Monday, March 10, 2014

False friends

This week I continue to think through two questions I first posed last week: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?

Again I'll  discuss observations and ask questions based on research by Mollie Dollinger summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

On the other hand, self-segregation is common. One Chinese student reported that after making friends with Americans freshman year she had decided to pursue friendships only with Chinese classmates.  She said, “I was close with my roommate freshman year, she was from America, but after freshman year ended she never called me anymore.  She was actually quite fake.  My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people.”

Oh my! There is so much here!

Observation: over-applying experiences

Of course, if a person decides to pursue friendship with only classmates from ones own background (in this case ethnic and cultural) it will be difficult to build friendships with people from other groups.

It's an unfortunate characteristic that human nature/the brain is such that individual, anecdotal situations get applied to a broad spectrum of situations. The Chinese girl here mentioned only the situation of the roommate. Perhaps there were other situations as well, but these were not mentioned. It is a mistake to to base opinions of all American on an experience with one roommate.

Observation: rose-tinted glasses

"My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people.”

This is hyperbole on a grand scale. There are "fake" people in every society, and by nature we are more inclined to identify the "fakeness" of people from other cultures. This is because (a) they are foreign, which is always suspect to the brain; (b) we tend to hold biases against other groups, whether we realize this or not; and (c) we often simply do not understand people from other cultures very well.

Perhaps, although the Chinese girl thought she and her roommate were close, and American roommate may have known that the relationship was not close. Cultural cues may have been missed by the Chinese student.

On a personal note, I would venture to say that I've met more "fake" Chinese friends than I have "fake" American friends. This is not because Chinese are more "fake", but rather because I've spent most of my adult life in China. Thus, by pure virtue of time, number, and proximity, I have met more false friends.

Of course, it could also be true that I didn't know how to read cultural signals very well. Chinese in China would know to avoid certain "friend" situations that I may not have known. Therefore, I made false friends that they may avoided more adeptly.

Comment: differing understandings of friendships

A major aspect I see between the lines here is a differing understanding of friendship between Chinese and American students. I touched on this in a previous post "Why don't Chinese hang out with other people?".
The Chinese view of friendship carries with it obligations and duties that would make most Americans uncomfortable. [Americans] might even conclude that Chinese friendships are superficial and selfish. (Indeed, even the words obligation and duty in English carry negative connotations.) In contrast, the lack of these obligations in US friendships likewise cause Chinese to often conclude that US friendships are superficial and selfish.
When the Chinese students remarks, "My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people,” she is using her cultural understanding of friendship to assess Americans. Likewise, by saying Chinese do know how to treat one another, she is making a statement based on a Chinese understanding of friendship behaviors.

There are both weaknesses and strengths in the way Chinese and Americans view friendship. These views are fundamentally different but neither incompatible nor irreconcilable. However, blanket statements and judgments won't help us work past these differences. Engagement in needed.

Final Questions

Chinese and international friends:
  • What do you find difficult about building friendships with Americans?
  • Have you encountered "fake" friendships in the US? Why do/did you consider them "fake"?
  • What do you think Americans should understand about your view of friendship?
US friends:
  • What concepts about US friendships do you think would be important for international students to know before beginning their social journeys in the US?

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