As with most Chinese freshman, Dong Mao didn’t know how to adjust himself to his new environment at first.
“My English was not very good and I had no idea of American culture. I felt isolated and locked myself in my room every day,” said Mao.
But since his American roommates had their doors open all day in the dorm, they couldn’t understand why Mao always closed his door.
One day, Mao said he was studying in his room when he heard some scratching sound on his door. He opened the door and saw his American roommates standing outside and looking at him in surprise.
Mao realized what the scratching sound was when he saw a portrait of him drawn by his American roommates on his door.
“I felt a little bit angry when I saw my ‘absurd’ portrait on my door,” said Mao.
However, Mao didn’t take offense. He invited his American roommates into his bedroom and chatted with them.
“After talking with them, I got to know they didn’t want to offend me. They actually wanted me to open my door and hang out with them,” Mao said.
Since then, Mao has become more outgoing. He learned from his new friends that it is a misconception that American parents kick their children out of the house when they turn 18 and his American friends asked him why Chinese girls use umbrellas even when it’s not raining.
Mao’s experience is typical of Chinese students as they attempt to bridge a large cultural gap while studying in America. They are hindered at times in achieving full cultural integration by barriers such as an imperfect mastery of the English language, by the difference between American and Chinese culture, and increasingly, by their wealth.
The Language Problem
Language is one of the biggest challenges for Chinese students as they arrive to study in the United States. It also challenges the university as it welcomes more and more Chinese students flocking into its classrooms.
Scott King, the Associate Dean of the University of Iowa’s International Program, said before they are admitted to the University, Chinese students must past a series of English tests, but they still may falter in the real world environment.
“Even Chinese students who get high scores on TOFEL (English test) may not be able to speak or write well enough to stay up to speed in our classrooms,” said King.
Therefore most Chinese undergraduates need to take another on-campus English test after they come to the university. To address the language issue, the University of Iowa provides different intensive language training in IIEP (The University of Iowa Intensive English Program) and ESL (English as a Second Language Program).
Still, even with these resources, Chinese students can find themselves struggling in English heavy classes, and this in turn can make it harder for the instructors.
“It slows down the teaching pace,” said Stephen Bloom, a Journalism professor at the University of Iowa.
The University also provides additional resources such as tutors to help the Chinese students if they fall behind. But beyond the language barrier, there is also the difficulty in adapting to a new social scene.
Out of Place at a Party School
There is a cultural disconnect between Chinese and Americans in college life. Partying is a part of American college culture, but socializing in China is usually around the table, where close friends eat together.
“I cannot understand the fun of standing in a dark room with a lot strangers,” said Xie Wang, a senior Asian Languages and Literature major.
Wang said she remembered one night freshman year when friends started smoking marijuana and then asked her to have a try. She refused.
“I don’t want to get drunk or take a drug. I don’t want to hook up with a stranger I’ve never met and will never see again,” Wang said. “I tried to get involved in this culture at the UI, known as a party school. But it’s not for me.”
The New Wealth
There may be also tension created by the growing wealth exhibited by Chinese students. The increasing number of Chinese undergraduates in American colleges is a sign of China’s emergence as the world’s largest economy after the United States.
Xuyang Han is a junior at the University of Iowa, double-majoring in Pre-Law, International relations and politics, minoring in German language study. A member of a wealthy family, he is a part of China’s economic explosion.
He also drives a really nice car.
“My American classmates said ‘wow’, when they saw my Benz car and they asked for a ride,” Han said. “I never encounter any embarrassment because of my car. I think I do well in my study and I never intend to show others how rich I am.”
On the other hand, some professors or students I spoke with said they felt a little bit annoyed when they saw some Chinese undergraduates showing their wealth and networking with other Chinese, but doing nothing with their study.
“Most Chinese undergraduates here are from rich families. In addition to get a degree, they are here to build up their networking with rich Chinese students,” said Han.
Han said, however, that it isn’t the money that people generally resent, it’s the attitude that goes with it. As a charismatic high achiever with experience living in foreign countries, he said he hasn't had any problems with resentment.
“I think richness is not the reason [Americans are annoyed], if you are friendly and chatty, you will be fine,” Han said.
Han, who was elected president of the UI's Chinese Student and Scholar Association in April, said he hopes to develop the organization into one that will help new Chinese students as they come to study in Iowa City.
Building a Chinese World Around Her
All of these impediments to full integration can sometimes lead Chinese students to focus solely on a rigid area of study, and to not experiment with the world around them. Chinese colleges generally only offer one major, and encourage students to master that area of study.
“The strength of American college education is broadening students’ visions with diverse choices in majors,” said King, noting that Chinese students seem unlikely to take advantage of this diversity. "A problem with Chinese undergraduates is they tend to restrict themselves to one major."
Plus, with the use of technology and the increased number of Chinese students to sociallize with, some students from China might be tempted not to sociallize with those of another culture at all.
Lyon Tao is an exchange student who is majoring in Physics.
“I just came here to get some foreign study experiences and perfect my resume,” Tao said.
Michelle Howard, whose family is hosting Tao, says she worries about "her Chinese girl" who moved into her house about a year ago.
"She hardly speaks English," Howard says. "Her father is a real estate developer in Beijing, very rich."
Howard says Tao just has a laptop on her desk for video chatting with her Chinese families and friends.
"She has built up a Chinese world around her," Howard says.