Over half a million Chinese students came in 2015 to study in America. That number will only continue to grow in the years to come! Who are these students and how should we look to engage them?
We have begun our descent into LAX and will be at the gate in about twenty minutes. Flight attendants please prepare the cabin for landing. From all of us on the flight team, thank you for flying with us and have a pleasant journey home.
The tug at her heart was immediate, sharper than even that of the seatbelt against her waist as the plane maneuvered to touch down. Home. ManYi stared at the strange blueness outside her window and sighed. America may be a lot of things, but it was not home. Everything, even the sky, was different here.
Though her friends had warned her that the journey would be difficult, ManYi had firmly believed that her excitement and anticipation would be sufficient to mask the bitterness of transition. As her gaze drifted to the family of three across the aisle, though, she found that it had not. There would be no pleasant journey home for ManYi tonight, she understood that now.
Shutting her eyes, she didn’t even try to stop the wave of grief that pulsed through her from within.
For many years, new international students experienced the same sort of emotional roller coaster as ManYi coming to America. For a student with little previous exposure to the West, the very novelty which produced in them their sense of wonder served just as often to highlight the distance that now existed between them and home. Each day was another chance to be enchanted or disturbed by the world around them.
With each incoming class, though, the number of Chinese who bring with them previous travelling or studying experience in the US grows. Students step off the tarmac with an increasingly variable range of past encounters to frame and color their cultural transition. Some have never left their home province; others, undergraduates especially, sometimes arrive with years of America already under their belt. What does that mean for those of us who seek to befriend and serve these students during their time in the States?
The truth is, with each passing year, ManYi’s experience of transition becomes less and less normative for incoming students. It is increasingly clear that there is no one definition of “Chinese student” which fully encapsulates the undergrad who spent his last four years studying in a private high school in California and the visiting scholar who had never had an English conversation prior to clearing customs. We can no longer assume that students today are coming with the same needs, desires, and perspectives as students who came yesterday (let alone a year ago).
Does that mean we no longer need to be concerned about helping new students transition? Not at all! Despite how externally adjusted a student may be on the outside, it is important to remember that cultural integration is still a fluid thing. An unforeseen event or unexpected encounter can very easily jar a student out of their current stage of the cultural adjustment cycle and send them careening backwards towards an earlier phase. As we interact with new Chinese students, then, it is important to be sensitive and observant— a good listener. We ought to seek to enter and understand the stage of adjustment they are currently in, realizing that they very well may not be in the same place today that they were a month ago.
Though homesickness might not look the same for every person, the reality is that China’s roots run deep in the hearts of our students. It matters then that we wholly commit to the long run, to journey with our friends through whatever they encounter during their time here in the States. For a Chinese person, brought up in a strong collectivist culture, relationships are what they will look to to anchor them through life’s ups and downs. Our commitment to be fully present with them will be one of the simplest and greatest ways in which we will reflect to them Christ’s enduring faithfulness.
Thoughts to Ponder
What are some areas of transitional adjustment and stress that are no longer faced by contemporary students today?
What are some areas of transitional adjustment and stress that contemporary students face today that students might not have had to deal with 10 years ago?
What would it look like to be “fully present” with new students as they come from China?