JISHOU, HUNAN — Before classes begin, it’s time to stop procrastinating and get the words in my head into print. Hopefully, they will make sense.
So, I’ve been back in China since August 9, after a wonderful month in America’s heartland visiting family and friends, and driving a lot. My Chinese students and friends are truly perplexed when I tell them my immediate family is spread out over four widely spaced states, so visiting “home” is not as easy as getting off the plane and saying, “Here I am!”
Families in China are still strongly attached to their hometowns, so when children grow up and move out (assuming they do), they typically don’t move very far away. Many parents actively discourage marriages with partners who live far away, since it means at least one half of the couple will be far, far from his or her home. These traditions are changing, of course, since Chinese are becoming more mobile than before, but at least where I live, home is where your family is closely packed.
On this trip back I was joined by my friend, Nora, who will spend a year at Wayne State College in Nebraska as a visiting international student. I’ve been the guest of Nora’s family several times, so now I got to return the favor, at least in some way. We traveled together from Jishou to Beijing by train (20 hours), Beijing to San Francisco (13 hours), SF to Denver (2 hours) and Denver to Omaha by Amtrak (8 hours). (There were a couple of overnight stays in there, by the way.) Everything excites and fascinates her. It’s Nora’s first trip abroad, and she has wasted no time in making new friends and learning new things.
This term I know 13 people from Jishou University who are now in the USA, either working or studying there. Besides Nora, there is one student at Kent State and eight at Delaware State University, a teacher in Sarasota, Florida, and a graduate and his wife in San Antonio. That’s pretty remarkable, considering how relatively small Jishou is as a city. Another student may soon begin at Loyola in Chicago, depending on her TOEFL score.
Study abroad has been a growing trend among Chinese, who now represent the largest percentage of international students in the USA, followed by India and South Korea. Some students and their families see the experience as an advantage in finding a job in China, though that advantage wanes as more and more young Chinese add that experience to their resumes. Others wanting to improve their English want full immersion in an English-speaking setting. And many, frustrated by the archaic university system in China just want to have a freer, more intellectually rewarding education abroad.
A few of these students, like Nora, are blogging their experiences online. Nora, the journalism student, uses both Facebook and QQ. Three girls in Delaware use QQ and Sina Weibo, one of China’s Twitter-like services. Through them and others, I’ve been able to share a foreign student’s first experiences in the States: riding a horse, going to the beach, attending a city fair, showing up at a formal dance without formal dress, getting frustrated at bureaucratic university regulations, meeting friendly professors and attending their first classes, getting help from police officers, eating strange food, missing home, sweating their first assignments, and dealing with their worries and troubles.
Living abroad takes guts, so I admire these students; even though we are in the same boat, at least I’ve had more experience at it.
Many foreign students report that it’s hard for them to make American friends, for various reasons. So, if you know a foreign student in the States, or your children do, make an effort to become their friend and to give them some help from time to time. Some people host exchange students, which is a big commitment, but there are other ways to help. If you live near a university with an international student center or office, consider volunteering as a short-term host or “Big Brother or Sister.” Nothing improves international relations more than the personal touch. Americans are supposed to be friendly, after all!
For my part, after four trips between China and the US, I think I’ve finally been able to adapt to the two-way culture shock that one gets switching from one very different culture to another. The culture shock goes away about the same time as the jetlag. While in the States, I indulge in those things I can’t easily get in China — cheese, pizza, good beer, bagels, Netflix. And in China, I enjoy those things I can’t get in the USA very easily — cheap taxis, decent rail service, authentic Chinese food.
In America, I have many friends and family. In China, I have many friends, and some are just like family. I hope my Chinese students and friends can soon say the same thing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also report that three of my former Jishou students are teaching Chinese for a year in Thailand. They missed their graduation ceremony and the camaraderie that goes with it to begin a year in two small cities there with the Hanban program. Their international experience has been quite different. One of them is Chen Donlsen, who posts to Facebook pretty often, but in Chinese or romanized Thai.