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Full-on immersion

Total immersion is the best way for foreign students to adapt to new cultures

Last week, I wrote about ways to learn a language.

However, to fully participate in a society, linguistic command is necessary but not sufficient. I want to share with you an even more important aspect of integration - cultural immersion. Having lived in America since 2003, I will focus on my personal experience.

Being culturally fluent in a foreign country has two advantages. First, I was able to build deeper friendships, which has made my life much more enjoyable. After I moved from China to southeastern Virginia - one of the more homogenous regions of America - I had no friends because I barely spoke English. I felt alienated, Indeed, many international students at the University lament how isolated they feel because of lack of fellowships. Second, I have become better able to understand the ways that people think and act, and I have learned the workings of institutions in the United States. That latter knowledge has helped me in every aspect of life whether I am in school, at work, or in different social settings.

The first step is to set the right attitude. You need to prepare yourself mentally for total immersion. In other words, forget that you are a non-native person for now, and focus on how to become an American. My father was the one who first gave me this seemingly radical advice. Initially, I fought hard to cling onto my Chinese identity because I felt comfortable doing so. But being comfortable did not help me grow as a person. So I forced myself to only speak English, read English books, and hang out only with Americans. Admittedly, I felt lonely at times as a consequence of total immersion. But looking back, I realize that it is the only way to integrate quickly.

Keep in mind that I am addressing people who already have spent many years in their native countries. Thus, by temporarily taking off your native hat, you will not forget your roots. Your knowledge of your mother tongue and culture is already in your blood.

Next, you should capture every opportunity to talk with Americans, whoever they might be. Talk to your dentist, teacher, kids at your bus stop, firefighters. Every single person with whom you interact adds to your cultural knowledge about the country because countries are collections of people. You will only know the general after learning about the particular.

Moreover, you should try to live with Americans. I have observed many cultural nuances by having lived with Americans my whole time at the University. There have been frictions between me and my American housemates, but I grew a result. For example, I learned that most American guys feel much more strongly about maintaining personal space than Chinese guys. Thus it is crucial to intentionally seek out friends. Never assume that American students will come to you.

What if you are shy? Then challenge yourself not to be timid anymore. Let me make this clear: Individuals who are not afraid of making mistakes have natural advantages at integrating. So what if kids might initially laugh at your accent? If you don't practice, you will always have your accent. Being shy is malleable. I used to be shy. But I took risks and pushed myself out of my comfort zone.\nI have heard that many foreigners quickly run out of topics when talking with Americans. If that is the case, then do your homework. The best way to equip yourself with more subjects is to read as much as possible. Start with history and politics. Pick up David McCullough's 1776, or a biography on Mr. Jefferson. By reading on history, economic and political systems, you will quickly learn about the defining features of a country. This foundational knowledge will then help you make sense of the evolution of the nation and ultimately the contemporary issues that affect the country.\nTo keep up with current affairs, maintain a weekly habit of going through periodicals. Reading The New York Times and Wall Street Journal together offers balanced views on many issues. If you feel ambitious, I recommend my personal favorite: the Atlantic.

Additionally, you should take time to study those topics that interest Americans. For example, most American guys enjoy football. Learn the rules of football so you can legitimately watch a football game and discuss it with Americans more intelligently.

Now that you have cultivated cultural knowledge, you should participate in activities that are distinctly American. As mentioned previously, most American students are passionate about sports. So in high school, I worked very hard to become a wrestler, cross-country runner and a lacrosse player. Through these shared experiences and conversations, I made a lot of friends. The interactions with my friends further deepened my knowledge of America. One nuanced point is that the more you want to be American, the more likely Americans will consider you one of them.

Similarly, if you are musically talented, why not join the jazz ensemble? Or the Jefferson Society if you are good at debating? Or joining a fraternity or sorority? I also recommend attending religious services - I personally find the Christians to be some of the sincerest and friendliest folks. My experience is that Christians tend to be more intentional in befriending foreigners.

Once becoming bilingual and bicultural, you have a knowledge base that is possessed by only a few people in the world. Whenever issues involving China and the U.S. come up, people always include me in the conversation. Bicultural fluency also affords unique opportunities. For instance, I personally met the Chinese Ambassador to America last fall at Monticello. In the fast-changing information age, possessing skill sets that cannot be replaced by technology is the key to success. Mastering the language and culture of another country is one of those untouchable advantages.

Paul Chen is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily.

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