Dr. Weigang Qiu, an Associate Professor of Bioinformatics at Hunter College, CUNY, shares his experiences of adjusting to a new culture when he moved to the US from China in 1993. As a graduate student at Stony Brook University, SUNY, he found the cultural transition quite challenging. The main reason was the language barrier. He could read Sherlock Holmes and research papers without a dictionary, but he couldn’t understand headlines in The New York Times. With no clue about celebrities, pop music, TV shows, movies, or current events in America, he struggled with conversational English and social events.
Realizing the problems and following the advice of a fellow graduate student, he subscribed to The New York Times, The Economist, News Week, and National Geographic. Immersion in daily reading not only helped relieve his loneliness, but also made him more knowledgeable about the US culture. He also consciously made time for daily conversation and socializing with native English speakers.
“The mentality to get out of your comfort zone and set time for socializing is crucial in breaking the shell that capsulizes you,” says Dr. Qiu. While many international students can perform well academically, some do not realize the importance of interacting with people. The people around you have valuable experiences and resources to share—the social and historical context of their professional work is not written in any textbook. Human beings are social animals: interacting with each other can build networks, strengthen communication skills, and release anxiety and stress. To crack open the insulating shell, one way is to be more adventurous and curious about new cultural experiences.
The Internet: a blessing and a curse. Dr. Qiu notices a serious impediment to social integration for younger generations of international students: the easy access to media in their native languages. It is rare to see international students read news from traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal—all of these can offer in-depth coverage and professional analysis of current events. Even fewer students keep at hand a copy of The New York Times best-sellers (fiction or non-fiction) for leisure reading. “You will find these books not only entertaining and informative, but also highly enlightening and rewarding.” Dr. Qiu recommends.
It is unquestionable that the Internet makes the new generation of international students more familiar with American pop culture prior to arriving in the US. Paradoxically, the Internet also becomes a barrier to experiencing the US society firsthand after their arrival. People use cell phones to instantly check posts from friends, news about their admired celebrities, and current hot topics, all in their native languages and through home-country media outlets. Dr. Qiu regards this both a blessing and a curse. Instant and constant connection to their home countries makes people feel less nostalgic and isolated. Therefore, the Internet becomes a cultural umbilical cord hard to cut. However, they also feel less motivated to reach out for face-to-face interactions and to acculturate themselves.
Even after living more than twenty years in the US, Dr. Qiu and his wife still work to improve their English pronunciation. (He highly recommends the book Mastering the American Accent by Lisa Mojsin.) The reason is simple: no matter how brilliant and humorous you are, if you have a strong accent, it will be very difficult for others to understand you. “For international students, investing time and energy in cultural understandings is not opposed to career development. In the long run, cultural integration is a necessity and an asset for professional success. Plus, it’s fun and enlightening to bridge the gaps (and, sometimes, to reduce the hostility) between the cultures. To get started, wean yourself from reading news in your native language for a day, if not a week, a month, or a year.” --------- Weigang Qiu
Special thanks to Dr. Weigang Qiu for sharing his experiences.
The author of the You Are Not Alone series, Yue Liu, is a doctoral candidate at Hunter College and CUNY’s Institutional Representative of INET NYC.