Peoples of China

Studying in America

Challenges, Differences and Outcomes


Nearly three years have passed since I began studying in the United States as an international student, and I now have enough experience to look back on it. I think about the process of how I have developed and what has made me who I am today. Things are quite different from before I came to America. Many years ago, I was just a nave, soon-to-be international student who had a dream of coming to a new countrybut I had zero experience or understanding of what it meant. I would like to share some of my thoughts about going abroad and becoming a high school student in a foreign country, and I would be very grateful if my story could be of benefit to future students.

It was not easy for my family to decide to send me to America. Besides the objective factors such as our financial capability and my academic records that had to be considered, we had to spend time working on the emotional journey. As the only child in the family, I had spent all my life within the embrace of my beloved parents, and they were the ones who felt the greatest loss when I suddenly left home for another continent on the other side of the world. It has taken me a long time to realize how much emotional sacrifice my parents have made in order for me to thrive, and I know that I still do not fully understand it and maybe never will.

I was always thinking how hard it would be for me to adjust to the new culture, what if I was not accepted by the American students and teachers, and how long it would take for my English ability to match up to the school's standard. During the two years I was in high school, I never gave a thought to the struggles my parents were going through in facing the absence of their only son. I filled our scant conversation times by complaining of the obstacles I encountered and forgot to ask how they were doing. I truly wish I had been more mature before leaving and had learned to show more consideration for my parents earlier. I would like to tell all my peers to sincerely consider how much their parents will be doing for them besides providing money for their high school tuition or mailing them Chinese snacks and winter clothes.

Speaking from my own perspective, studying abroad in an American high school was more complicated than I had expected. I would suggest that prospective students not have expectations that are too specific because reality does not alter itself according to one's desires. In most cases, American movies and television showseven the ones that are the most realisticonly depict the most fun part of high school life that we, as international students, might, or might not, get the chance to experience. Just as real life is composed of only a small part of the dramatic and is mostly plain and normal, most of American high school lifealthough very different from what Chinese students experience in their schools at homeis still quite average and unremarkable.

American high-school education provides Chinese students with an alternative, comprehensive education; it should never be considered an "escape route" from difficulties. You might find math and science classes to generally be easier than the courses you have taken before, but always keep in mind that success never comes to those who do not work hard. Teachers will help giving you their best efforts, but nobody can provide the motivation besides yourself. Since American high schools focus less on collectivism and more on individual development and performance, it is very important to always be self-disciplined. No class representative will go to the front of the classroom each morning to collect assignments from the previous night and record the students who do not submit them. Teachers will not blame any student for receiving a bad score on a test. Instead, teachers will assign a project that is due in a week and never mention it again until the day before the deadline. If you forget to turn it in, you will see them writing down a zero as your score. Not turning in an assignment is considered a student's own choice, and teachers respect that. However, if failing to do so is the result of poor time management, you will find that American high schools are the best places to learn to be more punctual.

Another big difference that international students usually encounter is the value that American culture places on respect and boundaries. I was surprised to experience the dissimilarity between Chinese teachers' loudly reporting to the entire class students' scores on a recent test, going from the highest to the lowest, while American teachers give back an assignment, excellently done, facing down. As most Chinese students come from a school environment where they are constantly compared with each other on academic performance, it is quite challenging for us to accept the absence of this competition. For example, a lot of students do not realize that asking other students their score on a test or their grade point average (GPA) is considered rude and could be offensive.

For international students who live with host families, personal respect deserves even more attention and is often the cause of conflicts that could have been avoided. American families are generally very nice and welcoming, and they treat their host students warm heartedly. You might hear them telling you that you are "to make yourself at home" and think this means you have been given access to their entire home. However, do not assume that all parts of the home are open to you. When in doubt, always ask permission beforehand.

Try to be open and talk about your concerns; do not assume that your host family always knows what you are thinking. Often, conflicts arise because of misunderstanding and lack of communication. Although the one-child family is the most common type of family structure in China, a large number of American families have more than one child. Your host family will try their best to accommodate your schedule within their family plans, but this might not always be to your satisfaction. Living with a large family is a good opportunity to learn to fit into the entire family's schedule and to remember that the world does not revolve around any one person.

American education has given me the chance to obtain a broader view of the world and to live outside my own "bubble." Each time I returned to China for vacation, I felt the change in my personality, maturity and capability in performing different tasks. American high school teaches me to be responsible for myself, to treat every person with respect and to appreciate how precious is the chance to go to a different country.

Above all, going to the United States was God's way of revealing himself to me. I was positively influenced by the church community I lived in and by the Christian school and host families that provided me guidance, enlightenment and reassurance. Living away from home challenged me in different ways, but it also helped me develop faster, both in my abilities and in my faith. Many times I received hope when the obstacles seemed too overwhelming to be conquered. I learned that by loving others, I received God's miracle of healing for my own scars; I learned that no pain could be greater than Jesus' suffering when he shed his blood on the cross.

The United States is a wonderful place, and it is worth it to go through all the challenges and difficulties living internationally brings. There are lessons one must learn both to prosper in this particular culture and to become a well-rounded person. When the opportunity comes and the door is open, we should step forward and prepare for the future. At this point in my life, I am looking back on my path with great comfort, and I am sure that many years from now you will be able to write your own golden story.

Image Credit: Ken Lagerveld

MA Jing

MA Jing is a Chinese international student who attended high school in Michigan and continues to study at New York University. He enjoys Italian food, jogging and reading. View Full Bio