This semester, one of my high-intensity STEM classes began with the elderly professor introducing himself before insisting that we treat him as a friend because he can “relate to us in more ways than we would imagine.” For the next twenty minutes, the class erupted into bouts of laughter as he pulled out his PowerPoint slides, not to teach, but to explain that he’s done drugs and has had multiple wives, and ergo, should be deemed “cool and hip” in our eyes.
Although perhaps not as dramatic and humorous, in many of my other classes and discussions, the semester starts in largely the same manner. The professors or GSIs introduce themselves, share personal details, make jokes and do what they can to create a sense of comfort and familiarity — a feeling that the teachers and students are equals.
This type of dynamic is what we’re all accustomed to here in the United States, so I often forget that in many other places, this isn’t the norm.
Although I’ve only lived overseas for a brief period, in the one year I attended school in China, I remember there being a clear distinction between the statuses of students and teachers.
Every morning, class would begin with the teacher’s greeting, to which the students responded with, “Good morning, teacher” in unison. Students only spoke in class when spoken to or called on; desks were almost always arranged in rows and columns to insinuate strict rules and expectations; and children are taught from a young age that their teachers deserve the utmost respect, only to be addressed with a series of specific mannerisms and speaking patterns.
When I returned to the U.S. after my year of school in China, I got to spend my days in elementary school doing arts and crafts, listening to stories and sometimes even playing on the playground with my teachers — an ever so extreme contrast to my days in Chinese elementary. There, we never even fathomed considering our teachers our friends, being used to only interacting with them during lectures and addressing them as superiors all of our lives.
This trend has even perpetuated into my time at UC Berkeley. In another class on my first day of the semester, a professor introduced herself by first name before proceeding to show us her entire collection of knitting, among which included sweaters with sleeves the length of scarves, four-fingered gloves and topless hats. She admitted to not being the best knitter, but at least the effort was there.
The vast difference demonstrates how social hierarchies often hold far greater weight in Asian cultures as compared to Western ones. And it applies not just in a classroom setting, but in the workforce as well.
For a while, one of my father’s favorite stories to tell was how he saw Larry Page not only get cut in line during lunch at the Google cafeteria but how Page sullenly allowed it to happen, as if he was afraid of receiving backlash. My father would always continue with a chuckle, telling us something like this could never happen in Asia.
Employees of lower status, he said, would rarely even get to be in the presence of a superior, much less see them in the cafeteria or have the opportunity to cut them in line. Second of all, superiors have far greater social influence, and subordinates will typically do everything in their power to suck up. Everybody knows and acknowledges their place in the social hierarchy and abides by the corresponding unspoken rules. These norms are instituted from primary school and carried through adulthood.
This great cultural difference, I believe, is also largely responsible for the difficult transition for international students, even at a diverse institution like UC Berkeley.
In one of my smaller classes here, where I helped translate for a student originally from China, she confided in me that her main struggle here isn’t even the language barrier but because she’s never sure how to conduct herself around her professors and GSIs. She told me that UC Berkeley offers some resources for English as a second language students, but only when she actively seeks them out — something incredibly difficult considering she struggles to even know where to start looking.
While discussion of Western and Eastern cultural differences is common today, an area rarely explored is how different education systems, coupled with different emphases on social hierarchy, affect our international students.
The woman I translated for had relied solely on notetaking during lectures in China, where she was expected to passively receive information and rarely have direct engagement with the teacher. As a result, she told me it was overwhelming to be expected to read slides, participate in discussions and talk to her professors as if they’re her equal here in America.
Over time, however, I think some international students may come to find that the American education system is both more surmountable and similar to the Chinese education system than it may initially appear. I had come to this conclusion myself as a child.
You may run into the occasional elderly yet still “cool and hip” professor or a crazy one who knits and insists that you refer to her by her first name. But hey, that’s what makes college fun.
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]