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Why Is It Hard To Make Western Friends?

  • Doug Bernard

Today's post comes to us from Jemince, (or in Mandarin '如馨 贾') from Beijing, China. She was studying English Chinese translation in Beijing International Studies University for her Master's Degree until she arrived at Binghamton University together several month ago. She's currently majoring in Comparative Literature and studying law on her own so as to get her Bachelor's Degree once she returns to China.

Today, she offers some thoughts on a question she recently asked herself: "Why Can't Chinese Students Make Friends With Westerners? Some of her thoughts below.



Since there is a growing trend for Chinese students to study abroad, many youngsters start to live their lives completely differently from their families or friends in China. At the same time, the different life experience doubtlessly triggers the vast curiosity of those who intend to study or live abroad. But curiously, the opinions about living in foreign countries, especially western countries often come up with similarities such as: It is great to see the world and it definitely broadens your view and deepens your knowledge; Everything is great but I just cannot bear the loneliness, it is so hard to make friends and assimilate in their society; There is always a distance between me and those foreigners.

I was about to study in the US together with other three Chinese students from Beijing, and both the positive and negative sayings about the country and its people just made me so curious but meanwhile anxious about the unknown life that was approaching me. My questions were simple: Will I face the same problems in getting well with locals or other foreign people? Will I be lonely and have no friends to spend time with and finally die because of loneliness? Why did many Chinese feel so helpless in getting friends abroad?

With all the questions and the burning curiosity, I stepped my feet on the land of the US! It was late summer, everything looked just perfectly green and beautiful, and our semester hadn’t got on track yet, but unfortunately my other three Chinese group mates (housemates as well) and I almost spent the whole first month dwelling at our small house, which made me feel helplessly lonely and anxious about staying at home, because I didn’t know anyone here and none of my housemates or any of my Chinese friends would go to bars or any party with me. They seemed to have a natural fear of bars and were scared of going there, because in Chinese culture, there is no tradition or custom of going to bars or staying up night at parties. And in the eyes of many Chinese, drinking at bars and dancing with a lot of unknown people in a dim light at night somewhat indicates an unhealthy and lazy life. Meanwhile, due to the effect of some Hollywood movies, bars become shelters of drugs, easy sex or violence in their mind. Thus, Chinese were rarely seen in bars here.

Not caring about the traditional bias, I was desperate to experience the real American life including meeting a lot of new people and going to parties and bars. And luckily, a group of wonderful students who came from the US, Germany and other European countries finally ended my dull life and later on became my best friends. We enjoyed our weekends in going out, doing potlucks or visiting different bars and parties drinking, dancing and talking about our life, study, ambitions and all other interesting things.

On the contrary, when talking about how interesting and fun to enjoy weekends like this to my Chinese friends, I often received comments as: “I heard people use drugs there!” “There are many drunkerds, isn’t it dangerous?” “No…I’d better not go there.” “Oh, I can’t drink! It’s not healthy!” About going to bars, parties or other stuffs that I call as “outgoing activities”, Chinese students usually behave cautiously, shyly and conservatively, which is completely opposite from western students. Instead of hesitating, the westerners consider it as a tradition or a sort of must-do to go to noisy places, enjoy the relaxation of drinking, talking to friends and meeting new people. As in my case, after a week of exhausting study, my western friends would say: ”Oh, we need to relax!” and normally it led to a good drink somewhere in a bar or at a home party. But my Chinese friends would like to spend a whole weekend on watching movies at home or having a nice shopping with other Chinese.

And the reason of the differences might be: first of all, Chinese people are naturally more introverted. Places such as bars and parties are mainly for getting tipsy or drunk, relaxing, chatting and knowing new people, which is completely different from the Chinese way and would make them feel nervous and uneasy. Secondly, the communication among Chinese people is mostly very euphemistic, for example, the discussion about how to pay for a meal can go like this: “Maybe I pay for it?” “Uh, I don’t know, maybe we go dutch?” “I don’t know…Maybe?” And the discussion may last over ten minutes. Instead, westerners would ask directly: ”Hey guys, we’ll pay separately right?” “Yes.”

Apart from the differences of having “outgoing activities”, Chinese students have impressed a lot of westerners by the shyness. For example, in a party with my western friends, my Chinese friends usually stayed quiet and finally became very good listeners. And later, they would say: “OMG, I felt so nervous that everybody was so active, and I just looked at all you guys talking but had absolutely no idea about what to talk about!” “Your western friends are very nice, but I still feel there is a distance between us.”

Why so? The westerners also got very curious about why my Chinese friends weren’t talking with them or later on even totally stopped showing up. The reason might be the euphemism of Chinese nation again. If you have been to a Chinese party, you might find that Chinese often begin to know each without a word but a quiet smile, and it would take time to discover someone interesting by observing quietly and secretly. And if that goes well, there would be several rounds of slow and tentative conversations such as “Hi!” “Oh, is it your first time of being here?” “It’s cold outside…” and then they might start to penetrate in knowing names or other further information.

Obviously, the habit has successfully slowed down the speed of Chinese in making friends and made a party more like a meeting for introverts. But oppositely, westerners usually begin with direct self-introductions including their names and piles of questions, answers and laughter. And after a short communication, people would decide if they are really interested in each and want to continue the conversation. Such a difference between Chinese and westerners builds a natural barrier to the two people in getting to know each other.

Often Chinese think westerners are too blunt and fast in conversations and that makes them nervous. As a result, they would stay silent and enjoy listening to the words shooting among the westerners. And for westerners, Chinese are reacting way too slow and sometimes a bit weird, because they don’t have any idea that Chinese are actually slow in the regard. Anyways, I may describe the Chinese communication as a game of Tai Chi that takes both time and brain to discover, and western one as shooting a ball: direct and simple.

Apart from all the differences above, something bigger seemed to irk several of my western friends once. It was a home party for Chinese hotpot hosted by a Chinese girl who invited three of my German friends and I and about fifteen other Chinese students. And the weird thing was that there was almost no Chinese talking to the Germans or even me during the whole party, except a few that we had known for a long time.

My friends were so unhappy that all the Chinese seemed to enjoy the party closely but excluded them from their big group. It was really a bit embarrassing and hard to explain. But the reasons that I may come up with are firstly, Chinese are really kind hearted but sometimes very conservative in mingling with foreigners. Because in the eyes of a Chinese, foreigners are someone distinctively different and cannot be regarded as the same. Secondly, Chinese are rather modest in social communications, and rarely take steps first to approach others.

During the semester in the US, I found it rather interesting and challenging to discover the differences that hinder the communication between Chinese and western students. But while doing this, I do realize that it is almost impossible to list all the differences and reasons for we share completely different cultures and backgrounds. Furthermore, as a Chinese, I would recommend my fellows to be more daring and direct in social activities so as to make more friends and fully enjoy the life in the US.
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