An ocean stretches between China and the United States.
But between Chinese and American University of Iowa students looms just as difficult a barrier to cross — one constructed of language and culture.
Of the 3,876 international students enrolled at the UI this fall, 2,062 are from the People’s Republic of China, and 38 are from Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.*
The Chinese students make up the largest international student population on campus. UI President Sally Mason traveled to Asia this summer to strengthen the relationship and recruiting efforts between the UI and China.
But after the students arrive on campus, making a home in the unfamiliar setting of Iowa City presents a complex set of social challenges.
“The first year, I had the language barriers,” said Yuexin Tang, a graduate student in the College of Pharmacy who is from China. “When I would communicate with people, I would try to say this thing, but they would interpret it as another thing. That’s probably one of the big barriers at the beginning.”
“It was very difficult for the first month and even the first semester,” she said. “But now that I’ve been here for a longer time, and I feel more confident and comfortable communicating with people, I feel it is very exciting to talk to people and hang out with students from other countries.”
Even after attending school for numerous years, difficulties still exist.
“When people find that it’s easier to communicate with an American student, why should they spend time — why do they have to wait, or be patient, for [international students]?” said UI senior RuiHao Min, the president of AiCheng Magazine, who is from China. “That’s a very practical problem. It’s nobody’s fault. I’m going to keep learning, becoming familiar with the culture, the language, and the social manners, and etiquette, but still, you can not be as natural or as good as the local students. So that is a barrier.”
For some international students, the cultural differences can be too much to easily overcome.
“There is a big difference between a Chinese high school and an American university,” Min said. “It’s a big jump, and you have to adapt to the cultural environment and the language environment, so some of them just got confused and lost. They stay home and play video games or just play with other Chinese students.”
Many international students find it natural to fall into social groups with students from similar backgrounds.
“Some of them really enjoy their little Asian circles because it’s really comfortable for them,” said Zidan Wang, a junior at the UI. “It’s easier to communicate with people with the same background as you.”
However, the barrier between cultures is not insurmountable — and sometimes it is hardly there at all.
“Although there are some barriers in general, in some specific areas the barriers are relatively smaller,” Min said. “Like in the arts or the sports. I played in the university spring orchestra for the whole year I was a freshman. I found that in the orchestras, or the art environment, people tend to be easier to communicate with because you can simply see the language of the music or the arts. You have a lot in common.”
Sometimes, the university itself acts as the common ground.
“I didn’t start out seeking a relationship with a person from a different culture — it evolved into a relationship,” said Brandon Patterson, a Midwestern graduate student in the College of Pharmacy.
“Take advantage of the opportunities here at Iowa. You never know what path you’ll end up with.”
Patterson is in a relationship with Tang. They met in class and bonded over basketball, among other activities.
“I don’t think there was a barrier to our relationship, and I don’t think there is anything different from any other relationship,” Patterson said. “I just think the variables involved are a little different.”
*Please note that some of this information was reported incorrectly in the original article and has been updated in this re-posting.