans.

Ready for class

“Would you rather do vocabulary?” senior lecturer Shelley Fishman asks her dozen students, all but two of them Chinese. A chorus of “Nos” scotches that idea in favor of a discussion of their current assignment, Iron & Silk, Mark Salzman’s memoir of his time teaching English in China.

Starting in August, the first stop at BU for many Chinese students is a mandatory English-improvement class, before matriculation, through the Center for English Language & Orientation Programs (CELOP).

Students who don’t score the required minimum on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), an acronym Chinese students toss around as effortlessly as their own names, are admitted conditionally to BU, with the expectation that CELOP will help them upgrade their speaking and comprehension skills and become classroom-ready.

Freshman Qiankun Zhao muses about how caring the CELOP teachers are, but she admits that she felt abashed by the number of her countrymen in the class. “When your whole class is Chinese…it’s really embarrassing. You look at each other with, like, ‘Am I better than her, or is she better than me?'”

Zhao’s English is easy to understand, although she occasionally struggles for the right word. “When I speak, my language doesn’t fit my thought,” she says. “But I can understand what people are talking.”

That discomfort didn’t stop Zhao from breezing through her first week of classes. She marvels at the difference between the education back home—teachers handed her facts to memorize, she says—while here, concepts behind the facts matter. “We spend half an hour to discuss why one times five equals five,” she says.

Ketchup or ‘tomato sauce’?

For senior Tianfeng Sun, the embarrassing quicksands of English began with ketchup. He was a freshman, Sun recalls, when he went to a McDonald’s with new American friends: “They were asking for ketchup sauce. I was, like, ‘What is the ketchup sauce?’ I thought it should be called tomato sauce. I had a really hard year my freshman year, especially when I was communicating with American students.”

In the team projects that are a staple in School of Management classes, Sun labored to be understood by teammates. Mentally revisiting his “Management as a System” class, he says, “Sometimes, I can’t catch some words of their sentence, or I know what I want to say, but it’s just hard to express in English.”

Sun says Chinese doesn’t have certain linguistic forms common in English, such as dependent clauses and differing verb forms for different tenses—not to mention the slang.

It’s a problem known to many Chinese students, and one that Christopher Daly, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, is trying to fix.

“You can be an A student in English in China and still not be ready to go up to an American on a sidewalk and say, ‘Excuse me, can I interview you?'” says Daly, who teaches a seminar for graduate students from abroad.

Daly’s class is designed to improve English language skills and teach budding journalists about American topics that they will be required to report on, from Halloween to the World Series. His students, most of whom are Chinese, polish their English by reviewing corrected assignments from other classes and by reading selected newspapers and texts.

Jeanne Kelley, director of BU’s International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO), says the university’s schools and colleges tailor their support for students, with the College of Arts & Sciences and School of Management offering programs similar to Daly’s. Meanwhile, ISSO partners with other offices to provide orientation workshops on adjusting to American education and culture.

Chinese students also have taken the matter into their own hands. Their annual cultural show, for example, was sponsored by the BU Chinese Students and Scholars Association (BUCSSA), a multiservice student group that contacts incoming students the summer before they arrive to arrange airport-to-dorm transit and runs orientation programs about culture and practical issues like visas.

Social differences

Sun’s personal remedy for the language barrier can be summarized in a single Americanism: chill. “If you had some embarrassing moments or culture shock when you were hanging out with your American or local friends, act naturally. Don’t think it’s a big thing or it’s a harsh problem. You can just act naturally, and people will understand.”

Sophomore film studies major Shuang Hao has a close group of Chinese friends. In fact, Hao says, most of her friends here are Chinese or fellow Asians, largely because of what she calls Americans’ “different logic.” She means habits that at best can be jarring, sometimes uncomfortable.

“American students like to praise people a lot,” says Hao. “They like to say, ‘I like your shoes; I like your hairstyle.’ But we don’t say that. It sounds fake. I don’t know, if an American says this, what should I respond? If I talk with a Chinese student or Asian student, I will know what he expects me to say.”

Zhao is disappointed with initial efforts to make more American friends, a problem she does not attribute to the language barrier. “I think it’s a universal thing that people are not really brave enough to accept different cultures,” she says. “We look different. We do different activities.”

She is grateful to have a single room in Myles Standish Hall. Chinese students who have graduated have told her that it can be awkward trying to get along with American roommates. And yet she still tears up at the thought of being at BU.

“I feel like I finally found a place that I really want to be,” she says. “It’s a place where I can have the motivation to work and study.”

Other students find that language isn’t the only challenge. At midterm, Zhao remained frustrated by what she calls Americans’ reluctance to become friends. “If you say hello to them, they respond, and it is friendly, but if you expect more, like hanging out…that never happens.” The one exception, she says, is an ABC (American-born Chinese) student who became a Facebook friend and has asked her to teach him Chinese.

Dinner vs. party

On a Wednesday evening in early November, guests arrive for an authentic Sichuan meal at senior Nick Haisu Yuan’s Babcock Street apartment. Yuan hails from the city of Chongqing, and his mother occasionally mails him spices.

Tonight he is putting those spices to work in a dinner so fiery that the aroma alone makes the guests cough. The menu includes spareribs with potatoes, beef with celery and mushrooms, and fish balls, all infused with chilis, chili paste, or both.

They are among Yuan’s favorite dishes, and being able to prepare them, he says, is one reason he traded the cocoon of BU dorm life for off-campus digs.

It’s a trail taken by many Chinese students, enough to prompt Marc Robillard, executive director of housing and dining, to wonder if there was something the university can do to slow the exodus. Robillard says 75 percent of American and non-Chinese international students return to campus housing their sophomore year, but fewer than half of Chinese students do.

A survey of 100 Chinese students revealed that dining choices had a lot to do with it. So, the university this year added 15 Chinese dishes to the monthly menu at the three residential dining halls, including Sichuan chili chicken and eggplant, braised pork with bamboo shoots and carrots, and black mushroom and marinated bean curd. BU has also changed the way it cooks Asian food, using traditional methods such as stewing, braising, steaming, and boiling.

Yuan, who is BUCSSA president, and his three Chinese dinner guests start their meal with a toast, raising teacups instead of wine glasses. Yuan says he and his friends have nothing against wine and beer, and he insists that the notion that Chinese students don’t drink alcohol is false.

But it is true, he says, that many Chinese students don’t enjoy large beer parties. “That’s an American thing,” he says. “If I go to those parties, I don’t know what to do.”

Junior Sonia Su contributed to this story.

via Richard Barlow/Bostonia | Image by Cydney Scott/BU Photography

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