Stepping into a new culture

Becky Tener and Becky Tener

International students come to the University to study their fields of interest and practice their English.

But beyond their school responsibilities, many international students deal with cultural differences that can make adjustment to life at the University more stressful, said Anne Saviers, assistant director of the Center for International Programs.

Before international students begin attending classes, the center eases the stress of culture shock with a few days of orientation. New students are shown how to register for classes, open a bank account and find an on-campus job.

“We try to get them started,” Saviers said.

The center workers provide students with as much information as they can, especially warnings about certain social behaviors, such as drinking and parties, she said.

Junior and Mexican native Mario Reynoso-Caro said not being allowed to drink here has been annoying, because at age 20, he has been able to drink legally in his country since his 18th birthday.

International students also find other annoyances while living in Bowling Green.

Guest student Anahit Asatryan, who is from Armenia, said she was stunned by her new living conditions.

It was difficult to adjust to the size of her dorm room, to live in the same building as male students and deal with residence hall bathrooms, she said.

“There is no lock on the door and no door on the shower, just a curtain,” Asatryan said.

International students also face the challenge of getting around off campus.

Junior Sophia Woodward is from England and said she was amazed at how difficult it was for her to get anywhere.

“Even isolated villages [in England] have a bus service,” she said.

Saviers said many international students are from large cities and have never needed to drive or find other means of transportation, making their lack of transportation options in Bowling Green more jarring.

While adapting to their new home, international students also must adapt to new foods.

Part-time French instructor Heather Gabel said international students can find comfort in food, and a lack of familiar food can make them feel homesick.

Freshman Xiaodan Li, who is from China, said she is getting used to the food here, but misses Chinese food.

“Food here is convenient when you have [somewhere] to go,” Xiaodan said. “In China, we enjoy our food.”

Woodward said the change in food is beginning to take a toll on her body, since she mostly cooked for herself in England.

“In general, the food [here] is larger and fattier,” she said.

Adjustment to American culture can be made more challenging with a language barrier.

“For so many students, this is the first time they are working, living, eating and dreaming in English,” Saviers said.

Asatryan said when she got to Bowling Green she felt overwhelmed because everything was in English.

She also said she was surprised students didn’t discuss topics such as philosophy, history and geography. In Armenia, these were normal topics of conversation.

“American students always talk about music and movies,” Asatryan said.

Woodward, whose native language is English, said the differences in speaking and conversation make it difficult for people to understand her.

“I didn’t think my accent would get in the way,” she said.

But sometimes misunderstandings can happen without words.

Saviers said she can recall many mannerisms international students have that Americans don’t understand.

For example, some foreign students wobble their heads, meaning yes. To Americans, it looked like a mix between nodding yes and no and often threw people off when answering a question.

“They eventually pick up on it,” Saviers said, “and they stop using it.”

Reynoso said a confusing gesture difference between Mexico and the United States is shoulder shrugging. He said if he shrugged his shoulders here it would imply he doesn’t know, but in Mexico the gesture is rude and means he doesn’t care about something.

Another difference that can cause misunderstanding, Gabel said, is that many international students have a smaller “space bubble” than American students.

Conflict can arise because Americans act in less friendly manners when their “space bubble” is invaded, Gabel said.

Asatryan said she was warned before she came about the proper distance to stand or sit when talking to a professor.

“Americans like their space,” she said.

Saviers said international students can be uncomfortable with what Americans find socially acceptable, too.

For example, making eye contact, shaking hands and being alone with a student of the opposite sex is sometimes unacceptable in other countries.

International students can even be afraid of talking or asking questions in class because in some countries that behavior would be unacceptable, Saviers said.

Many international students are also be confused by the friendliness of Americans. In the United States, friendship is much more instant than in other countries, Gabel said.

Woodward agreed.

“You have a friendship with everyone straight away,” she said.

She also said people smile more in America. While she’s walking to class, Woodward is surprised when a person she doesn’t know smiles at her.

“We don’t smile as much [in England],” Woodward said.

Coming to a new place can be difficult, and international students appreciate the help and interest in their countries, Saviers said.

It is also important, she said, for Americans and international students to be patient and learn from each other.