Wednesday, May 30, 2012

They're off to America! What should I tell them?

Half a dozen students from my department will spend this summer working and traveling in America.

There is some company that organizes international students to work three months at a minimum wage job in America, followed by a few weeks of travel or relaxation.  The students pay the organization for arranging the jobs, finding them housing, and taking care of logistics, and then they pay their daily expenses from their earnings.  The students will set off in a few weeks to destinations ranging from Galveston to Connecticut to Gatlinburg, where they will do jobs including "ride operator" and "McDonalds team member."

This is a fantastic opportunity for them to practice their English and learn about Western culture first-hand.

Sara and I invited the students for a brunch and told them everything we could think of about culture shock, traveling (most of them have never even been on a plane!), and living in America.

Here are some topics we covered, in no particular order.  (Some were introduced by us; some were introduced by them.)
  • The stages of culture shock and how to deal with it
  • Neck pillows
  • How to find and use a cell phone
  • The use of debit vs credit vs cash
  • What to do when you don't understand someone's English
  • Laundry
  • Public transportation
  • Cost of domestic air tickets
  • Church in America
  • How to find good friends
  • Will you be able to adjust to the food?
  • How to find good sales
  • American table manners
  • Deodorant
  • Dandruff
  • Drugs
  • What to do if you encounter people who say negative things about China
  • Whether you should tell people you are Chinese
  • Racism
  • Baking
  • Shoes off vs. shoes on when visiting someone's home
  • Where to find cheap name-brand clothes in NYC
  • Precautions for avoiding compromising situations and unsavory characters
  • Wearing different clothes every day

I could go on.  We talked for three or four hours, and I got to say so many things I wish I could say to every Chinese.  For example..
  • "When you encounter a difference in another culture, don't immediately think it's good or bad.  Accept that there can be two acceptable ways of doing something."
  • "If you meet Americans who say negative things about China, don't take it personally.  Just be the best Chinese you can be, and maybe by your friendliness you can help change their opinion."
  • "Don't start every conversation with, 'I'm sorry.  My oral English is very poor.'"
  • "Don't be racist."  
  • "Don't run around saying things like, 'Black people are too violent.'"
  • "This is called deodorant.  Americans wear it every day.  You should too."
  • "Keep the bathroom dry when you use it.  Americans don't like water all over the counter and mirror."
  • "Keep the table clean.  American table manners don't allow you to put bones on the table or trash on the floor."
  • "If you make a mistake (in work or in friendships), try to admit it honestly and do your best to fix it.  Don't hide it for fear of losing face."
  • "Don't only talk to other Chinese.  Try to make American friends... That's why you're going, right?"
  • "Have a great time!"

I think every culture is at least a little ethnocentric, and I know I'm guilty of it too.  Han Chinese (the majority Chinese ethnic group) are no different, and I encounter ethnocentric attitudes here all the time.  I think it's nothing but a good thing that these students will be forced to be the foreigners for once and consider things from a new perspective.  (Of course, even in America I guarantee they will still refer to the Americans as "foreigners.")

Our students who are going seem eager to learn and very open-minded.  I hope they have a wonderful experience.

Post Edit:

For  the curious, this is how we organized our topics.  I started with a list of topics I thought would be relevant:
  • Culture shock (including the four stages of honeymoon, irritation/annoyance, acceptance, and assimilation)
  • Relationships and Friendships
  • Health and Hygiene
  • Communication
  • Travel and Fun
  • Food and Drink
  • Racism and Diversity
  • Potential Problems
I should also have added "money" -- they had a lot of questions about banking, what things cost, and how to pay for things.  Another helpful category would have been "gifts" -- what gifts Americans might appreciate from China (I told them snacks, chopsticks, fans, tea, local specialties and small bills/coins) and what gifts their Chinese friends might want them to bring back.

For each topic Sara and I had a few suggestions, warnings, or personal stories.  Then we opened it up for their questions.  Several of the students are freshmen and have never even taken a Western culture class, so there was lots to learn.  And of course, we gave them our e-mail addresses so we can help them with anything that comes up along the way.


  1. this is awesome, thanks for sharing alison! :D might steal some of these quotes and topics too hehe

  2. Great post! This is actually very helpful because I am hosting a similar event this weekend for students from our university who are going to America to study English this summer. You've given me some great ideas...I may borrow some of them :)

    1. Awesome. Wow, it seems there are a lot of students going to America. Maybe I'll add a little epilogue to my post about how Sara and I organized our time.

  3. That would be super! I was thinking about asking you that!

    1. Done. :) Thanks for stopping by.