Before moving to the USA, I never knew I would experience cultureshock in the language and system of education. I thought I had seenit all in the movies. Coming over, I was confident that nothing wouldsurprise me to the extent of falling under the banner of cultureshock. My focus was education and learning a new culture, not justgraduating with an academic qualification. However, I knew that thedifferences in education between the education systems in china andUnited States would be a challenge for me when adjusting to the newsystem.
On my first day in the United States, I realized that the peoplespoke differently from the English that I was accustomed to. You see,while in China, I was among the students who were considered best inEnglish. My essays were used as a benchmark for the other studentswho were not so good at creative writing. My teacher for Englishalways flattered me that I was supposed to be a native Englishspeaker. When it came to listening and speaking, I was also good atthose.
You see in China, English is not as common as some Americans may wantto believe. In fact, the percentage of English-speaking Chinese isquite negligible. The situation is worse in the rural areas where theeducation system is not well established. In such areas, you may findonly one English speaker in the whole village. The official languagefor Mainland China is Mandarin while that for Hong Kong and Taiwan isCantonese. Learning English in China is never a priority. I couldcompare it to the way Americans treat Spanish as just a by the way. Ilearned English because my parents had travelled wide and seen theimportance of the language. Now you can have a glimpse of where I amcoming from.
Now here I stood at the airport and I could understand very little ofwhat the announcer on the public address system was saying. I couldbarely understand the America accent. Lucky for me, I could read.When I saw a driver holding a placard bearing my name amid theconfusion, I thanked God and literally ran towards him. I had notknown that the episode was the beginning of a long experience ofculture shock in the USA.
After settling in school, I realized that I needed more friends whowere not from my home country. My first attempt at my quest tointeract more with American students was nothing more of a tragedy. Iremember this one lady who kept asking me to repeat what I just said.
Initially, I had thought that the accent of the people at the airportwas hard to comprehend. In this new and abrupt change, I got thetendency of feeling that maybe my Chinese accent was the problem.Most of the people that I tried to talk to kept asking, “Could yoube clearer?” After a series of failed attempts during the firstweek, I was finally feeling that I was making some progress in theway I was interacting with students of other nationalities.
When learning about a new thing, there are tendencies of being putdown by other people. Mostly, there is always that one person out toput others down. My case was not any different. When I asked acertain young man for directions to the library, he made me feelintimidated by the way he laughed. He then went ahead to say that Isounded fun. Such misdemeanor is highly frowned in my home country.It is very rude for someone to make fun of another who is trying tolearn a different culture.
Suddenly I felt ashamed of my accent. I was no longer confidentenough to approach others. The situation was much similar with thatof Tan. Tan (3), was also ashamed of her mother’s- for lack of abetter word- broken English. The need to blend into a new society isoften so big that any slightest hurdle makes one to be tooself-conscious. It happened to Tan, and it happened to me too.
In China, it is unheard of to make fun of a foreigner who is tryingto learn Mandarin. Such misdemeanor is akin to refusing to shakesomeone’s hand in the American society, or talking loudly in thelibrary. Yes, making fun of visitors is a crime in the Chinesesociety because it contravenes the ideals of hospitality that we holddear.
When a person tries too hard to fit in to another culture, they oftenlose their identity and any association with their past makes themashamed. For instance, when an immigrant decides that his culture isno longer affluent in his new location, then he is bound todissociate himself completely from his past. Such a troubledpersonality will avoid associating with people from his nativecountry and instead, make new friends of the perceived new culture.Don’t get me wrong though, I am not against assimilation in any waywhatsoever.
What I am against is shunning one’s identity in pursuit of another.I realized that I was trying too hard to sound American while inessence I was a simple Chinese girl bred and raised in China. TheChinese accent will always tie me to my country of birth. That is myidentity. From that point onwards, I decide to let nature take itscourse as I tried to polish my English at my own pace.
During lectures, I could barely understand what the lecturers said. Ican remember the several times I asked my classmates what thelecturer meant. Technical terminologies were my worst nightmare. Irealized that the English I had learnt in China was just good forsurviving in the neighborhood but not sufficient for pursuing highereducation. Sometimes I would use an online translator to find out themeaning of technical terms or their Chinese equivalent.
I also experience a different culture regarding the Americaneducation system. Students did not respect their lecturers as much aswe did in China. On the first day of school, I could see somestudents conversing. Others kept asking funny questions that madeeverybody in the class laugh. Some did not bother to take down notes.You see in China, the society holds teachers in high regard. They arein the same caliber as doctors when it comes to their importance inthe society.
Teachers are feared in China. For instance, during my high schooldays in China, a teacher would extend some minutes after the end ofhis lesson and no one dared to object. It was a crime to ask ateacher to leave class or walk out of class just because it was timefor lunch. We could watch helplessly as the teacher ate into ourlunch break. Dare make a sound to indicate dissent and you will bepunished for disrespecting adults.
However, In the USA I realized that lecturers and students haverespect for each other. The lecturer does not expect the students totreat him as some kind of God, and the students do not see thelecturer as someone who holds absolute power over them. I like ithere.
Students can walk in and out of class as they deem fit. I believethat I class full of adults, people should be at liberty to dowhatever pleases them as long as they do not interrupt study time.Marking in the USA is also a little bit different. For instance, inChina for one to score an A plain, they need have scored 80% of thetotal mark. There is no A plus in China. Marking is so strict thatgetting the 80% that qualifies one for an A becomes a daunting task.
My educational experience in the USA has come with a lot of learningand I am still a work in progress. I have learned that the mostimportant thing that someone should avoid doing when trying to fitinto a new society is to forget their heritage or identity. A personwithout an identity is already lost. Yes, assimilation is importantbut that should not the reason for throwing way your identity. Ourdifferent heritages make us authentic and there is always beauty indiversity. I am glad that I have learned many aspects of Americanculture that are different from mine. For instance, I came to learnthat American students do not fear lecturers because this country isbuilt on the ideals of a free society. I learned that and came toappreciate that part of the American culture. I am still learning. MyEnglish is audible to many, and I can interact with others, I canalso understand the lecturer. I have not given up my identity yet. Iprefer to refer to myself as a global citizen.
Tan, Amy. "Mother tongue." EnrichingESOL Pedagogy: Readings and Activities for Engagement, Reflection,and Inquiry, by Vivian Zamel, Ruth Spack. Lawrence Erlbaum(2002): 431-435.