Can’t We Just Be Friends? Bridging the Cultural Divide on Campus

 In my last post, on friendships between international and American students, I pulled some statistics from Voice of America’s “Student Union” blog. Actually, rather than a lot of numbers, much of what you’ll find at “Student Union” are first-hand accounts of what it’s like to study in American colleges and universities, while facing the challenges of a new culture.

There’s a lot of insight and candor there, on a great variety of topics. Take, for example, these posts:

But back to the topic of friendships. In my post I cited a recent study that says over half of students from China and other East Asian countries have no close American friends. Under the title “Whose Fault Is It when American and International Students Don’t Mix?” Jessica Stahl discusses a video from the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, in which students from China and the US talk about the ins and outs of cross-cultural friendships. Part of what makes the video especially interesting is that the group of four female Chinese students and the group of three male Americans are not interviewed at the same time. While this means they don’t respond directly to what their counterparts are saying, it does give them a greater opportunity for honesty and frankness.

After the introduction, the video opens with a segment called “Forming Friendships: Finding Common Ground.” One of the Chinese students begins by saying, “Finding something in common is really hard, because you don’t make friends with someone without having something in common with them.” I think she makes a good point.

When we meet people, we usually start with questions that will reveal what we have in common. And when we find that we share something—place of origin, interests, likes, beliefs, friends, experiences—we pursue it in conversation to see how good a fit we are. It takes time and patience to get past the superficials to track down deeper commonalities, and people from different cultures often don’t get past the opening conversation . . . or they don’t even begin the conversation in the first place.

On the other hand, just looking like you’re from “someplace else” is enough to draw attention from others with significant cross-cultural experience. So Third Culture Kids often seek out international students, and international students find community among each other, regardless of how far apart their home countries are. But while this can lead to some wonderful opportunities for friendship, it is often a small pool to draw from, and it can further limit one’s feeling of fitting in to the general population.

To pique your curiosity, I’ve transcribed below more of the students’ comments on this topic of making friends. But really, if you’re interested in any aspect of cross-cultural interactions, watch the whole video. It’s 17 minutes long but well worth your time.

FYI: The video description at YouTube states that the panelists are all undergraduate students at Michigan State, and the American students “have all spent time in China and have meaningful Chinese friendships.”

Here are some of the comments made by the Chinese students.

Students’ get-togethers start off by talking about high school life. When they came from the same area, well they have some kind of similar backgrounds and experiences that we don’t really have.

Some Chinese students, when they talk with an American, when they cannot find anything in common, they’ll just keep quiet. So they just ignore you. . . .

They care about their baseball game, football game, everything else, instead of this bunch of Chinese people just arrived.

If you make friends . . . you want to get involved in the American community, they will treat you as either a joke or just ignore you.

I’d rather just be with my Chinese friends.

I’ve met a lot of great American friends who are willing to sit down and listen to you and also share their story.

And by the American students:

For someone who hasn’t been to China before or who doesn’t know the culture, I think it’s going to be difficult for them to kickstart a conversation.

The closest relationships that I’ve had with Chinese students are the ones where the Chinese students make it an effort to also start a relationship as well.

My feeling, from my experience of why Chinese students don’t necessarily form close relationships with Americans and why Americans don’t form necessarily close relationships with  Chinese is more so the flaw of the Chinese students.

Man, all the Asians are always together. You’ll never see one by themselves. They’re always in a group.

Besides those certain things that do make an impact, we’re all very similar, and you don’t need to stress the differences too much, because those are easily overlooked. . . . Differences aren’t a problem. Differences are what make life.

[photo: “When Chopstick Meet Fork & Spoon,” by Lohb, used under a Creative Commons license]

(Too) Many International Students in the US Have No Close American Friends

For several years, while I was serving as a campus minister to international students at the University of Missouri, I kept a photo of a young Taiwanese couple tucked in my Bible. It was one of the those glamour wedding pictures that are popular in Taiwan. The husband, a student at MU, had given me the photo before he and his wife returned to their country. On the back it said, “To Craig, my best friend in America.” The trouble was, I didn’t remember much about him at all.

Of course, I met a lot of students during my five years in campus ministry. But what made this student stand out was that he considered me his best friend. Maybe I had introduced myself to him shortly after his arrival. Maybe I had given him a Bible in Chinese. Maybe I had helped him find some free furniture. Maybe I was his best friend. But that doesn’t mean I was an especially good friend.

According to Open Doors, last year there were over 720,000 international students attending US universities and colleges, and this number doesn’t include dependents who accompanied them. This total was a record high, and the numbers will surely show another increase when new data are released next month.

More Than One in Three Claim No Strong Friendships with Americans

While more and more students are coming to the US for higher education, more and more of them are finding an environment without significant friendships. This is the finding of a recent study, “Intercultural Friendship: Effects of Home and Host Region,” published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the article’s author, Elisabeth Gareis, of City University of New York’s Baruch College, found that 38% of students she surveyed reported “no strong American friendships.” Students from East Asia (including China) were more likely than those from English-speaking countries to report a lack of friends, with over half of them claiming no close friendships with Americans.

Not only was there a notable difference between the students’ area of origin, but also with the place of their American university. The study, which included students studying at southern and northeastern institutions, showed that those in the Northeast were less satisfied with their friendship situation than those in the South. Likewise, students in larger metropolitan areas were less happy about their friendships than those in smaller towns.

As for the cause of the problem, 54% of the surveyed students believed that Americans were responsible for the lack of friendships, while 46% blamed their own “internal factors,” such as shyness or a lack of English skills. A report on the study in Inside Higher Ed adds that among East Asian students, nearly 80% blamed their own shortcomings.

(“Open Doors 2011 Fast Facts,” Institute of International Education; Karin Fischer, “Many Foreign Students Are Friendless in the U.S., Study Finds,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 14, 2012; Scott Jaschik, “Friendless in America,” Inside Higher Ed, June 14, 2012)

Students Disagree on Whether Americans Are Trying

Voice of America took an online survey of its Student Union readers, asking “about how American students view their international classmates (and how international students think their American classmates view them).” One hundred ten students responded—54 Americans and 56 internationals—giving the following results:

  • 60% of American students said they “relate to international students as well as or better than Americans”
  • 50% of international students in the survey reported that they “relate to Americans as well as or better than international students”
  • 45% of American respondents said that they try to get to know their international schoolmates, 20% said they do not try, and 35% said that extra effort isn’t needed*
  • 30% of international students answering the survey said that Americans try to get to know them, 50% said the Americans don’t try, and 20% said that no extra effort is needed by the Americans*
    *Results from these last two items are approximations, as they were read from a graph.

(Jessica Stahl, “Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?The Student Union, Voice of America, June 19, 2012)

Feelings of Not Belonging in the US

Last year, researchers from Ohio University and CATS College in England asked international students a different set of questions, focusing on their feelings of belonging and what universities can do to help. Inside Higher Ed reports that most students in the survey “rated their sense of belonging as a five out of five and their overall satisfaction with their college as a four out of five.” But when it comes to “belonging in the U.S.”—a feeling that can be strongly influenced by friendships on and off campus—the  majority of students rated that only a two or three.

Many international students feel that their school’s student services can do more. One student said,

I had a difficult time adjusting to the U.S. culture and educational system. I thought it would be cheaper and I made no friends. I asked for help at the office of International students and I was sent to the counseling services. The counselor sent me to the psych ward because she thought I was suicidal—which was not true. It has been a very dramatic experience that schools should consider when having international students.

(Allie Grasgreen, “At Home on Campus, Not in Country,” Inside Higher Ed, April 6, 2011)

See also my post, “Can’t We Just Be Friends? Bridging the Cultural Divide on Campus

[photo: “CSUN BBQ 19,” by Parker Michael Knight, used under a Creative Commons license]