After living in Nanjing, China, attending Grinnell, and now studying abroad in the Grinnell-in-London Off-Campus Study Program, Frank Zhu has a unique perspective on the role culture has played in his international experiences. Although he has felt welcomed by the Grinnell College community and recognizes the importance of the college’s “student diversity and openness” in his ability to feel at home and not like an outsider, he has also experienced ways in which the culture he was accustomed to in China and his native language have posed challenges to his adjustment to life here in Grinnell.
Frank knew from early on that Grinnell College was the college for him. He attended the Grinnell College Preschool at the age of five when his parents were professors here teaching Chinese and he has always loved the college’s environment, appreciated the friendly students, and admired the knowledge of the professors. Given his past experiences in the United States, Frank always had a positive view of Americans, particularly those in small towns like Grinnell, regarding them as friendly and independent, with some of the best personalities. When asked about the common Chinese view of Americans, he said that “evil Capitalist stereotypes” might exist in older generations, but that the view of Americans is probably the opposite for the younger generations. He discusses his understanding of the American view of China by saying that the media portrays a mostly positive view, but one that it is not actually reflective of the conditions in China.
The role of culture is one that has influenced every aspect of Frank’s experience at Grinnell, both inside and outside of the classroom. He describes the conservative and collectivist culture of China and how this has made achieving independence and self-knowledge challenging, since he grew accustomed to being told what next step to take. Cultural differences have also posed new obstacles in adjusting to a new social life in Grinnell. Frank mentions that while many Chinese college students spend much of their time playing games online and studying, many American college students spend a lot of time partying. This was something he had to adjust to, so it was awhile before he learned to let go and begin enjoying parties. Frank has noticed that Chinese and American individuals place greater value on different things: “Chinese more on study, grades, and superficial evaluations” and Americans on “sports, clubs, friends, hanging out.” In addition, friendships and relationships work differently here in Grinnell compared to China. He has found that, due to decreased competitiveness and a more open expression of emotions, friendships are simpler here in Grinnell than in China, while relationships are more complicated. Lastly, both body language and spoken language are central to his cultural experiences. Frank mentions the increased eye and physical contact that Americans utilize in conversation, which he made sure to learn and use, even though it made him very uncomfortable at times. He recalls spending hours trying to catch up on current American slang, since “people will hardly respond to you if your word selection is standard and dictionary-like.” In addition, he discusses how the language barrier can also be a barrier in deepening friendships.
Of all challenges Grinnell has to offer, Frank felt that he was most prepared for the rigorous academics, as his high school was extremely intense and he spent most evenings doing 4-5 hours of homework. At the same time, language has created a new struggle within the classroom, where he worries any misuse of the English language could lead to the professor looking down on him. When I asked whether or not, given his diverse international experiences, he looked at himself as a global citizen or primarily as a citizen of one nation, he responded by saying that he identifies himself as a global citizen with a citizenship of China. Overall, Frank Zhu has found that his international experiences thus far at Grinnell College and at Grinnell-in-London have made him a better person, because he has learned to openly embrace other cultures and values.