A few years ago, I attended a university-sponsored Thanksgiving dinner for international students to help them learn about American culture and the holiday. There were over 300 students and several administrators. I sat at a round table with seven students from China. It was a buffet. The students returned to the table with a plate (or two) overloaded with food. They mixed their turkey and their pumpkin pie. They all included a piece of each of the five different kinds of cakes on their plates. They stabbed their rolls with forks and ate them like cotton candy, nibbling small bites off of the speared rolls. As they ate their peas carefully balanced on their knives, they patiently waited for me to lead the conversation. It was surreal; it was delightful. I wanted to learn more about China.
Happily, last spring I was given the opportunity to visit China on business with a group of my co-workers, four Americans and one woman from China. We visited several Universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Soochow, and met with administrators, professors, students and agents.
A wonderful thing I discovered is that China is a great food culture. Everywhere we went, we were offered at a minimum, green tea. Most often, we were served feasts. We ate in several restaurants, both upscale and casual. We had one meal in a University cafeteria that was prepared by culinary students of the University. The main difference between Chinese and American style dining is that unlike the West, where everyone has their own plate of food, in China the dishes are placed on the table and everybody shares. We tried chicken feet with hot mustard, spicy tofu and corn juice. I ate more bok choy than I ever thought possible. The best thing we tried was a caramelized pumpkin dish that you dip in cold water before eating, to harden the sugar around the pumpkin. We had fruit for dessert. When we visited the Great Wall, there was a kiosk where we could buy bananas. Most surprisingly, however, was that during our whole time in China, we were offered no rice.
I felt unprepared in other ways for eating in China. Although chopsticks weren’t a problem, I had no clue about Chinese table etiquette. At each meal, we sat at round tables with a lazy Susan in the middle. All of the dishes were served communally. The lazy Susan spun left and right, and as it went by, you had to use your chopsticks to snatch a small amount of food from whatever dish you wanted, put it on your small plate. Then you use your chopsticks to eat the food. The chopsticks should never touch your mouth. You never seem to fill up the small plate. When you are finished with what you put there, you go back to the lazy Susan for a few more bites. After the first meal, I asked one of our Chinese colleagues for a quick etiquette lesson, but she just replied, “It’s ok, there are no rules.” Somehow, I doubted her.
There were clearly strict rules about where to sit, and who could sit next to whom, and in what order we were expected to speak. Our Chinese hosts always seemed to understand the order, and arranged us as they deemed appropriate.
After my experience in China, I can imagine that Chinese students coming to the US must find our culture chaotic and our food equally surprising. Although our attitudes about rank and order are more ambiguous than those I observed in China, there are still unspoken rules.
It is very difficult to understand subtle cultural differences. Studying abroad can be very daunting and subtle cultural differences can be tricky to handle. International students learn about the US through American movies and TV shows, but this information is incomplete and often erroneous. Business travelers often receive cultural training before they travel overseas, but this type of training is not often provided for international students. So often, I see international students struggle with making American friends; they make friends with other international students. Students need support in understanding the differences in order to cope with culture shock and to ensure academic success. Whether the experience abroad involves countries with obvious cultural differences or subtle ones, the differences themselves can create big problems if they are not identified and ways to cope with differences provided.
As the Native Americans welcomed the pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving, American institutions and students should find ways to meet international students half way in their cultural transitions. At the top of the Great Wall of China, in addition to bananas, I could also buy a diet Coke or a Che Guevara T-shirt. I felt right at home.
As Confucius says, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”