Fitting In: Navigating campus culture as an international student
As a Japanese citizen who grew up in New Jersey, I know many Asian expatriates who never quite felt comfortable living here.
Northern New Jersey is an area with a large Korean immigrant population. Many of my childhood friends attended Korean churches and associated with Korean cliques in middle school. I was once a part of this clique, along with a Nepalese friend. A Korean family friend also told me Korean adults in my area never really needed to master English because of how cohesive their community was.
Another childhood friend of mine from my middle and high schools — who is originally from Tokyo — once told me he was embarrassed by his lackluster English and seldom spoke to Americans, instead opting to associate with the children of other Japanese expatriates.
I have always felt torn about my two identities as a Japanese and an American. From a very young age, I felt as if I needed to prove to others that I was American enough, and did so by seldom talking about my heritage; on the other hand, I vociferously studied Japanese so my expat friends’ parents welcomed me as one of their own and not “one of those Japanese Americans.”
My friends from both sides of the Pacific have simultaneously labeled me as “the most Americanized Asian I know” and “the most Japanized American I know.” I have a friend who hails from a town in Connecticut with a 98-percent white population and Japanese friends who left the United States never quite understanding why I wanted to stay in this “rubbish” of a country, where busses never come on time and police were patronizing toward their non-English speaking parents.
But then again, I was repeatedly frustrated by divisions I saw growing up based on nationality. I tried in vain to persuade my friend from Tokyo to interact with Americans; but I also saw my American friends treating immigrant communities as something mysterious and incomprehensible.
When I came to campus my freshman year, I expected to see less ethnic clustering. My hometown was 35 percent Asian; the University of Michigan was 15 percent, and I assumed in-state Asian Americans were thoroughly integrated into mainstream American society simply because I didn’t realize there was a sizeable Asian population in the Midwest. Surely there would be more mixing of cultures, I thought.
But I forgot to account for the more than 6,000 international students who study in Ann Arbor. And I saw the same phenomenon again, where expatriates were not able to blend into mainstream society and Americans themselves were not interested in approaching them.
From several conversations with Asian international students, I’ve gained insight into some of the cultural barriers that prevent them from stepping outside their comfort zones.
In 1854, Yung Wing became the first Chinese student to graduate from a North American university after receiving a diploma from Yale. In 1872, the University of Michigan admitted its first Japanese student. Two decades later, Mary Stone and Ida Khan, who would eventually become pioneers of Western medicine in China, came to Ann Arbor from China to pursue medical degrees.
Fueled by a growing middle class across the Pacific, international student enrollment in the United States has expanded aggressively, with the largest driver of growth coming from China. In 1999, roughly 515,000 international students were enrolled in undergraduate or graduate studies in the United States. This doubled to 1,044,000 by 2015, with the number of Chinese students enrolled in American institutions increasing nearly six-fold to 328,500 and the number from South Korea growing by one-third to 61,000.
The presence of international students on campus has provided many benefits to American universities. For one, international students provide a steady flow of income in the form of tuition because they are not eligible for federal or state government aid.
Yet perhaps most importantly, an international presence on campus imparts both domestic and international students with an intercultural competency necessary to compete in a rapidly globalizing world.
Or so the theory goes.
In recent years, university administrators across the country have expressed growing concerns about the need to culturally integrate their international students into American culture.
In a February Marketplace interview, University President Mark Schlissel stressed the University’s commitment to fostering a global community within campus and increasing cultural exchange.
“We're educating all our students to operate in a global marketplace,” Schlissel said. “And in order to do that, they need to be exposed to people from different nations, different cultures, as part of their education.”
As of winter 2017, the University enrolled 3566 undergraduate and graduate students from China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Mongolia.
By far the largest population within this subgroup is from China with 2717 people, according to the same record. Yet even with 2717 people from your country, attending school in a foreign country can be a frightening experience.
Filling in this gap, international student associations like the Chinese Students and Scholars Association provide relief from the daily stress of adjusting to an alien land and a space for students from the same country to feel back at home again.
Jason Xu, a School of Information senior hailing originally from Shanghai, finds these organizations useful for finding a community, but also thinks they can be a trap to prevent students like him from broadening their circles.
Xu explained that though he likes to spend time with other Chinese students, most of his friends are domestic American students. He said the tendency for fellow Chinese students to aggregate among each other is the “most common issue” he encounters.
“I feel like progress often takes place outside your comfort zone,” Xu said. “A lot of people in that comfort zone, they can’t speak English well, they don’t have American friends … it’s the same as studying in a Chinese university.”
And though Xu admitted he may have an edge in adapting to new environments because of his upbringing, having lived in both Honduras and Macau, Xu argued in the end the comfort in staying with people from home will detract from the study abroad experience.
“I try to give myself a little bit of a challenge,” Xu said of stepping outside the Chinese community on campus.
Being said, Xu confessed he feels alienated sometimes because in groups, he does not understand certain jokes or topics domestic students like to talk about. He said he prefers one-on-ones instead of groups so he can take time to know about people’s backgrounds and interests without having to follow the majority.
“I think everyone needs to have lunch and learn about their backgrounds and thoughts. I think it’s beneficial to me,” Xu said. “There’s no problem of communication if it’s one-to-one.”
Janine Meng, an LSA sophomore from Taiwan, said though she, like Xu, personally wants to better integrate herself into American culture, she knows several Taiwanese students who came to the U.S. exclusively seeking research and networking opportunities — not to foster friendships with domestic students.
“Some students … they didn’t come here to make friends. They came here to study,” Meng said. “If interacting with their group of people is more easier to be on this campus, I guess they will just stay in the group.”
However, Meng explained she did not find her American friends without help from others. Like many international students, she was afraid at first.
Meng’s faith helped her in the end. Because she was compelled to speak with others at her church — attended by both domestic and international students — she was able to break the barrier and create lasting relationships.
“I got to interact with domestic students … because (my) church is not an Asian church and I got to meet with a lot of new people, a lot of other freshmen,” Meng said.
Are cultural organizations preventing students from integrating well? Ashley Wiseman, interim director of the Global Scholars Program on campus, doesn’t think so. Though she stressed the importance of breaking from one’s comfort zone, Wiseman also sees cultural organizations playing a significant role in international students’ lives.
“It is important to connect to people who share that experience with you, being in a new place, being culturally marginalized,” Wiseman said. “I actually wouldn’t want to take away from some parts of that, the benefits of forming community to support each other and celebrate each other.”
ShinDong Kim, an Engineering senior from the suburbs of Seoul, agreed with Wiseman. Kim himself is not involved too heavily in campus Korean organizations, but he said he can see how these groups can actually help an international student assimilate better into U.S. society.
“It helps a lot to have people from the same nationality because they know what kind of struggle you go through and they’re able to help you out,” Kim said. “They can tell you what’s in Ann Arbor, how to go to places, get to places, what to do and they actually do it with you, so it’s a nice way to assimilate.”
In addition to student-facilitated organizations for international students, the University also seeks to provide opportunities for international and domestic students to learn from each other. That, Wiseman says, is the goal of the Global Scholars Program — a living-learning community for sophomores and above that gives domestic and international students a chance to live and interact with each other.
Participants live together in North Quad Residence Hall and attend courses aimed at raising their skills in intercultural communication. Domestic students are also encouraged to study abroad to cap off their global experience.
“The University of Michigan is such a large place. Without structured opportunities to interact … it can be hard for both international students and U.S. students … to build friendships,” Wiseman said. “We might have diversity in numbers, (but) it’s getting that interaction to occur that can be a real challenge.”
GSP compels domestic and foreign students to interact and learn from each other in novel ways. Wiseman explained that when assigning roommates, her team chooses two people who may have the most cultural differences. Students are also required to attend discussions with peers from a diverse range of backgrounds.
GSP also hosts mandatory dialogues about current events. Xu, who is a dialogue facilitator for GSP, said he tries not to frame the discussion as a political debate but as an opportunity to gain multiple perspectives around a controversial topic such as the issue of gun control in light of the Las Vegas shootings.
“We don’t want to get into politics — it’s easy to get into gun rights and people start arguing. We encourage personal experience,” Xu said. “(A student’s) friend’s dad passed away due to the shooting. People sharing different perspectives so we can understand how serious the situation is and its impact.”
Wiseman said international students often come to GSP because they did not have a satisfactory experience making friends their freshman year. At North Quad, however, they find others who share the experience of being the only person of their nationality and faith and they quickly establish friendships.
“They come here and they find out that they have their difference in common,” Wiseman said. “So that really brings people together, feels like home, feels like family. … They feel celebrated and affirmed.”
The University’s International Center is also a resource for those who want to find friends among the international community. Kate Zheng, assistant director for Global Engagement and Education Abroad, said in the beginning of the academic year the International Center focuses on programming that builds friendships between international students so they can form an independent support network. Later on, the center actively acts as a springboard for students to step out of the comfort zone and interact with their peers from other cultures, including domestic students.
“I think it’s two-fold. On one hand, especially at the very initial stage, it’s crucial to have that support,” Zheng said. “But once they make their transition adjustment, we’re really here to encourage them to make more friends, friends who may be different from yourself.”
The International Center hosts events like monthly coffee hours and birthday celebrations as well as intercultural seminars to engage both domestic and international students. Zheng said though attendance falters as the year goes on, she does not necessarily see this as a bad thing.
“Maybe eventually they find their own circle of friends and they want to do things that they are passionate and interested, which is great,” Zheng said.
Historian Ronald Takaki once wrote: “There are no Asians in Asia.”
From a mainstream American perspective the statement may seem ridiculous, but to East Asian international students the statement is true. These students identify as Chinese, Korean, Japanese — not the vague, general concept of Asian.
However, there are Asian Americans in the U.S. But that identity exists because we formed a political union despite the linguistic, ethnic and cultural distinctions between us to address our common issues.
This kind of rude awakening to the American phenomenon of race is not an uncommon experience among East Asian international students, who typically come from ethnically homogenous areas.
Given the current political environment, international students are constantly reminded of race in the United States. Meng, for instance, said she found it surreal that the political unrest she saw on TV in Taiwan was happening blocks away on a daily basis.
“You’ve always heard on the news, racial problems in the U.S. are a huge problem here, like what happened in Charlottesville,” Meng said. “But now here it’s like really experiencing, seeing these protests … that’s really interesting.”
Xu recalled when he first learned about the difference in prison incarceration rates between Blacks and whites, and was shocked at how race extends to every aspect of life in the U.S., including necessities like employment and housing.
“I never thought that skin color can make someone’s life so different,” Xu said. “I feel very upset about it because (there’s) not many things I can do.”
These kinds of realizations are not limited to race. Chingun Khasar, an Engineering senior from Mongolia, explained in his home country, LGBTQ individuals still face a heavily prejudiced society and casually thrown insensitive comments and insults. He said he would have maintained his own prejudices if he stayed in Mongolia and was glad college provided him an ample opportunity to meaningfully broaden his tolerance.
“In Mongolia, when they curse the worst thing is ‘you’re gay,’ ” Khasar said. “I didn’t know (the LGBTQ) community existed, and if I was in Mongolia I would probably have discriminated (against) them too, but coming here definitely changed my perspective.”
On campus, I’m part of the Japan Student Association, an organization that connects me with Japanese international students. But within this organization I believe international students are marginalized because the Japanese American community and those who attended American schools in Japan form a majority.
Other Asian ethnicities have separate organizations for those from the mother country and those who grew up in the United States. Yet I believe in the relatively smaller Japanese community we cannot afford a divide.
There are undoubtedly significant barriers for Japanese international students to overcome while integrating to American campus culture.
Which is why what Kim said earlier about these organizations — that there's a level of comfort in associating with people of your own background — offered me a path forward.
Immigrants like me are often the closest to “Americans” these international students interact with. If individuals like me actively seek to engage with them, to be by them side-by-side during their time in the U.S., we can bring them back into the fold of not just JSA, but also the University community as a whole.