© 2021 Deal Global Communication

Intercultural Adaptation of Asian Students

in the United States


By Christopher Deal


Paper presented at the University of New Mexico Culture and Communication Conference, Albuquerque, May 25, 2002.

To cite this article, please see citation information at the bottom.


Students from Asia who travel to the United States to study face a very different environment from the one they grew up in. They inevitably experience some level of culture shock as their usual ways of communicating and socializing prove inadequate or inappropriate. Numerous scholars in a variety of academic disciplines have developed theories on how sojourners and immigrants adapt to a new cultural environment. As the number of international students on United States campuses has risen, research has increased on ways American hosts can help international students adapt to their new environment. This paper will discuss the theory of cross-cultural adaptation and the role of the host environment in facilitating this process. It will also discuss the cultural familiarity and sensitivity necessary for counselors, faculty, and host students to communicate effectively with students from Asia in general and specifically Southeast Asia.


All individuals who enter a new cultural environment share common adaptation experiences. They are all "strangers" in their host country and must accept at least some of the demands of their new surroundings. Each will experience uncertainty and unfamiliarity as they try to cope with the changes. Modes of behavior which were useful in their old setting may be maladaptive in the new one (Kim, 1988). As described by Schuetz (1944), the cultural pattern of the host country is to the stranger "not an instrument for disentangling problematic situations but a problematic situation itself and one hard to master" (p. 108). Asian students must also confront the challenges of learning and adjusting to a number of competing and even contradictory new roles and a narrowly defined set of behavioral norms (Spradley & Phillips, 1972). Many experience interpersonal distress as a result of language barriers, different values and expectations, and the loss of close contact with their social support network and family. One study provides evidence that Southeast Asian immigrants experience greater levels of this type of distress than other Asian Americans, both United States- and foreign-born (Abe and Zane, 1990).


International students experience a sense of uprootedness, loss, and homesickness (Ishiyama and Westwood, 1992) as a result of the changes mentioned above. The confusing and painful feeling of disorientation and helplessness called culture shock (Fernandez, 1988) was first defined by Oberg (1960) as the "anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse" (p. 177). Weaver has identified some of the possible causes for culture shock to be 1) loss of tangible, observable, and identifiable cues for behavior in social situations, 2) the breakdown of communication because of different ways of communicating and differences between nonverbal and verbal styles, and 3) an identity crisis in which strangers question their ways of ordering their perceptual and intellectual worlds (Weaver, 1986).


In trying to understand culture shock and adaptation, it is important to clearly define what culture is. As defined by Brislin (1990), "Culture refers to the widely shared ideals, values, formation and uses of categories, assumptions about life, and goal-directed activities that become unconsciously or subconsciously accepted as 'right' and 'correct' by people who identify themselves as members of a society" (p. 11). According to Triandis (1972), "Subjective culture is a cultural group's characteristic way of perceiving the man-made part of the environment. The perception of rules and the group's norms, roles, and values are aspects of subjective culture" (p. 4).


While all international students experience some degree of culture shock, students from Southeast Asia, as well as many other non-Westerners, must face a more complicated adjustment process than students from Western countries, because their cultures are very different from the American host culture (Pedersen, 1991). Many Asians differ from Americans with regard to their time orientation. Americans place value in the present and look forward to the future, which individuals can control. Asians are not overly concerned with the present, but stress the past and the future more. It is their view that although individuals can affect their future, much of it is predetermined by their family history and status (Fernandez, 1988).


The family itself is of greater importance in the lives of most Asians than it is for most Americans. Perhaps concomitantly, Asians have a very strong sense of community and see themselves as parts of a whole society rather than as individuals (Fernandez, 1988). This provides a great sense of security, which is lost when they travel to the West.


A number of interpersonal relations differences also affect communication between Asians and Americans. Asian culture emphasizes formality, politeness, respect, and non-confrontation in interpersonal relations. In contrast, Americans are much more informal, spontaneous, direct, and confrontational (Fernandez, 1988). Asians are generally socialized to respect self-restraint and what some might call meekness, whereas Americans are taught to be aggressive and self-confident. In addition, the Asian hierarchy of social position is highly respected and contrasts sharply with American egalitarianism (Fieg, 1989). These points help to explain why the meeting of the two cultures can be problematic. A number of researchers have attempted to explain the process of cross-cultural adaptation and have developed theories and strategies for this purpose. Kim (1988) has speculated that after arriving, strangers' normal patterns of cognitive, behavioral, and affective responses gradually change. Familiar cultural habits are discarded in favor of new cultural habits. With time, strangers develop the ability to express themselves and engage in spontaneous social interaction more effectively. Kim also suggests that strangers' initial needs can be satisfied by participation in the familiar realm of communication within their own ethnic communities, if one exists for them. As their skills of communication in the host culture increase, they become less dependent on communication within their ethnic community. Kim's belief is that adaptation occurs naturally if strangers attempt to participate in host society communication processes.


Gudykunst and Hammer (1988) have applied the theory of uncertainty reduction to intercultural adaptation. The basis of this theory is that strangers experience differing levels of uncertainty and anxiety; their effort to reduce these feelings constitutes the adaptation process. According to Gudykunst and Hammer, knowledge of the host culture obtained prior to and after arrival in the host society is vital in making predictions about both the probable response to certain messages and the general behavior of others. They claim that preconceptions or stereotypes of a particular group, formed primarily by mass media, play a significant role in determining the attitudes about and behavior towards individuals of the other group. This applies to both strangers' and hosts' perceptions. This part of the theory was supported by the experience of one Malaysian student studying in the United States. His stereotype of American culture, formed by watching American television programs and news in Malaysia, affected his interaction with Americans. He "knew a little better what to expect," when he first arrived. Eventually, however, he discovered that American society is more complex than he had been led to believe.


In another part of the uncertainty reduction theory, Gudykunst and Hammer (1988) point to cultural similarity as a factor influencing the level of anxiety strangers experience. If the two cultures are very dissimilar, the strangers' anxiety level will be relatively high and their predictions and explanation of behavior relatively inaccurate. The implication of this for Southeast Asian students or any nonwestern person is that cultural dissimilarity to America makes adaptation more difficult for them than it is for other international students whose native cultures are more similar to American culture.


Uncertainty reduction theory also presents the case that since both uncertainty and anxiety affect a sojourner independently, the traditional designation of high-acculturated and low-acculturated is inaccurate. Gudykunst and Hammer (1988) also point to Berger's (1979) uncertainty reduction strategies, which consist of various means of obtaining information about culture; this will be referred to in a subsequent section of this paper.


The self-validation model outlined by Ishiyama and Westwood (1992) is a process of restoring one's well-being after having experienced the initial stress of entering a different culture. The model is based on the premise that cross-cultural adjustment occurs as a person validates his or her own personal and cultural uniqueness while establishing his or her "transcultural relatedness" with others (p. 52). The components of self-validation are security, competence, meaning in life, self-worth, and identity. Identity or sense of self is paramount in self-validation. Different cultures cultivate different structures of self and emphasize different dimensions of self; the familial self is stressed among Asians. Ishiyama and Westwood (1992) view cross-cultural adaptation as being a learning experience in that it heightens awareness and promotes personal growth.


Knowledge of these theories of cross-cultural adaptation allows university counselors, faculty, and students to communicate effectively with and help Southeast Asian and other international students as they endeavor to adjust to their new environment. In the remainder of this paper, a number of practical applications and proposals will be posited.


Martin makes the case in Communication Education (1989) that college sojourners should be formally prepared for intercultural interaction prior to their departure. She claims that universities have not developed extensive competence in cross-cultural training. The predeparture course she proposes includes a number of the ideas found in the theories mentioned above. Just as in the self-validation model, Martin's course encourages students to examine themselves; by looking at themselves, the students can identify the culturally-based attitudes and behaviors they possess and exhibit.


In keeping with the evidence of a need for cultural knowledge (Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988; Kim, 1988), Martin's (1989) proposed course incorporates culture-specific information about the country each student will be visiting, including facts about religion, politics, social relationships, food, dress, and education. She also suggests interviews with international students from the host country and others who may have spent time there. Kim (1988) testifies to the worth of such information by saying that strangers' adaptive potential is enhanced by their "preparedness for change." She states that this preparedness is enhanced by knowledge about host communication systems, relevant norms, customs, and history, as well as political, social, and economic institutions (p. 135).


The nature of the host environment is of vital importance in cross-cultural adaptation (Kim, 1988). The term host environment refers to the social atmosphere that strangers interact in, both on an interpersonal and a mass communication level. One of the conditions of the host environment that is especially pertinent to adaptation is receptivity toward strangers. This refers to the openness of the social climate and the level of acceptance enjoyed by strangers. Expressions of acceptance or non-acceptance can be communicated explicitly, but are more often communicated in subtle, unconscious nonverbal behavior of natives. A simple smile can show acceptance, whereas a detached tone of voice tacitly implies non-acceptance (Kim, 1988).


Another condition of the host environment that is important is conformity pressure, which refers to the degree to which the hosts explicitly or implicitly expect or require strangers to follow their (the hosts') customary cultural and communication paradigms. Societies that are relatively free and pluralistic tend to have a high level of tolerance for cultural diversity. Those that are relatively controlled and homogeneous tend to exert more conformity pressure, requiring strangers to follow their values, language and norms of behavior. One of the most visible examples of conformity pressure is the language practices of the host society. In most countries, strangers must learn the dominant language to benefit from what the government has to offer. Host language proficiency is imperative for the performance of international students pursuing an academic degree, whereas other sojourners (such as military personnel and diplomats) are not under as much pressure to conform linguistically. Conformity pressure also varies in different regions and different sizes of communities. Large cities, with their heterogeneous composition, offer more leniency than small rural towns. Conformity pressure that is too great can be an unbearable burden to strangers who are already experiencing intense cross-cultural stress and can impair their attempts to communicate adaptively (Kim, 1988).


According to Erickson (1992), formal orientation is one of the most important parts of the adaptation process for incoming international students. During this period, it is hoped the new students will be able to overcome their initial sense of disorientation and become relatively comfortable with their new environment. They also need to be given an understanding of the process of adaptation they are experiencing and will continue to experience. The students are encouraged to try to make friends with American students. Erickson believes that hosts involved with orientation, which can be extended to last the entire school year, should show respect and kindness and be aware of their "American biases" (p. 2). He claims that the most important qualities international students need in overcoming culture shock are the ability to fail without becoming disheartened, a sense of humor, and flexibility.


Another aspect of the sojourn of a student from Southeast Asia that requires competent intercultural communication skills is academic advising. According to Charles and Stewart (1991), most academic advisers in American universities are unaware of the specialized needs of international students. They suggest a number of elements that would make such advisers more effective. Among these is cultural sensitivity, an essential attribute required by a person who advises international students. However, it is not something that can be acquired quickly or effortlessly. It is a commitment to shun ethnocentric ways of thinking and perceiving differences and to open the mind to different worldviews, which also entails understanding one's own worldview better (Charles & Stewart, 1991). The adviser should take into consideration the fact that cultural differences can include different conceptions of time and use of space (Hall, 1981), as well as different value orientations (Sue & Sue, 1977). It is also important to have a genuine interest in the students as individuals and as students (Charles & Stewart, 1991).


Academic advisers of international students should be aware of a few other problems that may exist. First, there are language limitations. Advisers should try to assess the language skills of the students to decide whether they should be taking an English support course. However, advisers should be aware that many Asians, in order to "save face" or be polite, may nod or smile in approval to the question "do you understand?" even if that person may not have fully understood (Eisen, 1986: p. 175). They should also understand that limited English skills are not necessarily a sign of lack of intelligence. In order to address other aspects of adjustment, it may be necessary to refer the student to another office, such as the International Student Office. However, since many Asian students lack what Americans call assertion, it may be necessary for the adviser to make a phone call for the student or even take the student to the department as a way of introduction. Cultural differences also give Southeast Asians different views of suitable advisers. Male students, for example, may feel insulted to have a woman as an adviser or female students may disdain looking their male advisers in the eye (Zane et al., 1991).


University professors should also be made aware of the cultural differences of Southeast Asians which affect their schoolwork and class time. As a result of a combination of qualities of non-confrontation and high respect for authority, most Southeast Asians are uncomfortable expressing their opinions to authority figures and refrain from participating in classroom discussions, and from asking questions in class, especially those that challenge the professor. Adding to this hesitancy is the fact that many Southeast Asians are also accustomed to the traditional educational practices of their home countries such as an emphasis on memorization, or what we refer to pejoratively as “rote learning.”


These students may eventually learn to assert themselves in class, but it should also be understood and accepted by hosts if they still choose not to act in this way. An additional difference that is important in the classroom is the fact that, from the American perspective, many Southeast Asians perceive things globally. They are "field-sensitive learners," meaning that they are not accustomed to analyzing things out of context or separating the whole into its parts. Instead, they simply look at the all-encompassing whole (Dao, 1991: p. 597).


Cultural sensitivity is also important for counselors of students from Southeast Asia. To communicate effectively with their patients, these counselors must also have significant knowledge of the cultural backgrounds of their students. The theoretical perspectives used by most counselors in the United States are derived predominantly from Western cultures. The world views of most international students and especially Southeast Asians are vastly different from this Western perspective (Fernandez, 1988). One study provides evidence that counselor cultural sensitivity and participant acculturation play a role in how Asian-American students perceive the credibility and cultural competence of a counselor. It also suggests that an ethnically similar counselor would be perceived as more culturally competent and credible than one who is ethnically dissimilar. By the same token, a culture-sensitive counselor is seen as more credible and culturally competent than a culture-blind counselor. Therefore, by recognizing the significant role culture may play in a client's problems, counselors can improve their perceived cross-cultural credibility and competence with these students (Gim et al., 1991).


Ishiyama and Westwood (1992) detail some of the practical steps counselors can take to increase their effectiveness with international students. They discuss a number of language-based considerations, such as the level of English fluency of the students. They suggest patience with lack of fluency and avoidance of correcting or rephrasing the students' words too frequently. Clients should be encouraged to express their feelings and ideas in their native language if they feel too limited in English. Regardless of whether the counselor understands them completely, this can be therapeutic. Additionally, if the counselor does not speak the clients' first language, he or she should at least make the effort to learn and use key expressions and words which have special meaning in the clients' language.


My Malaysian interviewee confirmed Ishayama and Westwood's (1992) position by saying that he would probably not see a counselor in the United States unless he could speak with one who spoke Bahasa Malay. Kim (1988) contends that learning a language entails not just learning the linguistic codes, but also gaining access to the "accumulated records" of the cultural experiences of the people who speak it (p. 89). Therefore, in lieu of learning entire languages, counselors, or anyone interested in intercultural communication, could benefit from tapping into the "accumulated records" of the cultural experiences unique to the countries of students they will counsel.


Cultural knowledge can be gained in a number of ways. The culture-specific information mentioned earlier, including facts about religion, politics, social relationships, education, norms, customs, and history as well as political, social, and economic institutions and even food and dress can be useful in communication. Much information may also be obtained from the students themselves. If counselors are willing to learn, students can teach them a wealth of information about their cultures. Ishiyama and Westwood (1992) suggest that counselors encourage students to share photographs, music, dancing, games, scrap books, and other things which will help them express themselves and make the counselors more familiar with the culture. The "teaching" that the students do can also serve to reinforce their self-respect, which may have been damaged as they experienced culture shock. It gives the students a chance to be in charge and to be more skilled and knowledgeable than others for a time. In the case of students from Southeast Asia, this concept of give-and-take establishes a reciprocity that forms the very basis of relationships in Southeast Asia. Another purpose served by the special attention given to the students' cultures is that of helping the counselor to be conscious of the way in which these students experience their own social reality through unique personal and cultural filters (Ishiyama and Westwood, 1992).


In building relationships with discouraged students, counselors should offer listening, respect, and appreciation. They should also remind the students that one of the reasons they are experiencing frustration is that they have temporarily lost their reference groups. That is, they are separated by thousands of miles from the family (especially important in Southeast Asia), friends, and coworkers who have helped them form their sense of self and their feelings of reality and belonging (Ishiyama and Westwood, 1992). Besides missing the individuals they left behind, many Southeast Asian students become aware of the fact that the sense of community they have in their home countries does not exist in the same way in the United States. They must suddenly become individuals who are separate from the community and who must operate independently. Although some Southeast Asian students may find this a pleasant experience in that they experience independence and learn that they can depend on themselves (such as my interview participant), it is a source of stress for others. Some students are able to form their own communities at universities, which in a way takes the place of their home community. This can even be done on the basis of religion alone, as illustrated by my friend, a Malaysian student who -- having seen most of his fellow Malaysians leave the university -- became a part of the predominantly Arabic Muslim community there. So, despite enjoying the independence and individuality he found in America, this student's Malaysian culture was still with him in that he missed his family and he felt he needed to be part of a larger community.


The counselors in the International Student Offices or Counseling Centers of universities can also take advantage of the large numbers of international students on campus, because some are culturally similar and are sharing the same experiences. For example, a Chinese Malaysian and a Thai might not think they have much in common, but when placed into a very different society they may discover that they have much in common. Organized peer groups can promote adjustment, both socially and academically, by bringing international students together. Additionally, these peer groups can contribute significantly to forming transcultural relatedness, referred to previously (Ishiyama and Westwood, 1992). It can be fulfilling to discover what one has in common with others around the world and to come to terms, if only superficially, with the worldview of others.


Although much research deals with ways in which counselors and university officials can communicate interculturally with international students, little attention is given in the literature to host American students. However, much of the scholars' advice and insight on cross-cultural adaptation -- both the general theories and the counseling psychology work -- can be used by individual students who wish to both enhance their intercultural effectiveness and help other students get along. American students should especially consider the fact that many Asian students do not display the assertiveness shown generally in America because of inherent cultural inhibitions. That is, they have the skills to do so, but do not for cultural reasons (Zane et al., 1991). My interview participant confirmed this by saying that, regarding his having no American friends, "the problem is with me." He says that he does not have enough confidence to try to make friends with Americans and he feels like he "might do something they wouldn't like." The implication of these two sources of evidence for American students is that the hosts should take the initiative in establishing relationships. Most international students want to become friends with Americans, but many do not know how; host students can facilitate the process. It is also important, of course, for host students, like counselors, to be culturally knowledgeable and sensitive.


One aspect of the cross-cultural adaptation of Southeast Asian students that has not been widely discussed or considered is reentry preparation. Researchers have extended their conceptualization of culture shock to include reentry shock (also called reverse culture shock), the psychological and emotional difficulties one may have upon returning home after having adjusted to a different cultural environment (Kim, 1988). Marks (1987) proposes that universities follow up their orientation and counseling assistance with an equally important reentry program. She feels it is necessary in order to ensure that the education received at American institutions is appreciated and applied properly. Her focus is on the needs of students from developing countries who may have difficulties in both cultural and professional adjustment when they return home.


When people return home from a significant period of time abroad, they are not wholly a part of their old culture nor wholly separated from it. Attitudes and behaviors have changed during the adaptation process, and can come into conflict with mainstream culture at home. Southeast Asian students who have become more independent or more assertive while in America may be misunderstood or resented. In preparing students to return home, instruction should be given in two areas. The first is awareness of the changes in their behavior and thinking. The second is encouragement to develop new communication skills and to integrate their new skills of all kinds as well as their new perceptions into their home culture. This would include specific information on the role of development, the cultural assumptions of development, and the application of an American education in a developing country (Marks, 1987).


Marks suggests that universities attempt to communicate more extensively with their international alumni. She points out that they can tell firsthand of the specific challenges upon returning from America and can make suggestions regarding the reentry program or course's content. This would serve the dual purposes of improving or initiating substantial two-way communication with international alumni and providing integral knowledge about the specifics of the reentry adjustment process.


Multitudinous research in many fields on the cross-cultural adaptation and adjustment process experienced by sojourners can be used by university officials, professors, and students for a number of purposes. The hosts can better prepare themselves to visit Southeast Asia (and other parts of the world) and to more effectively communicate with students from Southeast Asia wherever they are. It can also help them understand themselves better. The sojourners can benefit by being given a receptive host environment, which helps facilitate their adaptation and learning, makes them more comfortable, and makes them more likely to think highly of their host country.


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© 2002 Christopher Deal.


Citation information in American Psychological Association (APA) 5th ed. format:

Deal, C. D. (2002, May). Intercultural adaptation of Asian students in the United States. Paper presented at the Culture and Communication Conference, Albuquerque, NM.