NOTE: The article below is mirrored from the JALT Study Abroad SIG website.
Ryūgaku: Explorations in Study Abroad Vol. 11 No. 2 December 2018. (pp. 38-42)
Chinese Overseas Students and Intercultural Learning Environments:
Academic Adjustment, Adaptation, and Experience
by Jiani Zhu (2016)
Palgrave Macmillian, (2016) ISBN-13: 978-1137533920
At many universities around the world, Chinese students comprise a significant portion of the overall foreign student population. Currently there are 107,260 Chinese students at tertiary schools in Japan, which is 40% of the non-Japanese student population (MEXT, 2017). In South Korea, the ratio is even higher: 61.7% of the 123,858 foreign students in South Korea are from mainland China (Ock, 2016, par.10). For this reason, it is increasingly crucial for educators to understand the needs and characteristics of students from the Middle Kingdom. This book offers insights about Chinese in tertiary education overseas. Specifically, it considers how a small group of mostly graduate students from mainland China adjusted to university life in Germany over the course of several semesters. In a broader context, it also suggests how students from East Asia likely adapt to long-term overseas academic sojourns.
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This 259-page text is actually an amalgamation of three studies. The first study explores the expectations and experiences of sixteen Chinese MA and PhD candidates with an average length of stay of 28.9 months in Germany. Based on semi-structured interviews in Chinese that were later translated into English, it narrates the frequent gap between sojourner hopes and European realities.
The second study consists of in-depth interviews of four Chinese graduate students and two German lecturers. The instructors share their insights about how Chinese students tend to differ from other students, while the students detail various triumphs and travails during their extended sojourns in Germany.
The third study ascertains some of the longitudinal changes fifty-five Chinese students underwent over a one-year period in Germany. Both open-response questions and Likert-like scale questions measured how participants’ perceptions of their own linguistic abilities and adaptation to university life varied over the course of three semesters.
This study makes it clear that most students were unprepared for the rigors of extended study abroad. Academic life in Germany differs in numerous ways from China. As a result, a stressful “hard landing” and a lot of anxiety during their first two semesters in Germany was a common experience. Some tension was due to the linguistic and cultural challenges of adapting to German universities. In China, teachers tend to be directive and the pedagogy is generally lecture-centered with a strong focus on rote memorization. In Germany, however, instructors often adopt a more Socratic teaching method in which students are expected to contribute “original” ideas to classroom discussions. Echoing Lin and Yi (1997), the author adds:
The Chinese students were often confused by the conflicting paradigms of what made a ‘good student’ in China versus Germany, and often went back and forth between these learning norms. The conflict between these two learning cultures is a big challenge for international students (p. 162).
Moreover, social isolation is a frequent problem of overseas Chinese students, particularly in the early stages of their sojourns. Zhu reports how Chinese students tend to form friendships with other co- nationals, and friendships with Germans tend to be superficial and fleeting, akin to what Sovic (2009, p. 747) terms ‘hi-bye friendships.’
For those who survived the initial hardships of adjusting to life in Germany, a gradual appreciation of the host culture was reported among respondents. Although 16% of Chinese students at German universities drop out before completing their degrees, those who do stay tend to value the academic freedom that German institutions offer, and the ability to openly challenge existing ideas. Moreover, whereas Chinese universities generally mandate what course students must take and when they take their exams, in Germany there is much more curricular flexibility. Consistent with many other study abroad studies, long-term sojourners also reported higher degrees of self-confidence and subtle personality changes.
This work offers three pedagogical suggestions for study abroad programs. First, to reduce culture shock and help students optimize their time in the host country, Zhu suggests that extensive pre-
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departure preparation is needed. Too many universities offer merely cursory pre-departure programs, leaving students psychologically and academically unprepared for their experiences overseas.
Second, the author recommends that host universities extend their orientation programs for new students and utilize student volunteers with prior overseas experience more. For example, she suggests co-national students could liaise with university international affairs offices, handling correspondence about the host university in the native language of prospective students. Zhu comments:
Unfortunately, most Chinese students participating in interviews had not used any first-hand information provided by universities before departure. One important reason was information asymmetry—Chinese students did not know of the existence of the
information provided by the international office. Another reason is information inaccessibility—all information was written in German (albeit, usually with an English
option, as well), which frustrated beginners in German language from further reading. . . These results suggest that the international office needs to optimize its services and
make information more available and accessible to Chinese and international students. (p. 218)
Third, the author underscores the need for faculty members working with international students to learn more about Chinese culture and history. As Redden (2014) suggests, the behavior of Chinese students sometimes perplexes many Western faculty, who often misinterpret silence for indifference rather than a sign of deference for teacher authority.
Strengths and Weaknesses
This book offers a good chance to think about what “academic adjustment” means in a globalized context. It does a good job of contrasting many German and Chinese cultural norms. The author encourages us to look at academic adjustment holistically, pointing out that good grades do not necessarily indicate optimal adjustment overseas. However, although one of the three studies in this book incorporates a longitudinal component, we are curious as to how the informants might change after returning to their home country. Since the interviews were conducted in Germany, post-return changes are not measured.
In our view, this book has three primary limitations. The first concerns sampling: Although this book does provide many useful insights about Chinese graduate students in Germany, the extent that those findings can be generalized to less mature undergraduates or high school students is uncertain.
Second, although the author combines quantitative and qualitative data in her studies, the small sample sizes and reliance on multiple t-tests make the quantitative findings suggestive at best. As Brown and Crookes (1990) assert, multiple t-tests tend to inflate significance levels, leading to Type II errors. Moreover, self-reported Likert-scale data of “language proficiency” or “cultural adjustment” are prone to various cognitive biases and hence should be interpreted with a grain of salt.
Finally, to establish a coherent narrative, qualitative data have been simplified. Outliers were ignored to forge a storyline that is easy to follow. The following generalized claim illustrates this point: “Chinese students gradually transitioned from the attitude of ‘nobody takes care of me’ to ‘the lecturers are available but we have to take the initiative to ask’” (p. 162). Although this statement is likely true of most interviewees, reactions to study abroad are often diverse and complex. If we remember that this author prefers to write with a broad pen describing overall norms rather than a fine brush embellishing on interesting outliers, this concern is less serious.
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The Bottom Line
In our view, this book is valuable for two reasons. First, it offers a comprehensive literature review that draws not only from English language sources, but also sources in Chinese and German. Second, its overall narrative is both systematic and easy to follow. The fact that Japanese and Korean students tend to share some common cultural characteristics with Chinese makes this book relevant to university educators throughout East Asia.
– Reviewed by Tim Newfields and Ivan Botev
Brown, J. D. & Crookes, G. (1990). The Use of Multiple t Tests in Language Research. TESOL Quarterly, 24
(4) 770 - 773. Doi: 10.2307/3587135
Lin, J.C. & Yi, J.K. (1997). Asian international students’ adjustment: Issues and program suggestions. College Student Journal, 31
MEXT. (2017 December 27). Gaikokujin ryūgakusei zaiseki jōkyō chōsa oyobi nihonjin no kaigai ryūgakusha sūtō ni tsuite.
[Survey on the enrollment status of foreign students and Japanese students abroad]. Retrieved from www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/koutou/ryugaku/1345878.htm
Ock, H.J. (2016, September 18). Korea Herald Korea sends fourth most students abroad. Korea Herald.
Retrieved from www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160918000267
Redden, E. (2014, April 9). Chinese Students in the Classroom. Inside Higher Ed.
Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/09/new-research-examines-how-chinese-students- respond-challenges-classroom
Sovic, S. (2009). Hi-bye friends and the herd instinct: International and home students in the creative arts. Higher Education 58
(6) 747-761. doi: doi.org/10.1007/s10734-009-9223z