For more than twenty years, I observed international students in an American context. Those who thrive connect with the wider culture, make friends, think and write in English well, and, with time, make American friends. In essence, they become bi-cultural. Those who merely survive are able to accomplish their goals of an American education but have really not expanded themselves to incorporate their new environment as part of their identity. In many ways, they are no different than if they had remained in their home country and attended an international school. Of course, a school’s primary mission is education. However, education is multi-faceted. To learn deeply, one must engage the whole person in the endeavor.
How can students become acculturated? The Chinese symbol of yin and yang is a useful model for thinking about the pathway to cultural adjustment. Balancing connections with the home culture (yin) and the host culture (yang) is key. In the beginning, students may need more of home to feel comfortable; however, the ultimate goal is a balance.
Here are six ways of achieving the yin and yang in cross-cultural living:
- Food. Cook food from home, buy snacks, drink bubble tea. However, take opportunities to enjoy an American cookout or learn to cook an American dish and bake a pie.
- Relationships. Make a friend from your own country. Take a break from cross-cultural living and enjoy the chance to speak in your own language. However, don’t stop there. Make it a goal to have at least one American friend. Remember that America is a country of immigrants. Most everyone came from somewhere else. Because of that, we do not have the guest/host mentality of many other countries of the world. Students need to take initiative. Start small by simply asking for directions, advice, and clarification. Get to know one student in each class to whom you can go for help with needed. Observe American students. What do they talk about? How do they interact? Slowly, try to interact as well. Capitalize on opportunities outside of the classroom as well. Join clubs, participate fully in sports, and embrace the culture of the school.
- Communication. The internet has blessed us with opportunities to stay connected at a distance but has cursed us in keeping us psychologically in our home countries. Be disciplined about communicating with loved ones at home. Instead of daily check-ins, why not make it a few times a week. Make sure that you are communicating more with those who are in your new context than with those back home.
- Outings. Once in awhile, a trip to an ethnic grocery store or restaurant might be the best antidote for a case of homesickness. However, don’t neglect opportunities to visit a local historical site, landmark, or highly rated American restaurant. Take in films and cultural events on a regular basis.
- Holidays. Give your native holidays their due. Holidays abroad won’t be exactly the same but they connect you with your culture and your past. Holidays can also be a means of cultural adjustment as you invite American friends to join you. Equally helpful is to engage in an American holiday. Go trick or treating (if you are young enough) or give out candy to children in your neighborhood (if you’re not). Accept invitations for a Thanksgiving dinner or a neighborhood Easter egg hunt. Be inquisitive and ask questions.
- Language. Speaking your native language with friends from your country is a welcome break from the stresses of living life in a language not your own. However, be mindful that speaking in your native language in the presence of Americans is considered rude. It is also a barrier to your connecting with the wider culture of the school. Take a language pledge. Promise yourself to speak your native language in appropriate settings. Take an inventory of your language use in other areas s well from your internet browser, social media, TV viewing, and novel reading. Make sure your language engagement is in balance.