Imbibing a new culture

2019-07-07

For young expats, getting to grips with China takes time, but colleges and society lend a helping hand to make the transition easier.

Ben Elmakias, a US graduate from East China Normal University, interacts with primary school students as a volunteer teacher.

For overseas students in China, living in a different country with a culture and customs different from their own is not an easy thing to cope with. However, with support provided by the school, society and the efforts put in by students themselves, the culture shock can be kept to a minimum.

Last year, Ben Elmakias, a US graduate from the School of International Chinese Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, organized a Chinese corner in the city during his internship at the local institute of the Council on International Educational Exchange.

There, he taught foreigners about things that make life in China easier, such as how to use apps on their phone, including social media app WeChat, along with food delivery and online shopping apps.

I helped them navigate the apps and find the buttons for buying and searching, because most foreigners needed a more culture-focused language corner where they didn't only learn Chinese grammar, says Elmakias.

Despite his familiarity with Chinese culture, the 28-year-old says his biggest culture shock was when he spent two years as a volunteer English teacher at Gansu Industry Polytechnic College in Tianshui city in Gansu province between 2015 and 2017.

The food was a challenge, since I am a vegetarian, he says. And there were few non-meat options so it was hard to eat the same thing every day.

To solve the problem, Elmakias invited groups of Chinese students to his apartment to teach him to cook Chinese food.

That was a lot of fun and I learned even more about the Chinese during those gatherings, from why students chose the school, their worries about their studies, their attitudes toward marriage and the future, as well as their favorite movies.

Knowing how to interact with people according to Chinese culture is also confusing for most foreigners, including Elmakias.

Samakova Ainura (left), a doctoral student from Kyrgyzstan, attends a forum by the school's Confucius Institute.

He recalls that he once wanted to print things at school, but the school couldn't provide him with a printer.

Talking to my boss and co-workers to try to get one was challenging, especially when faced with a 'soft no' which I thought meant yes but really meant no, he says.

The problem became simple to tackle once he made friends with more Chinese.

My Chinese friends gradually became more willing to talk freely with me, and I could query them about anything that I did not understand.

It was a slow process, but everything that at first was new, strange and unexpected became normal and a part of my life, he says.

Elmakias' experience in Gansu has made his life in Shanghai much easier.

He has also learned the Shanghai dialect through interaction with locals, as well as traveling in the metropolis.

I can't think of a better way to understand Chinese culture than hearing people's stories, he says.

The process of getting accustomed to Chinese life is sped up by the assistance of universities as well.

At East China Normal University, courses and lectures on Chinese law, policies and culture, are offered to international students to keep them abreast of national developments, according to Huang Meixu, director of the center of international education.

Culture-related on-campus programs are also held and various groups are open to international students at the university to accelerate their integration with domestic students.

We also organize off-campus projects, such as social investigations into rural China, and volunteer work at nursing homes, says Huang.

Such practices can also be seen at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and are aimed at promoting cultural exchanges between domestic and international students.

South Korean student Somang Park (right) at a career-development event at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Somang Park, a South Korean postgraduate in accounting at the university's Antal College of Economics and Management, is impressed by the various lectures held on campus.

For instance, she attended a lecture on Kunqu, a form of Chinese opera with hundreds of years of history.

I knew nothing about the art form before the lecture, but now I can distinguish between the roles of qingyi and huadan in Kunqu.

The former refers to a virtuous and elite female, while the latter is a younger woman with a more lively personality, says Park.

It's the lecture that provides the platform for me to appreciate Chinese culture, she adds.

In addition, academic activities can also work as a bridge between students of various cultures.

Doctoral student Samakova Ainura from Kyrgyzstan is doing a course in foreign affairs at Shanghai International Studies University and has attended several academic seminars.

She acquired professional knowledge and a familiarity with Chinese culture through the interpersonal communication during these activities.

In February, Samakova's paper on the achievements of socialism with Chinese characteristics was published in Russian journal Modern Science.

I wrote the paper in Russian, as people in Central Asian countries use the language, and I want more people to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics and learn from the experience, she says.

Tang Xiaofan contributed to the story.

Source: ChinaDaily


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华东师范大学
East China Normal University