Nearly half of all international applications to US graduate schools are from Chinese students. Barriers to travel and study abroad have been relaxed making it easier for Chinese students to obtain student visas and travel to and from China. Since an education in the West opens career doors both in China and abroad, the appeal is growing for more and more students to seek out an education in the West.
One of the resulting challenges, for Chinese students seeking an education in the US, is that of adjusting to a multicultural and interactive campus. Students often encounter cross-cultural challenges in direct contrast to their cultural background. For one, communication styles vary significantly between East/West cohorts. Although there are some exceptions, Chinese are overwhelmingly indirect communicators while their Western counterparts are generally direct communicators. Generally speaking, direct communicators tend to be verbal, transparent, forthright and assertive while indirect communicators tend to be non-verbal, passive and contemplative.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Some Chinese students go against their cultural norm and lean more towards a Western, direct communication style. I recall facilitating an MBA orientation at a major US university and came across an extremely verbal and opinionated Chinese student. Of course this was very out of character and unusual. His behavior made sense when he revealed he was a tour guide for Western tourists during the Olympics in Beijing. He expounded upon his experience by stating how the experience evolved not only his language skills, but his interpersonal skill set and confidence.
In general, although Chinese students may encounter challenges while adapting to the Western academic environment, most are happy they pursued educations abroad. One of the advantages an American education provides is the opportunity for Chinese students to gain not only a quality academic skill set, but also the interactive and social competence required to thrive in an increasingly interactive global marketplace. In particular, a Western academic environment fosters empathy, imagination and resilience and that skill set coupled with English fluency opens up doors in neighboring countries such as Singapore, Philippines, and Malaysia.
Regardless of the challenges, there are crucial practices Chinese students can implement in order to make the adjustment smoothly. In my book, Western Culture, A Guide for Asian Students, I outline five tips to make the transition into a Western academic environment. I’m going to share two of those tips here today.
The first two tips are foundational. Without these, the remaining three tips are going to be more difficult to practice. So, I urge Chinese students entering into a Western academic environment to practice the following, taken from Western Culture, A Guide for Asian Students:
“1. Commit to a Western learning format.
There is a good chance participants will be working in groups and with other students from all over the world. Everyone will have to make adjustments in order to work with those who come from cultures different than their own. Think about cultural empathy and try to understand the challenges others are facing and how to build bridges of understanding within a multicultural setting.
“2. Become more verbal.
In a Western academic and work setting, participants are expected to participate. Participation grades are common practice. It will be crucial to speak up and say what is on your mind. Make statements that are to the point, clear, logical and concise.”
One of the key components to building bridges of communication and understanding is cultural empathy (mentioned above in the first tip). While there are many layers to cultural empathy and the context may vary, cultural empathy refers to understanding and relating to the challenges of cultures different from your own.
Cultural empathy works both ways as cultures span the Pacific. The cultivation of cultural empathy will be taking place not only for Chinese students as they encounter American peers but also for American students as they encounter Chinese colleagues. It is crucial for Chinese and American students to see this interactive opportunity as a learning opportunity by embracing the experience of cross-cultural and interactive learning.
And beyond the setting of the Western multicultural campus, Chinese students will find they have grown more appreciative and aware of an entire global community. They will find their experience also opens doors of understanding within their own culture and countless possibilities beyond. One of the benefits I find especially valuable is that American culture receives a vital, enriching cultural influence with each surge of incoming Chinese students. When Chinese students come to the US, everybody wins.