By Bridget Fletcher, Assistant Director of Student Services
In my job I see lots of students adjust to life at Duke very quickly and also see large groups of students struggle with the adjustment and never quite get to the point of comfort. In my experience, one of the groups that seems to have the toughest time acclimating is our Chinese population. This makes sense. The language and culture are different, but not different in the way that people from the UK say “lift” instead of elevator. Different in the sense that the concepts of things like success, happiness, and family mean fundamentally different things in China. I spent lots of time trying to figure out how to better help these students and decided that a little research was in order.
I did a lot of reading about China. I read about the history, the culture, the educational system, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I learned a lot. For example, I had no idea that math works differently in China. The way you talk about and explain numbers is completely unlike the way we do it in the US. (Some say this is why China is better at math than the US – go figure!) I also learned a lot about the educational system. The Gaokao (college entrance exam) is something so unparalleled in the level of importance it plays in a young Chinese students life, that it’s hard to find a comparable topic for discussion that would make sense to an American. Basically, China and the US operate in ways so vastly different that most people (and universities) have not really even attempted to talk about it. It’s hard to know where to begin, let alone what a reasonable outcome might be. I am generally fairly comfortable in the realm of uncomfortable and decided this issue was one I would like to tackle.
I took what I knew through my experiences in working with Chinese students, what I had learned through my research, and decided to create a project that would allow me to better understand something that had not been thoroughly researched yet – the gap between Chinese student expectations about their experience in the US and the realities of their actual experiences. After lots of interviews, a few trips to China, and several servings of xiao long bao, I had a decent idea of what might actually be helpful for our Chinese students – a book they could read before coming to the US. Something that would help them understand what to expect in terms of language barriers, new classroom expectations, and general cultural differences.
I created From Jiao Shi to Classroom to address these very issues and to give students some ideas for ways they might prepare for their trip to the US. Things like ways to practice critical thinking, which is something that would not be expected in a Chinese classroom. The book also includes tips for making it through the first few weeks of classes. For example, write down a few comments and questions ahead of time so you aren’t caught off guard if participation is expected. The book also covers a lot of general cultural differences to expect. Things like ordering in a restaurant, the American custom of hugging, and why “how’s it going?” isn’t really a question. (This was my favorite part to write because I experienced these cultural differences on the other side of the spectrum, while I was in China.) No book can ever really prepare you for cultural differences as vast as those between the US and China, but my hope is that From Jiao Shi to Classroom gives Chinese students preparing to come to the US a head start.