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International student struggles with English, assimilates into American culture

Senior Zeliang (Luke) Wu is an international student at Fresno Christian Schools, one of many participants in the AmeriStudent program. AmeriStudent LLC. works with incoming international students to secure a safe homestay and offer support through cultural and educational integration.

Megan LeBlanc | The Feather Online

Zeilang (Luke) Wu, ’20, started attending Fresno Christian his freshman year after coming to the U.S. from China.

I arrived in America four years ago as an international student from China with the AmeriStudent homestay agency, spending my high school years in Fresno. I have been learning English and a new culture, including religion, and continue to face issues speaking and understanding English and respecting foreign culture and religion.

After four years of studying abroad, my story and experience as a foreign student can help other arriving international students have a smoother transition into American life. While I have not mastered how to overcome all my issues as an international student, I want to share my experiences and tips to help make for a more successful transition.

Because I did not know much English, at first I relied on a translator app and it became the most important tool in my daily life.

For the first year, I needed my phone to translate everything for me. Unfortunately, after only six weeks, the school did not allow students to use cell phones for translations anymore. In that moment, my communication nightmare began. I could not rely on translator; I was on my own so I had to do something to improve. I needed to go into survival mode.

At that time, my brain was still in Chinese speaking mode. I could only collect a few words the teacher said and put those words in to my head and translate it. While I was translating, I missed many other words; listening became a huge problem and frustration for me. 

I still remember English teacher Kyle Dodson reading an article on the first day at school; it was a tongue twister. He spoke too fast with complicated vocabulary. I understood nothing. I had no idea about the homework when the teacher assigned it. 

I learned that I have to focus very hard to listen to the teachers when they are talking.

In the U.S., there are many assignments online, which we never do in China. Because I was unprepared for online homework and projects, I missed almost all the online assignments. I did not know there were assignments online. With my limited English ability to ask teachers for help and a lack of confidence in speaking, I missed many opportunities to turn in assignments.

Megan LeBlanc | The Feather Online

Zeilang (Luke) Wu, ’20, (left) poses with his sister, Yuxin Wu, at age seven in their aunt’s home in Xi’an.

Yet things started to change. After Christmas, I chose to watch the news in order to listen to people speak in standard English to improve my listening and speaking abilities at dinner time with my host family. 

I challenged myself by talking to my host parents without a translator. My host parents also started speaking very slowly so I would understand them. After practicing like this, my English was getting better and during my sophomore year I could begin to understand more as teachers were talking.

Listening had been largely solved, but speaking is another problem. Even though I can understand others, others could not understand my English because of my Chinese accent. 

Students need to do a lot of presentations at school, but my Chinese accent is difficult for teachers to understand. In China, many teachers do not allow students to give presentations so I did not know how to give presentations. My grades kept going down due to communication skills.

Although silly, I found creative ways to help improve my speaking: I speak to myself in front of a mirror. In addition, I recorded these conversations to listen back, finding my own incorrect pronunciations and errors, and self-corrected. Watching TV shows and acting like one of the characters also helped me, as I pretended to have a conversation with other characters.

It gets boring after a while, but I pushed myself to keep trying even though I was thinking of giving up. I am still trying to improve like what I am doing right now, joining the publication class, writing articles to publish. English is a language and not just a skill. International students may not learn all of it, keep learning and never give up.

There are also problems in life to solve.

During my time in Fresno, I found religion to be an important part of Americans’ daily life. Most of the people here have their own faith, something they believe, which is not so important in China.

Therefore, trying to respect the Christian religion is difficult for Chinese students. Most do not know anything about the Christian God, why people believe or how to follow God. This is a challenge to overcome. 

Americans pray everyday. It is their way to talk to God. Initially, I felt it was just so weird. I was so confused to watch people when no one is around but they are still talking to God. In my culture, this does not exist for me. I thought people are crazy when they are talking to the air with nobody around, even before eating.

Courtesy Wu family

Practicing taekwondo from ages three to five, Zeiland (Luke) Wu, ’20, learned the cultures of America after making an effort to interact with his surroundings.

They thank God for the food that they cook, which I first thought was weird. However, once I accepted the culture of their faith, I was able to understand them and learned to respect them and their faith. I recommended other international students to get a glance at what the religion is like in this country.

The other thing that is very different in America is transportation. In California, cities do not have a lot of public transportation like buses or taxis compared to China. Or at the very least, people do not use them like I do in China.

In that case, hanging out with friends on weekends has obstacles. I highly suggest to whoever is preparing to come to America, to learn how to drive. Then students would be able to travel around over weekends. In the beginning, we learned very quickly how to use Uber to hang out.

We often use Uber to hang out in restaurants to go eat familiar Chinese food that our families cannot make. It is really hard to get rid of a love for Chinese food when you grow up with it. However, most Chinese students say they do not have that kind of restaurant to fulfill their needs here.

Panda Express may help students sometimes even though it is not real Chinese food. But what can you expect from a culturally different country?

What international students need to do as soon as possible is to get used to American food like eating fresh vegetables, which they call salad. While eating, just think it is really healthy so just swallow it into a hungry stomach.

Tacos are not real Mexican food but it is probably the most liked food in America. It is like Jian Bing in China. It is a kind of Chinese version of fast food. They are both quick, fast and good food to eat.

However, before thinking about food and culture, the first adventure is flying into an American airport.

I suggest before flying the first time, students learn how to transfer before arriving at an American airport. It is also beneficial to learn the process of going through the border protection. It is recommended that the traveller know what to expect at border protection and immigration and what documents will you need. 

Another tip while at border protection is that cell phones do not work; the internet service does not allow for phone calls. I advise travellers to know where to go before they get there.

I always arrive at either Los Angeles or San Francisco. It usually takes two hours to cross the border there. So do not book the next flight too early otherwise you will likely miss it like I did, and it is no fun to sleep in an airport.

Avery Jones | The Feather Online

Luke Wu , ’20, (top right) with his sister, Yuxin Wu (inner left), and two cousins at Qing Hai province while on vacation eight years ago.

When arriving through border security, there are rules and regulations all passengers must follow. For example, security will not allow travellers to bring items like animals, fruits and meat. I found out that my dog is not allowed to get on the plane with me. Do not bring food even though it is needed, it is not allowed. Cooked spiced beef is not allowed on the plane.

Finally, it is very important to already know some phrases and words like: what is your purpose? Show us your fingerprints (thumbs, fingers). And learn enough words to tell the officer that whoever is here is a student with a student visa and not trying to be an immigrant.

Life is not so easy in a different country, As a foreign student, all the language and the culture is going to give us issues. But that is also the best way to get better. Do not be afraid. Go to face the challenges and conquer the difficulties.

Luke Wu can be reached via email.

For another column by Wu, read COLUMN: New world challenges, culture shock drive new resolve, pt. 1 or by other Feather reporters: COLUMN: Feather staffers reminisce summer 2019 missions trip. 

For more articles, read Operation Christmas Child prompt community, inspires schoolwide giving or Kanye West releases highly anticipated ‘Jesus Is King’.

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