The Chinese Student Bubble

The numbers are impressive: there are now more than 328,000 Chinese students in universities across the United States. When the first wave of students came in the 1980’s, they were mostly visiting scholars (professors). Now the students coming are undergrads, and in many cases high school students.


What is it like for Chinese students on a campus in the US? A reporter from The Economist recently spent time exploring the lives of Chinese students at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Her story, Alienation 101 is sobering description of what is commonly known as an “expat bubble:”

At Iowa, as at many other American universities, the influx happened so fast that students, both Chinese and American, have had little time to adjust. As a consequence, what could have been a meaningful cultural encounter can feel instead like a lost opportunity. The Chinese population is so large that it forms a separate world. Many Chinese speak only Mandarin, study only with other Chinese, attend only Chinese-organised events – and show off luxury cars in Chinese-only auto clubs. The Chinese government and Christian groups may vie for their hearts and minds. But few others show much interest, and most Chinese students end up floating in a bubble disconnected from the very educational realms they had hoped to inhabit. “It takes a lot of courage to go out of your comfort zone,” Sophie says. “And a lot of students on both sides never even try.”

Writing about the role of Chinese student associations, she writes:

The Chinese students aren’t really disengaged, however. They are just immersed in a world that is largely invisible to the rest of the university. At its centre is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), funded and monitored by the consulate in Chicago. Its structure even mimics the Communist hierarchy, with a “propaganda department” and a tight circle of leaders tacitly approved by the consulate. It puts on four big events each year aimed almost exclusively at Chinese students, including a Lunar New Year gala marking the biggest holiday in China. Last November, Mingjian attended a CSSA “speed dating” show in which male students in tuxes declared their love for female students in flouncy dresses, with nearly 300 students egging them on. It was conducted entirely in Mandarin.

One of CSSA’s main purposes is to make students aware that Beijing is watching over them. A Communist Party directive last year exhorted members to “assemble the broad numbers of students abroad as a positive patriotic energy”.

She also looks into the Christian ministries that reach out to the Chinese students:

Sophie Fan was given a harder sell that first night in Iowa, riding with the talkative young evangelist from the airport. By the time he dropped her off at her dorm, she felt compelled to promise that she would come to a Bridges International ice-breaker party. Sophie longed for American friends, and if Christianity was such a big part of American culture, what harm was there in learning more? Her Chinese classmates, she found, were less interested in engaging with locals. “I have roommates who are afraid to talk to Americans,” she says, “and I ask them, ‘What’s the point of coming all the way to America if you’re not going to talk to anybody here?’”

Unlike other foreign students, many Chinese haven’t been shaped by any one faith, which can make them more receptive to new ideas. Christian groups also make sure to pad their missionary work with free food, friendship and American culture. “Most Chinese students aren’t looking for spirituality,” says Pearl Chu, a senior bio-chemistry major who is a devout Christian. “They go because these American students are reaching out to them, talking and listening. I think Christian groups have done more than the university to integrate Chinese students.”

The entire article is a must-read.

And if there are Chinese students in your community, are there ways you can be reaching out to them?

Image credit: Welcome to Iowa City, by Adam Simmons, via Flickr

Get Smart

Do you want to boost your brain power and productivity? According to this great infographic posted by the good folks at Matador Network, all you need to do is live abroad for a time. Given that I have spent almost as many years outside the US as inside, this made me smile!


What say ye, fellow expats?

Related Posts:

Where are All the Foreigner From?

8 Things I Love About the USA?

Imported Habits

My Life as a Cartoon

Become a Local Laowai

If you have, or intend to, spend any amount of time in China, of word that you will learn rather quickly, whether you want to or not, is laowai (老外). A literal translation is “old foreigner,” but in modern colloquial Chinese it is often just translated as “foreigner,” which means someone who is not Chinese.

Walk down any street, especially of places where foreigner are scare and rare, and you’ll hear the word. Kids will shout “laowai!” as you pass by, and then run screaming in the arms of a nearby parent.

Ordinary people will simply use it as a form of address: “hey, laowai, would you like to purchase this?”

For many newbies, adjusting to this new moniker can be a bit of a challenge, but the sooner one adapts and embraces his/her inner laowai, the better.

The good folks at Learn Mandarin Now have produced a fun infographic titled “Become a Local Laowai,” that lists ten helpful tips to becoming a ‘local laowai,’ or what I like to call an “acceptable outsider.”

Notice that they also give a very generous explanation of the term laowai: “a local foreigner who has experience with Chinese culture.” Very generous indeed!


What tips would you add?

Related Posts:

Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

Insiders and Outsiders are Different

Chinese Students in the U.S.

Last November the Institute of International Education published a report on international students in the United States and American students going abroad. According to the report, there were more than 880,000 international students enrolled in American institutes of higher education during the 2013-2014 academic year.

274,000 of those students (both graduate and undergraduate) were from China, meaning that Chinese students now make up 30% of all international students in American schools.

As you can imagine navigating the cultural differences can be challenging for both the American and international students.

The folks at Channel C have produced an interesting short film titled My “Foreign” Roommate: Muge and Katherine, about 2 roommates, one from China and one from the US, trying to figure each other out.

I think you’ll find it very enlightening.

(Note: if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video player, please click here to see the entire video.)

Only One “Why?” Question Per Day, Please!

A month or so ago I was having a lovely outdoor dinner with group of friends, one of whom was a high school kid from Beijing studying at a school here in the Twin Cities and living with an American host family.


As we were sitting around the picnic table, frantically grabbing for brats, corn on the cob, and slathering butter on french bread, the Chinese kid piped up. “Here’s a question for you — why do you put butter on bread?”

It stopped us dead in our tracks; I am pretty sure that not a single person at the table (except for the other Chinese person) had ever in their entire lives given a thought to that question.

“Why do you put butter on bread?” he asked again.

“Well, because that’s what we do. And besides, it’s delicious!”

After we sat there with our brains on pause and our jaws agape, I attempted an answer that I thought a Chinese person might understand.

“Because that’s what our European ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. Butter belongs on bread. That’s just the way it is!”

That seemed to work for him.

When I do training/orientation programs for people going to China, I often spend time talking about both the duty and danger of asking the question “why?”

If the “why” question is being asked as a genuine attempt to understand something, then it’s a good question — a necessary question actually.

However, for outsiders trying to live well where we don’t belong, it can quickly become a cover for whining and venting, because the underlying assumption is that since it is not the way it’s done back home, then it’s stupid. In this case, the “why?” question is not helpful and may actually get in the way of understanding.

I always urge my trainees to limit themselves to one why question per day.

Things that insiders NEVER think about may seem confusing to outsiders — even something as ‘mundane’ as putting butter on bread.

So, if you’re living cross-culturally, it’s probably good to limit yourself to one “why?” question per day.

{Photo by Ralf Brotbraken, via Flickr. (Creative Commons)}


7 Things to Know About Culture Shock


The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1 year old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan. My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.

My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!

After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. In Pakistan, I was different — that was simply a permanent state of affairs. What tripped me up when I moved to the US was feeling different in a place where I was supposed to belong!

Then I learned to live in China, and now I am learning again to live in the United States. I may not be an expert a culture shock (who wants to claim THAT title?), but I’ve certainly had lots of experience. Herewith are seven important things about culture shock that I have learned along the way:

  1. The term was coined by Cora DuBuis in 1951, but popularized by Kalvero Oberg in 1954. Workers who served overseas before that no doubt experienced all that we now call ‘culture shock,’ but they just didn’t have a fancy word for it. Maybe they just used the word “hard.” I asked my mom, who began serving in Pakistan in 1956 if she or my dad or her co-workers had ever heard of that term when they went. “Nope,” she said.
  1. There are typically four stages of culture shock: 1) “Yippee! I’m here.” 2) “Whatever was I thinking?” 3) “I can do this.” 4) “It’s beginning to feel like home.”
  1. Each person cycles through and experiences those stages at different rates and duration. This can be especially complicated when spouses or children or teammates are at different points in the adjustment cycle than you. I remember a teammate in my first year in China (1984) who was furious with me because I was still in the “Yippee!” phase while she had already crashed into “whatever was I thinking?” “This [cultural difference] doesn’t bother you, and that makes me mad!” she said as she stormed out of my room.
  1. It’s about the rules. You are in a new place that has a completely different set of rules. Your rules from ‘back home’ don’t apply, and you don’t (yet) know the new rules. What makes this so alienating is that these rules are the basic stuff of life – how to eat, how to communicate, how to get things done. Sometimes the unfamiliar rules have to do with the role you are playing (teacher, doctor, student, preacher). As Don Larson, my mentor in this area used to say, “learn the rules to play the roles.” Good advice, I’ve always thought.
  1. There isn’t a point at which you ever say, “There! Done!” Remember those cycles? Well they go round and round and round. This means that if you have been in a place for years and years, you can still experience the confusion and alienation (and even disgust). Culture shock is a part of cultural adjustment, and that is a forever endeavor.
  1. Learning the language can mitigate the effects of culture shock. There are few things that can make a person feel more alienated than not being able to communicate with those around her (or him). So it stands to reason that learning the language – learning how to communicate – is a big help. It allows you to enter their world and learn how they understand and process reality. It allows you to learn the rules, and to communicate to the locals who YOU are. This is incredibly freeing.
  1. Learning the language can exacerbate the effects of culture shock. As you learn the language you encounter the deep structures of the culture – the values and the beliefs about right and wrong. In some cases this can make things more difficult as you encounter values and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to yours. Adjusting to different eating utensils is one thing; adjusting to looser understandings of truth and justice is another thing.

When dealing with culture shock and cultural adjustment, I have always taken solace Paul’s admonition to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:2-6)

 Wherever you are in your adjustment process, may this be your prayer as well.

And finally, here are some excellent resources on culture shock and cultural adjustment:

The Art of Crossing Cultures 2nd edition, by Craig Storti

The Art of Crossing Cultures 2nd edition by Storti, Craig published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing Paperback

The Art of Coming Home, by Craig Storti

The Art of Coming Home

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business, by David C. Thomas

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business

Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility, by Duane Elmers

Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility by Elmer, Duane unknown Edition [Paperback(2006)]

{Note: A version of this post was first published at Velvet Ashes on August 15, 2014.}

Imported Habits

Last week I stumbled across this post written by a foreigner in China about the habits she has picked up in China that she will take with her upon leaving.

A summary of her list:

1. Saying “bye bye.”

2. Drinking hot water

3. Bargaining “out of principle.”

4. Adding Chinese words into English sentences

5. Inspecting plates and cutlery in restaurants to make sure they are clean.

6. Checking out big bank notes to make sure they are not fake.

7. Playing games on my phone.

8. Doing shots of beer.

9. Taking my shoes off before entering the house.

10. Being “one of the gang.”

Having recently returned to the States, I can say that I have definitely brought with me habits # 4 and 9. And I remember doing #5 at my parents’ home when I returned after my first year in China, and wilting under my mother’s glare! The others not so much.

I am still not a fan of hot water, or any other hot drinks, for that matter. I don’t enjoy bargaining (although I can do it), nor playing games on my phone. I don’t check my big bank notes to see if they are fake, but I have noticed that the clerks also don’t check, which seems strange to me. As for # 8 and 10, I like neither beer nor crowds!

The post got me to thinking, though, about the habits that I have picked up and brought back to the States with me. Here are five:

1. Offering to pick up the tab when eating out with friends. In China it’s considered rude to split the tab up among the diners. One person pays, presuming that someone else will pick up the tab the next time. In fact, there is usually a fight to see who can have the honor of paying.

2. Untucking sheets and blankets. In China I converted to the local way of sleeping, with a quilt on top of me, not sheets and blankets tucked under the mattress. It’s all about rolling yourself up in a quilt, like a pig in a blanket.  Not only did I bring this habit back to the States with me; I brought back several Chinese cotton quilts. And when I stay in a hotel here, the first thing I do is untuck the sheets and blankets. Like this:

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the embedded video, click here.)

3. Stomping my feet to turn on a hall light. Most apartment building hallways and stairways have motion censor lights that come on when you clap or stomp your feet. As a result, whenever you step from an apartment into a dark hall, you just start stomping your feet. Last week while leaving a friend’s house, I stepped out onto a dark front porch and found myself stomping my feet without thinking. Of course the person with me thought I had gone stark raving mad.

4. Taking the stairs in a 2 or 3 story building. Older buildings in China that are less than 7 stories typically don’t have elevators, so there is a lot of walking up and down stairs. Now, if I’m going to the 2nd or 3rd floors of a building here, I will naturally head for the stairs.

5. Telling my 86-year old mom to wear more clothes. This annoys her to no end!

What are some habits that you took home with you after a sojourn in China?

Living Well Where You Don’t Belong (Full Version)

Last month I wrote a guest post for the blog “Communicating Across Boundaries” on living well where you don’t belong. At the same time, I posted an abbreviated version here.

Here is the full version that went up on the other blog:

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” of course has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

What does it look like to live well where I belong, and to live well where I don’t belong? Here are 8 tips that I have found to be helpful over the years:

1.  Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”

2.  Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have been doing things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.

3.  View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form some kind of assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.

4.  Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.

5.  View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.

6.  Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.

7.  Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.

8.  Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips would you add?

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