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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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