When David Chen decided to transfer to the University of Wisconsin from a Chinese university two years ago, he knew what he was leaving behind: his job as a radio DJ, his rock band and his position as student government president.
However, he was uncertain of what his future at UW would hold and has found the transition to be a difficult and desolate one.
“My life here is less colorful than my life in China,” Chen said. “Many times I feel anxious, pressured and lonely. That is a big problem all Chinese international students have.”
According to surveys by the UW International Student Services, the biggest concern for international students is “making friends with Americans.”
Still, Eve Chen, 20, a senior from southeastern China, said the problem is more than that.
“I have a lot of American friends, but when it comes to close friends or roommates, Chinese are easier to get along with,” Eve said. “When you become close [with Americans], it becomes hard.”
Both Eve and David said it is difficult to join conversations with American students unrelated to coursework.
Cultural psychology professor Yuri Miyamoto said the inability to integrate to the host culture causes lots of anxiety and poses threats to one’s psychological wellness. Even for international students who plan to go home after graduation, integration is a serious problem.
Eve said she feels the pressure of integrating, at least for the time being, on a constant basis.
“Even though you know you are going back eventually, you have to make sure for the time period that you stay here, you feel integrated or somehow included,” Eve said. “Otherwise you won’t be able to live for a single day.”
As the largest international student body on campus, Chinese students formed organizations to cope with the pressure of cultural adjustment.
The Chinese Students and Scholars Association is the largest Chinese student organization at UW. Its events range from workshops on car insurance to dating games and proms. According to CSSA president Helu Jiang, the organization strives to serve the Chinese students and scholars and to provide support from the local Chinese community.
“We are trying to get more Americans involved in our events but it’s pretty hard,” Jiang said.
Advertisements of most events are posted on Renren.com, the Chinese version of Facebook, and CSSA’s official website. Both websites are in Chinese.
For many of its members, CSSA is not only a student club, but also a place to make close friends, to feel welcomed and to show their talents and leadership abilities, Jiang said.
More than 260 new Badgers from China arrived in Madison this past summer. They made friends with other Chinese international students even before coming to Madison in September. Three organizations hosted their own student and parent orientations in China before new students left for school. And CSSA provided pick-up services at the airport for new students at the Madison airport.
This year, more freshmen joined the CSSA committee than any previous years, according to the organization’s website. Members are currently looking forward to the CSSA’s annual “Take Me Out” dating game show in November.
Choosing the Circle
Still, not all Chinese international students think positively of the role CSSA plays in their social life.
“The greatest motivation for people to integrate is that they don’t have a choice,” David said. “But now you have a choice to live a Chinese life in the U.S. Many students choose to stay in that safer, easier, more recognizable group.”
Jiang admitted sometimes CSSA “overprotects the Chinese students” and creates a comfort zone for them.
CSSA, she said, creates an environment that allows international students to feel like their work in finding a group of friends is done, discouraging them from expanding to an American social life.
“That’s a weakness of our organization because although we really try to build the connection between the American and the Chinese students, we are not doing a very good job,” she said. “Once people get into our organization, they may feel ‘I have many friends; I don’t need American friends.’”
According to Jiang, even though CSSA wants to serve as a bridge, it is very difficult to find American students who share the same passion.
Hong Kong students have their own student organization, with similar goals as CSSA.
Andrea Choi, president of the Hong Kong Student Association, said the social connection among members is tightly knit.
“The student organizations are not doing much [regarding integration]. Those Hong Kong people who really want to integrate are not friends with us because they know it is hard to detach from the circle once they are in. … You can either choose to be with Americans or with Chinese but not both,” she said.
Jiang said her freshman year roommate asked her about the way Chinese students always seem to be hanging out in a group. While she told herself she did not want to be that kind of person during her stint at UW, she said, “(It) turns out most of my friends are Chinese. That’s just the truth.”
Eve also alluded to the social connection among Chinese students as a double-edged sword, which helps students feel welcome and comfortable but may stop them from exploring the real American college life.
“Once you are in the [Chinese] circle, it opens to a new world, but it’s also closing doors behind you. But for the American [social circle] you have to open the doors one by one by yourself,” Eve said. “And that’s sometimes intimidating to do.”