What Prevents Asian Students from Stepping into American Life?

by Yuan Zhuang

Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: Diversity and Difference (LARTS 221, Fall 2010)

Students from different countries come to New England Conservatory (NEC) to pursue our musical goals. You can always see students of different skin colors speaking various languages everywhere at NEC. However, are the international students really able to adapt themselves to American life? I am afraid not, especially for the Asian students who face barriers of language and culture. Asian students have to admit, it is much more difficult than we previously imagined to communicate with the American students in English, our secondary language. The obstacles to expressing our meanings clearly, as well as the pressure caused by this failure, results in a situation where Asian students are reluctant to talk in English with American students. Furthermore, the differences between Eastern and Western cultures usually make Asian students confused or uncomfortable when getting along with American students. As a result, Asian students are more willing to hang out and interact with those who have similar cultural backgrounds. This tendency leads to forming a community of Asian students in NEC that somewhat excludes the American students.

The language barrier is one of the most challenging problems that prevents the international students, especially the Asian students, from adapting to life at NEC. This barrier causes stress and frustration when we are unable to show our thoughts to others with the correct intended tone. Many Asian students are able to do well in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. Therefore it is natural that we are confident with our ability of communicating in English before we really enter the American school. However, the reality is far different from our expectation. Taking me as an example, I supposed that I could speak English as an American, to say a joke, to use the idioms and slang naturally. But when I really lived in America, I found it impossible for me. It usually takes me great effort to figure out a word, and the structure of a sentence as well, to tell others a simple idea because I am worried about whether others can comprehend what I am trying to say. I have the fears which are similar to those Tochkov, Levine, and Sanaka discuss in their research on the language barrier that causes problems for international students getting used to life in America: “the fears of not being understood by their classmates and thereby being ostracized in the new environment” (par. 5). I am not sure whether I choose the right words and pronounce them correctly so that my American friends can know my expression. I always practice a sentence several times before I say it to my American roommate. But when I really speak to her, I usually forget the sentence and instead, I can say only some fragments. Even if my roommate can guess my meaning correctly, after she replies to me, I have no time to practice the reply as I did with my first sentence and, therefore, I get so tense that I have no idea how to continue the conversation. When I have to cease our conversation I feel I am defeated, and as this feeling accumulates, I became reluctant to communicate with my roommate since I do not want to experience this incapability again.

Not only speaking but also listening is an obstacle to the communication between Asian and American students. While I am eager to join the group of my roommate and her friends, I am afraid to be in the situation where I cannot understand what they are talking about because of their speaking speed. For they have no idea I do not catch their meanings; they just continue talking, which makes me more confused. I am embarrassed to ask them to repeat it again especially when they finish a long sentence but I am stuck at the beginning. I always gain a sense of defeat when I meet these difficulties. When I fail to follow up the conversations of American students, I strongly feel that I am an outsider to their community. Suzanne Pharr explains the term “community” as she talks about why people tend to be with those who have more similarities. She defines this term as the place where “people in any configuration (geographic, identity, etc.) bonded together over time through common interest and concern” (Pharr 97). As I have no idea why the Americans suddenly burst out laughing when they are talking, or what some of their idioms imply, I am in fact left out of their conversations even if we are sitting together.

Hence, I gradually become more willing to stay with those who speak the same native language so that I do not have to struggle with the problems of communication. As lots of Asian students face the similar hindrance of communicating and make up the same so-called solution to the problems, we unconsciously build up a community that includes only the students speaking the same native language. At NEC you can keep hearing the conversations in the languages besides English. There is no wonder that the international students are more willing to stay with those who speak the same native language since we do not have to deal with the stress and difficulties of conveying our minds, which occurs when we communicate in English. The native language is the one that we have the best command of, and we are able to use it not only to express our thoughts but also to be together with our moods and feelings; the conversation becomes livelier since it is filled with the emotions in addition to the meanings. We talk about an interesting thing with a funny tone and words, which is likely to make all the people who can understand it laugh.

However, if American students standing beside us saw this situation, they would feel excluded from the community we have formed, for they cannot understand what we are talking about even if they can know it must be an interesting issue. This is the other side of the language barrier that excludes the American students. “When I am with the international students who speak in their native language with each other, I feel that I am a bit left out by them” said my Resident Advisor (RA), an American student who is friendly to every international student. In an interview with her, she expresses her feeling of loneliness when she cannot understand foreign students’ conversations that seem very interesting. This case is quite similar to the one where we feel confused and frustrated when we cannot catch the conversation between the American students. But there is no doubt that the loneliness of American students is stronger than that we have because we have learned English, so we can at least understand a bit of what the American students are talking about. On the contrary, most American students do not know the Asian languages at all, so they have to be complete outsiders to the Asian language-speaking group.

Apart from the language barrier, the difference between Eastern and Western culture is another main problem that hinders the Asian students in getting accustomed to life at NEC. While the Asian culture praises reserved and quiet behavior, the American culture is famous for its passion and self-centeredness. These differences make the problems particularly obvious in dorm life. Many Asian students choose the American as our roommate, hoping that we can take this advantage to get to know more about the American life so that we can adapt ourselves faster. However, the different living style sometimes troubles us severely. One of my Chinese friends had been suffering from her roommate’s sociability throughout her first year at NEC. For her it was like a nightmare that her roommate invited a lot of friends to crowd their tiny room almost every day. The numerous people caused the atmosphere of the room to become stuffy, and since there were too many guests, the space of the Chinese girl was occupied by them. Since her roommate was a night person, she always held the parties very late in the room, which inevitably disturbed my friend’s rest. The thing that the Chinese girl could not understand and tolerate most was that even when she discussed with her roommate this issue and got the RA involved in the mediation, her roommate just stopped her party for a few days and then restarted it again. Frankly speaking, we cannot rebuke the behavior of my friend’s roommate since it is the way that Americans live. According to research on American adolescents’ sleep behavior, “the average time to get into bed of the American teenagers is 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.” (Noland, Price, Dake, & Telljohann). Thus, it is natural for the American girl to bring her friends to her room around 11:00 p.m.

In addition, from the Chinese girl’s view, she was left out of the community that her American roommate and her friends set up only for themselves. While they were chatting and laughing in high spirits, they ignored that the Chinese girl felt confused because she had no idea what was their issues were about. They possessed her space as if the room was not a shared place and the Chinese girl did not exist. The Chinese girl cannot be accustomed to her roommate’s view on their guest rules: “While I strongly felt uncomfortable and disrespected, she thought since we lived in the same room, we should be in casual way. She thinks the casual way is that she can do anything she wants, and she believes I can naturally be involved.” Many Asian students really admire American students’ ability of being familiar with new friends in a short time. I believe that since the Americans have this ability, they believe that the Asian friends can immediately join the interaction among Americans without any introduction. That is why they frequently ignore that, in fact, their Asian acquaintances are kept out of their own community.

Since the Asian students feel that it is difficult to get through to the American community, they definitely prefer to be in the Asian community. However, we should ask whether the definition of the American or Asian community is too narrow. After all, the primary goal of each student at NEC is to develop their music career. How can we just be concentrated on the geographic differences and neglect the similar aims? As the saying goes, there are no boundaries in the music world. In fact, we can take music as the advantage to break the barriers of geographic or cultural community. While we cooperate with the students from different countries in chamber music or other musical activities, we are actually intentionally exchanging and sharing the differences. We can regard this cooperation as a kind of community. If we explore it further, we have the chance to understand the different cultures more.

Moreover, Pharr later extends the formulation of community as something that “requires seeing the whole, not just the parts and understanding how they interrelate” (97). If we regard all the NEC students as a whole community, we can see that the students with different cultural backgrounds have equal chances to learn each cultural identity. In fact, there are ways to break the barrier between the narrow-minded communities. For instance, when the American students enter our Chinese group, we can choose English to communicate with each other so that the American students not only have the chance to get to know and join the conversations but also can help us to correct language errors. We also once held a Chinese cuisine party in the student lounge to introduce the food to the students from other countries, and meanwhile we learned something about their eating habits when they shared their ideas with us. We could understand each other better and find commonality for future conversations. My American RA holds an ideal image “where we know that you are different from us but we can discover and enjoy the differences by interacting with each other.” I am sure that we can begin to overcome the shortcomings of the narrow communities by these small changes.


Works Cited

Noland, Heather, James H. Price, Joseph Dake, and Susan K. Telljohann. “Adolescents’ Sleep Behaviors and Perceptions of Sleep.” Journal of School Health 79.5 (2009): 224-230. Print.

Pharr, Suzanne. “Reflections on Liberation: Building Community, Making Connections.” In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Kiberation. Chardon Press, 1996. Print.

Tochkov, Karin, Lisa Levine, and Amritha Sanaka. “Variation in the Prediction of Cross-Cultural Adjustment by Asian-Indian Students in the United States.” College Student Journal 44.3 (2010): 677-689. Print.


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