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Dealing with the adjustment anxiety

Updated: 2013-11-28 07:22
By Berlin Fang ( China Daily)

Dealing with the adjustment anxietyMore than a decade ago, I flew to the United States with $1,900 and two suitcases, anticipating an easy transition to a rosy life in Syracuse, which in my mind was similar to New York City and therefore similar to Shanghai, another metropolis where I used to live. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Looking back, I survived many challenges. My application for a credit card was denied again and again as I did not have a credit history. My first car, which cost almost half of the money I had with me, died of transmission failure a few weeks after I bought it, before I even got my license. I even failed the driving test twice, before passing it on the third attempt, which left a bitter taste in my mouth, as I had not failed any test before.

Then, when Syracuse was covered in several feet of snow from October all the way till the end of the "Spring" semester, my wife and daughter joined me, and we got cabin fever crammed together in a small apartment converted from the attic of a music professor's house.

Surprisingly language posed another challenge although I majored in English. I went to a McDonald's, surely the easiest place to order a meal, and I was asked if I wanted "catch up" with my fries, that threw me. Why would I want to catch up with some fries?

Adjustment to life a foreign land has always been tough, yet for many young Chinese heading to the US the adjustment issues are now of a different kind. China now sends probably the largest number of students to US colleges or universities, mostly from affluent families, and the tuition fees from these students have become a sizable source of income for many schools. Yet a quarter of Chinese students reportedly drop out from the Ivy League schools they invested so much to get into. Adjustment issues are at least partially to blame for this phenomenon.

Over the years, a number of Chinese students have told me, truthfully in my opinion, that schools sometimes just pay lip service to "diversity" and it can mostly be found in their mission statements. Many Chinese students feel frustrated that they are perceived as an "alien" group that doesn't integrate into academic and social environments. Student failure to fit in is in part due to the schools' lack of effort to internationalize their campus resources and curriculums. Students from other countries do not get sufficient orientation to get up to speed. The expectation is international students will just become acclimatized. However, the schools actively seek to attract international students so they should provide better services and resources for them, and to allow them to enrich the school and local community with what they can offer. Many teachers teach with only domestic students in mind, and some professors also wrongly make assumptions about student familiarity with the kind of instructional methods used in US classrooms. It is often assumed that Chinese students are more "collectivist" in thinking so they will feel comfortable with group work, when in fact most new Chinese students have had no experience with collaborative assignments.

But it is not just the schools that are to blame, students themselves are also guilty of not doing enough to learn from, and associate with, their new environments. When communication issues arise between them and domestic students, some choose not to keep trying but to retreat into the cocoons of Chinese circles, speaking Chinese among themselves. Some even move to off-campus rental accommodation to live with fellow Chinese students, even though they have paid for boarding and meals on campus. When they have a question about a course, they do not ask their professor, but choose to ask fellow Chinese students whose information may be inaccurate. Some Chinese students also rely on top performers' notes for "standardized" answers when they are expected to contribute original solutions and independent thinking. Such behavior invites suspicion of academic dishonesty.

In addition to some conscious efforts from both sides, it also takes time to deal with adjustment issues. More than 10 years ago, I encountered difficulties so daunting that I thought I would not be able to survive them all. I constantly thought of going back. But those moving to a new country should know that there will always be adjustment issues. But we can learn from such issues and deal with them as they come, while embracing difference and diversity, at the same time remembering we don't always have to fit in.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

(China Daily 11/28/2013 page10)