The loneliness of the foreigner
April 24, 2012 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Not Here Or There, on the loneliness of the foreigner.
posted by - (33 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Culture shock is a shock. You have to decide what you're going to do about it. Are you going to be endlessly hurt and stressed out by it? Or are you going to let it flow through you and learn something from it?
posted by Decani at 6:46 PM on April 24, 2012


This is really weird. It's like there's a Chinese ghetto at OU. It almost sounds like the students are sort of forced to live there, may not even be allowed to take academic classes, and don't even interact with the general population. Is this OU's way of cashing in on the desire of Chinese students to study in America, and it's dealing with the pesky problem of so many Chinese bodies that it warehouses them in this dorm? Is this controversial?
posted by jayder at 6:57 PM on April 24, 2012


I understand completely ! I went from a small city wich was filled with culture and diversity, to what i might say is ... a great deal different. It took 10 years for me to adapt, but I can empethize with you ! I guess in my situation, i was always use to moving. So, I was always the "new" gal. Not somthing I ever liked. I can say that it is an effort making new friends, and you always have family or old friends, or family. You can always move later and just realize nothing is forever. You can always change your circumstances. You can not change your efforts to be bold and move to another location. Some people never do. You have an advantage by being able to adapt and adjust ! Try to think about your situation as a positive and make new friends ! I cant stress this enough because those who take risks in life are the ones who succeed! Believe Me! I am an example. If ever you need someone to just hear you out, just memail me ! I'm happy to help and be of support to you! Keep on going babe! You're doing great!
posted by brittaincrowe at 6:59 PM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I wish that my skin were whiter, like Americans," says Zhang Li Fang
This breaks my heart.
posted by zennish at 7:12 PM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Culture shock is a shock. You have to decide what you're going to do about it. Are you going to be endlessly hurt and stressed out by it? Or are you going to let it flow through you and learn something from it?

I think one of the challenges facing kids coming from Northeast Asia to study in North America is that kids from China, Korea and Japan, for example, come from completely different cultures where everything is, to a certain extent, done for them at every step of the way. They may not necessarily have developed the tools needed to survive and thrive in a new culture. To a certain extent, things are very predictable and follow a pattern back home.

On the other hand, this isn't limited to Chinese kids or Japanese kids or Korean kids. Plenty of American kids experience difficulties adjusting to life overseas for the first time, for much the same reason.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:26 PM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


It doesn't really have anything to do with Ohio or even Chinese really. You'll see the same thing anywhere, anytime. Expats that exist in any significant numbers cluster. People with the ability and desire to be culturally flexible are exceptional. If you dropped a group of recent high school grads from Ohio in Lanzhou you would see something similar.
posted by Winnemac at 7:28 PM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Try to think about your situation as a positive and make new friends ! I cant stress this enough because those who take risks in life are the ones who succeed! Believe Me! I am an example. If ever you need someone to just hear you out, just memail me ! I'm happy to help and be of support to you! Keep on going babe! You're doing great!

Who are you addressing?
posted by jayder at 7:34 PM on April 24, 2012


Culture shock is a shock. You have to decide what you're going to do about it. Are you going to be endlessly hurt and stressed out by it? Or are you going to let it flow through you and learn something from it?

Well, it's a little bit more complex than that. Integration (not to be confused with assimilation) is a two-way street. A newcomer can try their best to fit in and participate, but that only goes as far as their own ability to do so and the willingness of those around them to let it happen. The more different the two cultures are from each other, the more difficult this process is, and the more crushing the loneliness can be. It's entirely unsurprising that Chinese students in Ohio would be drawn together, in the face of the great difficulty the integration process is in such a pairing of cultures.

An immigration expert I once spoke to likened the situation to a transfer student coming to class for the first time. It's not entirely on the shoulders of the new kid in town to try and fit in - teachers should and often do encourage the rest of the class to welcome the newcomer. That's why things like the Disney-themed mixer are great ideas. Integration is a process that is often best achieved with initiatives such as this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:38 PM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I find this so interesting. Does anyone have any more links about Chinese enclaves at American universities? Didn't we have an article about that not very long ago?
posted by duvatney at 8:13 PM on April 24, 2012


Culture shock is a shock. You have to decide what you're going to do about it. Are you going to be endlessly hurt and stressed out by it? Or are you going to let it flow through you and learn something from it?

One of the problems with culture shock is that once you adapt to it in your new environment, you get a double whammy when and if you return to your original environment. Because you've changed, often permanently from what you've been exposed to, and sometimes re-integration can be equally hard if not harder.
posted by bquarters at 8:24 PM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was expecting something different than when I clicked, but I was really impressed by this. I've heard the same issues echoed by students of mine who studied overseas. One huge difficulty, as KokuRyu mentioned, is that the educational style in Asia (China and Japan are my only first hand experiences) doesn't prepare students very well for a western/American-style classroom.

The linguistic ghetto-trapped in the fluency classes is pretty horrendous, though. The student mentioned as having been there for three years but not having taken an academic class yet sounds like either they've spent all their time hiding in their own language (which happens, too) or they need a refund. It's hard to believe that a person's sole preoccupation for three years can be gaining proficiency in a single language, and for them not to improve noticeably. Either they need to rework their program, or re-evaluate the levels of prospective students. If he's that low, he'd be better served in an intensive language school (and there are many) studying until he reaches the necessary level, rather than paying college-size tuition and dorm fees.

The school should also address the ghetto they've got on their hands. Whether it's the creation of the students (not wanting to be isolated) or the school (shitty, shitty policy), they're not creating a positive environment to get their foreign students involved in the college community.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:56 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My sister is an Ohio University alumna. She knows a lot of undergrad Chinese students like those profiled in the article. Biggest problem is the language barrier created by nonexistent admission standard. Most colleges require certain minimum English proficiency (TOFEL and etc) before they will accept the international student. Ohio University is different. There is a English program that allows students with inadequate English proficiency to attend the university. I don't know know the exact name of the program but I'll call it "Cash for Admission". The theory behind the program is to allow international students with poor English proficiency to take remedial English classes at the university before transfer to regular classes. Unfortunately, a lot of students fail to even graduate from the remedial English classes.

So what do we have right now? You are struck in a foreign country and you don't speak the language what are you doing to do? It's no-brainer, you hang out with people that speak your native language.

I really see it as a failure of the university. The university could've had better integrated student body by tighten the admission standard but it choose not to.

The above really only applied to undergrad Chinese students.

Graduate Chinese students are completely different; they are much better integrated, spoken much better English and much more fun to hang out with. :)
posted by Carius at 9:00 PM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


Cairus, thanks for that info. That's pretty much stunning, and kind of unbelievable that they do that. Especially if they're basing their lessons around grammar books and drills (as mentioned in the photo essay). For college-level fees, you'd best be putting forth a stellar ESL proficiency curriculum.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:14 PM on April 24, 2012


"I wish that my skin were whiter, like Americans," says Zhang Li Fang

This breaks my heart.

Most women in China do. The ideal is to have milky white skin - or at least as far away from the tanned skins of farmers. Every impossible physical ideal western women have thrust down their throats every day is more or less reduced to this one aspect in China.

When the sun is out here, many girls and women will shield themselves with loose "sun"-sleeves, reflective sunbrellas or even their handbag if caught unawares. As in other parts of SE Asia, most deodorants and moisturisers are whitening.

Ms Zhang isn't saying she wants to be like an american, just that she wants that particular skin colour.
posted by flippant at 9:32 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I meant is that her lament is extremely common to hear in China, and isn't nearly as depressive as the photo makes it out to be. Fair skinned girls in China will hear this from other girls all the time.
posted by flippant at 9:36 PM on April 24, 2012


I also want to add that those students that are taking remedial English classes are paying the university a lot of money. Since they are taking remedial English classes, even if they fluke out it probably won't affect the university graduation rate. There really no financial incentive from the university to accept better student body.

The graduate students are different because the university is paying them to study. There are strong incentives to accept better students.
posted by Carius at 9:45 PM on April 24, 2012


Most women in China do. The ideal is to have milky white skin - or at least as far away from the tanned skins of farmers. Every impossible physical ideal western women have thrust down their throats every day is more or less reduced to this one aspect in China.

Yeah, it's sometime remarked that for some reason young Japanese women tend to wear skimpier clothing in the winter and keep covered up in summer for the very reason of avoiding tanned skin. My wife, who is Japanese, says she's shocked at how poorly Canadian women look after their skin.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:55 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is a English program that allows students with inadequate English proficiency to attend the university. I don't know know the exact name of the program but I'll call it "Cash for Admission". The theory behind the program is to allow international students with poor English proficiency to take remedial English classes at the university before transfer to regular classes. Unfortunately, a lot of students fail to even graduate from the remedial English classes.

OPIE (Ohio Program of Intensive English) offers two courses of study: full time intensive English study, and semi-intensive English study, with admission to OU. A nominal progression chart shows that students at the lowest (admitted) level of TOEFL proficiency are expected to complete three quarters of full-time English, two quarters of part-time English, and a possible two more quarters of English study, before presumably reaching the level of proficiency for full-time study at the university.
posted by dhartung at 10:30 PM on April 24, 2012


Most women in China do. The ideal is to have milky white skin - or at least as far away from the tanned skins of farmers. Every impossible physical ideal western women have thrust down their throats every day is more or less reduced to this one aspect in China. [...] What I meant is that her lament is extremely common to hear in China

I know, I'm Chinese. It's heartbreaking to me because I remember thinking that when I was younger and the amount of money I spent on skin whiteners is something deeply humiliating to me now. And it's depressing to me because it is so widespread and common - that you actually have to look hard to find a skin product that doesn't claim to whiten skin (at least in Hong Kong. YMMV elsewhere).

I'd also argue that white skin isn't the only impossible physical ideal women in China chase and no longer only signifies a desire to be part of the social elite: weight is immensely scrutinised, the shape of the Caucasian eye is highly desirable and to a lesser extent, a more prominent chin to give a fuller profile. One girl I knew used laser therapy to whiten her skin, then later went on to risk cut-rate blepharoplasty and a nosejob to get a more 'Western' look. Another I know got blepharoplasty and Epicanthoplasty as a birthday present. Even local famous TV and movie actors have blepharoplasty and appear in adverts for skin whiteners: Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen have had blepharoplasty.

It depresses me that even though back then white skin was a mark of being upper class (problematic in itself, etc), for some it's turned into almost an internalised dislike for one's own natural features, because elsewhere someone says 'that is what is beautiful, and this isn't'.
posted by zennish at 10:43 PM on April 24, 2012


It's very, very common here in Japan too. I had two first year junior high students (13 years old) a boy and a girl working as partners. I was thrilled that they were trying to engage each other in English, but saddened that they were trying to put each other down. Both have pretty dark skin for Japanese people, and they were both trying to point out how much darker the other one was:

"You are a black boy!"

"No, you are a black girl!"

God, where do you even start, when that's two students out of 24 in the classroom, 150 in the grade?
posted by Ghidorah at 11:40 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm currently living outside of the U.S. and while the isolation of being a foreigner is not fun, I think it might just be a very good learning experience for Americans to go through. You might just gain some perspective on how to treat foreigners in your homeland.
posted by melt away at 12:00 AM on April 25, 2012


That's exactly the point. That's a common feeling, my intention wasn't to do a post about Chinese students in USA. To feel displaced, is universal.
posted by - at 12:06 AM on April 25, 2012


"I wish that my skin were whiter, like Americans," says Zhang Li Fang


I wish my country had a brighter future, like China.
posted by chavenet at 2:24 AM on April 25, 2012


OPIE sounds like an unashamed scheme to milk Chinese students for their money, without giving them much in exchange. Those Chinese students would be better served with intensive English lessons in China. It would certainly be cheaper for them, and it doesn't sound as if they were practicing their English much by being cooped up in their own dorm in Ohio. It wouldn't be quite as lucrative for Ohio University, though...

I studied in Germany, and as a foreigner there, I had to pass not just one, but two German fluency exams for admission: first the Goethe Institute's Mittelstufe (roughly equivalent to the TOEFL), and then a tougher exam at the university itself. Already back in the early nineties, it seemed like almost two-thirds of those sitting the university's fluency exam were Chinese. They were, however, a much lower proportion of those who managed to pass it.
posted by Skeptic at 2:48 AM on April 25, 2012


I've been on both sides of this divide. I tutored ESL students for 3 years and heard all about their issues of exclusion and now I am Canadian expat living in the UK. I know what you are thinking. Not equivalent. Except in some curious ways it is and it makes it more clear what foreignness really is.

As an ESL tutor I always felt the problem was primarily one of language. It is hard for ESL students to speak to other students and hard for other students to speak to ESL students. So ESL students tend to hang out with each other and the native students just let them be. Except this wasn't quite accurate because within the ESL population were students from different countries with entirely different languages that nonetheless hung out together on the basis of a simplified pidgin English. So there was something else going.

Now that I live in England I get that is something other than simply language. It's a deeper cultural thing. There is a whole host of very small background things that add up. It is a mountain made out of small pebbles of difference. As a Canadian I was and still am baffled by things here. Why the hell can't English people walk left on the sidewalk (pavement)? Because they don't care about efficient sidewalking! Why don't strangers smile at each other? Because friendliness is earned rather than lost! Why do they have such incredibly insane bureaucracy? Because they thought Douglas Adams and Monty Python were business consultants! The flip side is that someone from another culture will be equally lost in Canada. They won't know why walking all over the sidewalk causes people to frown at them. They won't understand why people they don't know are acting like friends (and this gets even worse if you go to the U.S. where someone has just met you might even say they will miss you when you leave). And on and on.

The problem is that each of these small pebbles of difference are in your shoes. Every cross-cultural interaction has some small amount of friction. Day in and Day out. You can't really ever get rid of the pebbles. They are just there. You can put band-aids on them ("English people are just like that!") or find some way to lubricate the friction ("I love the American South Accent!) but you can't really make them go away. And that friction is energy expensive. You pay a price almost every moment of every day even when you don't realize it. Being the other is exhausting. Never mind that you also have to fight the urge to constantly point out differences because you don't want to (always) be that guy.

So even in the most welcoming of places (and Universities are not) and with the best social support you will always have more of a struggle than the people who are of that culture and understand its subtleties and nuances.

After 7 years in the UK I am thrilled to be moving to Chicago. It isn't Canada but it's close. Those pebbles that have been in my shoes for seven years will be mostly gone (though possibly replaced with bullet shaped pebbles in a land of no universal health care and insane and annoying politics). I have nothing but respect for the awesome courage of immigrants who make huge cultural leaps into the otherness. I couldn't even really entirely cope with Canada to the UK (though it may have been the tyranny of small differences).
posted by srboisvert at 3:42 AM on April 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


Most women in China do. The ideal is to have milky white skin - or at least as far away from the tanned skins of farmers. Every impossible physical ideal western women have thrust down their throats every day is more or less reduced to this one aspect in China.

When the sun is out here, many girls and women will shield themselves with loose "sun"-sleeves, reflective sunbrellas or even their handbag if caught unawares.


Same in Japan. Most women avoid getting sun as if they were vampires (though the younger they are, and the more yankii (redneck) they are, the proclivity for tanning increases). White skin is a high standard of beauty, but it's its own thing, and afaik doesn't have anything to do with copying Caucasian "whiteness". I think it goes back to ancient times, when the lower castes worked out in the sun and got tan, while the idle rich stayed indoors and got pasty white. Not unlike European society at the same time.
posted by zardoz at 4:13 AM on April 25, 2012


Here is my professional opinion, one I have given as advice to many parents thinking to send their kids to the US for university.

Find out all of the most popular locations for people from your country to go. Then don't go there. Do some research, and find the most unpopular little university that has absolutely no services for foreign students.

It's a catch-22 - these guys can't start the "real" courses until they pass the ESL prep level, and because they are in that level they are pressed together with all the other non-native speakers. They have spent a lot of money to be in an English speakign country, with all of the immersive learning opportunities that offers, and then put into an environment where those opportunities are squandered.

The biggest problem for these Chinese students are that there are too many Chinese students at this university. If they were somewhere where they were the only Chinese student they would be a source of interest and would attract friends, they'd be Popo Huang rather than be "one of those Chinese". And it is a positive feedback loop - the more local friends the faster the English improves, the more the country opens up, the more it seems like a good and interesting place. Hard to enjoy America huddled in a dorm room eating pot noodles with a bunch of grumbling compatriots.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:25 AM on April 25, 2012


I think the ideal for an immersion language program is to have students of many backgrounds who can only communicate with each other in the language of instruction. That way you're forced to use your common second language with each other rather than just reverting to the common first language outside of class. I wonder what percentage of the ESL transition program at OU is from the PRC?
posted by sudasana at 6:06 AM on April 25, 2012


I think the ideal for an immersion language program is to have students of many backgrounds who can only communicate with each other in the language of instruction. That way you're forced to use your common second language with each other rather than just reverting to the common first language outside of class. I wonder what percentage of the ESL transition program at OU is from the PRC?

This doesn't work. They don't learn target language. Instead they invent their own good enough pidgin. Trust me, I taught ESL while taking computer engineering. I couldn't understand things that a Chinese classmate said to an Indonesian classmate when they were supposedly speaking my language yet they understood each other just fine.

Besides PRC is bigger than one language. I also had Chinese computer engineering classmates who needed an interpreter to speak to each other.
posted by srboisvert at 8:29 AM on April 25, 2012


People have different levels of ability to understand accents so what may be understandable to most may be a legitimate problem for you.
posted by - at 9:06 AM on April 25, 2012


"I wish that my skin were whiter, like Americans," says Zhang Li Fang

No you don't, sweety. Super white skin like mine reveals every blue vein and the deep shadows under your eyes, so us white ladies generally apply a layer of paint to avoid looking a bit grey- or we tend to be really prone to rosacea and may even need medication to avoid looking slapped and swollen. I wish you had some more pale American friends who could show you.
posted by Phalene at 11:13 AM on April 25, 2012


I'm currently living outside of the U.S. and while the isolation of being a foreigner is not fun, I think it might just be a very good learning experience for Americans to go through. You might just gain some perspective on how to treat foreigners in your homeland.

Yes. I had a really hard time (much harder than I ever would have thought) of adjusting to life in another country - an English speaking country - even though I threw myself head first into it. It was pretty hard for me for my first few years in England. I was extremely lucky that I ended up in a brilliant city where people where exceptionally welcoming and made a real effort to invite me along to gatherings and include me in all kinds of things. I made some genuinely good lifelong friends there, but the feeling of being different never went away. It was never anything that other people did - they couldn't have been more inclusive, and I don't think that they ever thought of me as a foreigner; it was my own feeling that I always had. Like srboisvert said, it was the tyranny of small differences - people talking about a culture or upbringing that I didn't share and sometimes didn't understand. When people are handwashing dishes why don't they rinse the soap from them? When I'm at someone's house for a dinner, why do they plate up my food for me? What if I want fewer sprouts and more swede, am I supposed to mention that? Or is that rude? If a business screws something up for a customer, why doesn't the person complain? Why do they just let it pass? If I register a complaint, would it be wrong? Would I then be the ugly American who is insufferably rude? So what should I do? Things like that.

Something that I never realized - and none of the stuff I read beforehand to prepare myself for the transition mentioned it - was the loss of identity that comes from moving abroad. Like, here in my state I can say I'm from a certain city or I went to a certain college and just those simple things provide a lot of information about who I am (accurate or not, but everyone has a general understanding of the stereotype involved with these things). Even in the greater US, if I say I'm from a certain state or city, that simple statement to another American gives a lot of context. I didn't have that in England, I was just "American" and everything that entailed, good or bad, true or false. The more meaningful things that were more instrumental in making me who I am and would be recognized here in the US were meaningless there. On the one hand it was kind of nice - I could shape a whole new identity for myself! But it was hard when you're used to fitting into a certain identity that basic descriptors like city or school provide. I didn't really know how else to define myself. I still sometimes love to just sit and observe how much I fit in with things now that I'm back in America. My accent doesn't make me stand out. I don't have to try to guess at unspoken rules and customs that I'm not familiar with and that I may never understand. I feel just like a normal person again and I love that.

As hard of a time that I had adjusting initially in a country that was so simiar to the US in so many ways, I can't even imagine what it must be like to come from a completely different culture to the US like Asia or a war-torn country in Africa to the USA, where so many people don't even make an effort to understand; and I have nothing but sympathy and respect for immigrants and the huge courage it takes to make such a move. I always tried to be welcoming to people new to my city before but now I make an extra special effort. It's really hard for them. And now I understand that.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:57 PM on April 25, 2012


It doesn't really have anything to do with Ohio or even Chinese really. You'll see the same thing anywhere, anytime. Expats that exist in any significant numbers cluster.

Interesting, because I've always had exactly the opposite reaction. I scrupulously avoid other Swedes outside of Sweden. I don't think my reaction is that uncommon. I already know what Swedes are about, why would I want to experience more of that when I'm abroad? It's like going to some exotic locale with very different and unfamiliar cuisine, and ordering Burger King. Bizarro, and super boring. Of course, at this point, not having lived in Sweden for over 20 years, it's slowly becoming like a foreign country to me too. At this point, I'm culturally a rootless cosmopolitan, I suppose, ha!

Thinking about it, perhaps one factor might be discrimination? If I were a member of an unpopular minority, perhaps I might naturally seek the company of my own. But then again, maybe that's not much of a factor - are Chinese in the U.S. looked down upon? I don't think so, perhaps people are even intrigued and fascinated - sure seems so with Japanese students, especially women, from what I can see here in LA.

And certainly, one factor is language. But then again, I think most people instinctively understand that hanging around your own is the kiss of death if you want to learn a foreign language, so that's a bit of a mystery too.
posted by VikingSword at 7:59 PM on April 28, 2012


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