Culture club

International students experience the American way

CULTURE FEST Chico State University’s International Festival held in April 2001 included a display by the Pakistani Students Association. E-Funchen, foreground, of Taiwan listens to Arsalan Shakeel, left, and Faraz Akbar.

CULTURE FEST Chico State University’s International Festival held in April 2001 included a display by the Pakistani Students Association. E-Funchen, foreground, of Taiwan listens to Arsalan Shakeel, left, and Faraz Akbar.

Photo By Tom Angel

The top five countries sending international students to Chico State in 2001 were: Japan (119), India (81), Taiwan (52), United Arab Emirates (25) and Kuwait (24).

For Daniel Cotrim, a student from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attending school in the United States, and particularly in Chico, has upended some of his preconceptions about Americans.

“I thought people in the United States were cold,” said Cotrim, a student at the American Language and Culture Institute (ALCI) at Chico State University. “But when I came here, it was the opposite. They were very friendly.”

In fact, Chico’s international students, like almost everyone else who comes here from elsewhere to attend the university would say “friendliness” comes first as one of Chico people’s traits.

Not that there aren’t differences between the locals and cultures elsewhere. Cotrim, for example, points out that, when they greet each other, Americans are more distant than Brazilians. “When they meet somebody, they just say ‘Hi,’ waving hands or shaking hands,” he said.

Flavia Silva, an ALCI student also from Brazil, pointed out the same thing. “In our country, if I walk in the street and meet someone, I say, ‘Oh, hi, how are you,’” she said, showing how she would hug and give her friends kisses on both of their cheeks.

Silva said Brazilians hug and kiss each other all the time to express their feelings, while Americans only sometimes do.

It may surprise some people to learn just how many of Chico State’s students come from other counties. In the spring semester of the 2000-01 school year, they numbered 507 students and came from 63 different countries.

Together, these international students add greatly to the diversity of the student population. And they all arrive here with the same mixture of hope, excitement and fear of the new.

Sometimes they encounter American customs that seem strange or unusual to them. Eunsook Yun, a Butte College student from Korea, stayed with her host family for her first two months in the country, beginning in August 2000. During dinnertime, she saw her host family start passing all the dishes on the table. It was a culture shock for her.

“We don’t pass dishes in our country. We pick by ourselves,” Yun said. “We don’t have a large table like that.”

Yun has also discovered a cultural difference that people originally from the United States might never notice. She mentioned that in Korea they have deeper, tighter friendships than Americans do. “It’s hard to know Americans deeply,” Yun said.

She’s noticed that Americans often casually say, “We should get together sometime.”

“If we [Koreans] say, ‘Let’s get together,’ we will get together,” she said.

On the other hand, some international students adapt easily to their new lives in the United States.

Ahmed Alhatali, from the United Arab Emirates, is a Chico State student majoring in electrical engineering. He says he hasn’t had any struggle jumping into his new life, although last spring was his first semester at Chico State. He said that his friends who came to Chico earlier told him what their lives had been like in the United States.

“I had a point of view toward the United States, so I don’t have any culture shock,”Alhatali said.

Although Alhatali got used to his new life in Chico easily, he explained what he doesn’t like about the United States—strict police and the tax system.

“In our country police are very friendly,” he said. “If they catch people, they just say, ‘Be careful next time.’”

Also, citizens of the UAE pay no taxes. “If you get $600 as a salary, you get $600,” Alhatali said.

A lot of international students in Chico attend the American Language and Culture Institute, the ALCI. Some of them study English during a short period of time to acquire higher education, while others prepare for entering Chico State, Butte College or transferring to other colleges.

One big change international students find after leaving their countries is that they have to speak English here all the time.

International students are often shy about speaking English because they’re used to the style of education in their home countries, said Yuki Watanabe, student services coordinator at the ALCI. “They worry [about] what if they make a mistake or get a bad grade,” Watanabe said.

Watanabe organizes outside activities for the ALCI students ranging from field trips to Sacramento, Lassen Park and amusement parks or basketball games to small events such as going to the farmers’ market, shopping trips, barbecues or students’ birthday parties, playing sports or just getting together at a coffee shop.

“[Outside of the classes] they don’t have to worry about getting bad grades,” Watanabe said. “They can say whatever feel like it.”

At those events, international students are able to build their confidence to talk in English without translating in their heads before they speak, she said.

Watanabe noticed that because many international students are shy, they tend to keep their problems within themselves rather than talking to other people about how they’re feeling. “A lot of times, they get embarrassed talking to someone,” she said. “They are not used to sharing their concerns.”

Watanabe takes extra steps to make sure the students are comfortable. “Sometimes just saying [it out] loud makes them feel better,” she said.

Hitomi Yamaguchi, a Chico State student from Japan, where 119 of Chico State’s 507 international students are from, came to Chico in May 1998. During the first year of her stay in Chico, she was one of the international students who had difficulty understanding Americans’ way of speaking. But now, as she has been since the 2000 fall semester, she is in charge of helping new international students as a recreation counselor at the ALCI.

Recreation counselors reach out to students during orientations, campus tours or activities.

“I’m not used to speaking in front of people,” Yamaguchi said. “‘Practice makes perfect.’ This job is challenging for me.”

She said she enjoys being with new students and finds the work a rejuvenating break from her studies.

“International students who just came here are willing to do anything because their new lives are about to start here,” Yamaguchi said. “Their enthusiasm reminds me that I used to be like them and stimulates my eagerness.”

She also mentioned what she likes about American guys—“lady first.”

“I get used to it,” she shrugged. “In Japan, guys don’t open the door for you or carry your baggage.” l

International student Asami Hashirano, from Osaka, Japan, wrote this article while working as an intern at the Chico News & Review. She graduated in May.