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American Students at Nanjing University of Science and Technology




As a student intern at Nanjing University of Science and Technology (NUST) from June-July 2014, I assisted with and participated in NUST’s summer camp program for university students from America and Sweden, respectively. I was able to catch the tail end of the summer program with the American students, who came all the way from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington (UNCW) to Nanjing, China. As translator, photographer, assistant, and most importantly, as an observer caught between two cultures (Chinese and American), I saw how visiting China has positively impacted the worldviews and perspectives of the American students. For the vast majority of students participating, it was their very first time in China.



Observations from a Chinese-American Perspective:


During the school-organized trip to Huangshan, I noticed that the American students had varying attitudes toward Chinese food and culture. Some were picky about their food and were hesitant to try new dishes, the contents of which they were unsure. They would ask me questions like, “What is that brown thing? What are those green things?” Especially since the hotel offered some Western-style alternatives for breakfast, some students naturally chose to default to dishes they were familiar with, while other students simply said, “Why not?” and made it their mission to try new dishes. Of course, I did my best to translate the terms in the most appealing way possible. After that, I decided it was up to them whether they liked the taste or not. Overall, the American students are all relatively open-minded about China, yet they also hold stereotypes or expectations towards Chinese culture. This is sometimes unavoidable when visiting a foreign country, especially for those visiting for the first time.


Some American students had an adventurous attitude and wanted to see places they had never seen before. They also made sure to respect the natural surroundings, such as refraining from feeding monkeys while hiking, throwing trash in the proper places, and in general staying with the tour schedule. Some loved to explore new things and seek new experiences, while others erred on the side of caution and were more conservative in their choices. They were all very independent-minded and quite able to find their way around, often preferring to travel off the beaten path. It was quite easy to communicate with them and we often shared a good laugh. I observed that the American students were quite willing to accept new concepts of Chinese culture as long as it was carefully explained to them in the proper terms. More often than not, though, communication also got in the way. It is a given that when in a foreign country, people will tend to attempt to understand the culture on their own terms instead of for its own merit. For example, they may point out the McDonalds and KFCs along the street with delight while overlooking, not by any fault of their own, the stranger enigmatic signs of the restaurants that actually make authentic regional food. How could we encourage them to see Chinese culture as it stands on its own? This is a challenge in itself.



Two students pose at a resting spot at Yellow Mountain.


Striking a pose at the Dragon’s Claw tree. Can you spot the rubber chicken? He has been playfully nicknamed “Roger”.



Students enjoy the cable car experience to a scenic Huangshan spot.





Enjoying the Huangshan hike





The American students participate diligently in teacher-facilitated classroom discussions during Chinese language class.



Regarding Cross-Cultural Communication (China and the U.S.)


One problem that remains prevalent is common miscommunication between the American students and Chinese tour guides or teachers. Both sides try their utmost to make themselves understood, but the intended meaning is not always successfully transmitted. It might be the different grammar, tone or pronunciation. Sometimes it is through the last resort of making facial expressions and body language that finally the meaning is conveyed. Even then, probably only half or a quarter of the meaning is truly understood because of the connotations involved or different forms of humor. For example, our tour guide in Huangshan possessed a more than competent understanding of English language and vocabulary. However, when he asked the students what they wanted to order for dinner, he had a difficult time with the word "dumpling". In his mind, he was thinking of "wonton soup", but did not know this was the phrase for it. I could tell this from his conversation with the owner of the restaurant that this was the case because they were using the Chinese phrase for wonton soup, which is hundun tang instead of dumpling (jiao zi). So instead he used the closest word he knew, which was "dumpling". He assumed they would understand. However, for the students, "dumpling" meant the steamed dumplings without soup. So you see the problem with the meaning that the tour guide had in mind and what the students thought he meant. So, luckily for both parties, I stepped in and clarified the problem before the confusion got out of hand. This is all due to the fact that I understood what the tour guide wanted to convey and identified a discrepancy between the concept he had in mind and what the students had in mind. I also knew how to communicate his ideas correctly to the students so they knew what exactly they were ordering, and also taught the tour guide a new English phrase for his arsenal of vocabulary: wonton soup. Problem solved.




An American Look at China


 I had the opportunity to interview the American students just before they left the program. One of the most important questions I had in mind was whether their perspective of China changed after their one month stay in Nanjing. The answers were all positive. One student, a computer science major at University of North Carolina, came to China expecting the traffic and cities to be much more chaotic, but was pleasantly surprised by the commonsense logic of the traffic system in China. He was most impressed by the fact that despite the large population, sound urban planning made it possible for this population to interact and function within the same space in a seemingly orderly fashion. Many interviewees also commented on the politeness and helpfulness of the passersby they encountered while walking the streets of Nanjing. Upon asking whether they would make plans to return to China, I received a unanimous “yes”, their answers all pointing to their willingness to learn even more about Chinese culture and to study, work, or even to live in China. The positive and open-minded answers that I received from the American students show that despite the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, it is still possible for us to construct “bridges” of understanding and cooperation between different cultures. Participating in such programs like the summer camp at Nanjing University of Science and Technology has taught me not only the complexity involved in bridging two or more cultures together, but how to encourage positive interaction among multiple cultures using language, patience, and most importantly of all, an optimistic attitude. While problems such as miscommunication and misunderstanding across cultures may still be inevitable, by creating the right atmosphere for communication, we can conquer these obstacles by nurturing further friendliness, compassion, and understanding. If we can accept that these culture differences exist and work to find the similarities that make us who we are, we will succeed in fulfilling our purpose in cross-cultural communication.




Written By: Jeannie Chen