Why do all the Chinese students sit together?

davidlivermore | March 14th, 2016 12 Comments

China 2

By David Livermore and Sandra Upton

A few years ago, Beverly Daniel Tatum published a fascinating book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She addressed the reality that African-American kids usually sit together in the school cafeteria and the same goes for Latinos, Asians, and other ethnicities. Tatum suggests this might not all be bad. It can be a coping strategy for students who may feel marginalized and misunderstood in the classroom and on campus as a whole.

As more schools and universities recruit and admit international students, this same phenomenon occurs. And given the record number of Chinese students studying overseas, it’s often most visible among them. Many universities are struggling with how to assimilate Chinese students with the rest of the student body. And it’s having a negative impact on their educational experience.

Nearly 40 percent of international students studying in the U.S. report having no close U.S. friends and wish for more meaningful interaction with those born in the United States. 47% of international students studying in Denmark report feel isolated from the Danish students. Similar realities exist elsewhere.

The growing number of students studying internationally presents a great opportunity for everyone. Universities tap a new population of prospective students, students gain the benefit of the diverse perspectives of classmates, and the reach of a faculty member and university goes much further. However, the rise of international students on campus presents universities with challenges like the following:

  • Many international students experience racist insults on social media and in person.
  • Events and programs targeting international students are seldom attended by domestic students.
  • Student orientation programs for international students inadvertently prevent assimilation.
  • International Students form cliques and fail to get involved.
  • Domestic students lack curiosity and empathy for their international classmates.

How to Assimilate International Students On Your Campus
No one has completely figured this out but there are a few leading practices that universities can use to improve the experience of international students while simultaneously helping other underrepresented students on campus.

  • Inclusive Teaching – The biggest influence on most students’ university experience is what occurs in the classroom. Faculty need to be equipped to create inclusive environments in how they select texts, handle non-native English speakers, encourage participation, and facilitate learning. Developing faculty’s cultural intelligence will improve their teaching and help students gain more from their diverse classmates. It can also have a lasting impact on student learning well beyond their university experience.
  • Integrate Multicultural and International Offices – Many institutions have seen the value of housing the offices of multicultural affairs and international student services in the same location. While domestic and international students have some distinct needs and expectations, both ultimately want to be integrated into campus and form friendships outside their race, ethnicity and nationalities. Working collaboratively increases opportunities for positive interactions among all students.
  • Make integration the responsibility of all students – Too often integration is seen as the disproportionate responsibility of the international student, instead of one mutually shared with the domestic student. If you’re the international student, you have a strong motivation to learn about the dominant culture. If you’re from the dominant culture, learning about underrepresented students might pique your curiosity but it’s rarely a matter of immediate survival. Students from the dominant culture need to see what they can learn from international and underepresented students living across the hall. Begin by helping all students see the benefit of building a global, diverse network that will enrich their university experience and provide them with a lasting professional network.
  • Cross-Cultural Engagements Outside the Classroom –Something powerful happens when students experience a different culture together outside the classroom—whether its volunteering in a diverse neighborhood nearby or traveling together overseas. These kinds of experiences help domestic students move beyond stereotyping all Chinese students as driving luxury cars and speaking in Mandarin and seeing them as peers who want friendship and a career.
  • Modeling the Way – Authentic and sustainable integration happens when there is active facilitation, support, and modeling by faculty, staff, and administration in both curricular and co-cur­ricular contexts. When students “see” campus leaders demonstrate their commitment to creating an inclusive culture, they are more likely to engage and even mimic their actions. Do students see faculty and staff of different cultural backgrounds engaging on a regular basis? Are they sitting together in the cafeteria? Or are they too working and relating separately?

While Chinese students represent the largest population of international students on most campuses, similar realities exist for many underrepresented students. When assimilated with a culturally intelligent strategy, the growing diversity on your campus not only expands enrollment, it provides your university with a built-in resource for providing your students with the experiences and skills to thrive in today’s global marketplace.

12 Responses to Why do all the Chinese students sit together?

  1. I very much appreciate what you are saying. Thank you. My context is not so much with students as with those beyond their university years. I see the same patterns. Domestic people are hesitant to engage with internationals because of language barriers, unease with how to pronounce or spell the names of internationals puts people off right at the start. Internationals feel this hesitancy and turn to those of their own culture for the support they need.

  2. In my experience as a private ESL English tutor, I think the biggest barrier is language, specifically pronunciation. I have worked with many ESL university & adult students in Lansing who can speak English moderately well, but their biggest difficulty is being understood by Americans. Having a fairly good vocabulary is of course very helpful, but being unable to put tenses and pronunciation together makes communicating difficult for both the ESL speaker & the American listener. As a result, the ESL speaker becomes frustrated by not being understood, resulting in less desire to interact with Americans. I tutor English conversation & pronunciation skills, & with a lot of diligent practice over time my students become more adept at making themselves understood. However, I’ve noticed the unfortunate prevalence of foreign (especially Chinese) students being unwilling to pursue their English speaking skills to the level where they would be less frustrated, so it’s become a chicken & egg kind of thing. I wish I could convince more foreign students that it really is in their best interest — in many ways — to become more accomplished English speakers!

  3. Thank you, Dr. Livermore. In addition to the GLOBE culture clusters which you highlight in Expand Your Borders, diaspora groups are another area of exploration in the Intercultural Studies program at the University of Mobile. Our international athletes have a tendency to congregate and socialize both by team and by common language, if not by nationality. We have observed that to counter the stress of adjusting to culture stress, internationals here and expats abroad find comfort in the familiarity of people from their own culture. From a spiritual perspective, Donald McGavran wrote about worship practices within the Indian caste system, using them to illustrate the “Homogeneous Unit Principle.” People are more likely to attend temple, synagogue, mosque, mass, or worship services with people like themselves.

  4. As a former school superintendent and principal I have seen this issue in most schools, particularly the larger schools. However, where schools have good athletic programs including intermurals, I have seen student’s integrate. Music programs and the Arts programs also help. Recently some schools have moved to a more interesting way to teach call project based learning. Where these programs exist I have seen more integration of students. Many good research projects could be based around these programs. What are the characteristics of school programs that create positive integration at both the high school and universities?

  5. The old adage of ‘birds of the same feather flock together’ is a reality for most people. It takes effort to reach out and of course CQ to enable that.

  6. I very much agree with your comment that faulty need to be equipped to create inclusive learning environments for students originating from a variety of cultural backgrounds – the sad reality is that this is often not the case. University support structures, while existing to varying degrees in this area for students, are often largely deficient for faculty.

    I recently undertook a study examining the cultural intelligence of Australian accounting academics whilst teaching on a short-term basis in Southeast Asia. The findings show that deficiencies in visiting academics’ cultural knowledge and understanding can lead to a disconnect with their transnational students, resulting in academic staff experiencing frustration and disheartenment and students’ learning being impeded. It is indeed an area that universities need to seriously address.

  7. As a person from India who has been in the US for more than 12 years, I can say that it goes both ways. I can interact, work together or talk to people of all nationalies easily however finding a connection, a common ground, a reference point is easier with people of the same nationality and cultural background.

  8. There definitely needs to be a circuit breaker of sorts, because everyone just does what everyone else does. Sometimes what seems like a barrier to keep someone out is actually keeping those inside feeling safe. When I was 16 I moved from a very white school in Belgium to a mixed race high school in New Jersey. The black girls all got on one sports team, all sat together – and I just joined them, not really thinking about it. To me they were interesting and funny! I was soon told that my behaviour wasn’t what was ‘done’ , but it suited me and there have been many occasions since when I might have felt excluded, but instead just joined the group of ‘others’ and was made welcome. It doesn’t always work, but we have to keep trying.

  9. Natalya made some excellent points. Effective communication, in any language, requires a high level of pronunciation proficiency. Mastery of vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing are integral, but not enough to eliminate the disconnect between the speaker and his/her listener. The trick is to acquire the articulation techniques for the sounds in English that do not, in this case, exist in Chinese. I’m the founder of an English pronunciation talent development company, Accents International, LLC. We’ve found that in addition to vowels and consonants, a key tip for native Chinese speakers is to make sure to pronounce the last consonant of every word. The English “ear” is trained to listen for the word ending. This is where key grammar points are made. Take, for examaple, the difference between one table and two tables; I walk vs. yesterday I walked, etc. Many words in Chinese end with an open (vowel) sound while most words in English end with a closed (consonant) sound. Pronouncing the last sound of every word goes a long way in helping the English ‘ear’ understand the native Chinese speaker’s message. Perhaps the greatest gift of learning the pronunciation patterns of an additional language is not only acquiring the particular skill set but, rather, the surge in confidence that results from along not being inundated with requests to repeat oneself. For new immigrants, joining conversations with their native English speaking peers can, at times, be quite a daunting experience. Learning the pronunciation patterns of their new language can go a long way in helping.

  10. Chinese students come from many regions with different cultural histories.Chinese students from Malaysia and Singapore tend to have closer cultural affinities with shared ways of speaking Singlish/Malayish and a common history.
    Chinese students from Indonesia do connect well with them via Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin and English. They, like the Malaysian Chinese, know what it is like to be a discriminated minority in their own country.
    Chinese students from the mainland and Hong Kong, depending on their age, have got a somewhat different political and cultural experience, including their colonial experiences.
    All groups would have been exposed to ‘Confucian‘ heritage based ways of learning, teaching and social interactions. Being in a western country, forces them to re-examine their ‘cultural capital’ and how they negotiate their daily interactions, with varying levels of success.
    Meanwhile, the ABCs, Australian / American born Chinese, tend to see these cultural borders as rather porous, adopting multiple identities.
    So, how can the institution foster this cultural renegotiation in the delivery of its services?
    As a last resort, the removal of chairs could do the trick as it would encourage more mobility.

  11. My initial experience with seeing international students at the university I attended what not being sure how to engage them in conversation. What do I say? How to start a conversation what a huge unknown. I have gotten over that and enjoy talking with people from other cultures. I wish I had someone to take me with them when they were meeting people from other cultures. It would have been much easier for someone to provide a more comfortable way to connect with people of other cultures.

  12. An example of CQ,”Mutual positive interaction” of Chinese &
    some students in ASEAN Countries.