I will never forget my very first conversation with an American. He was an employee at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. I was a new arrival, highly exhausted after almost 20 hours of flight.
Upon landing I found myself overwhelmed by homesickness, and very badly wanted to find a telephone to call my parents. I went up to this man to ask for help, but blanked immediately after opening my mouth.
I did eventually ask for the phone and call my parents, but I was so frustrated by that experience. It was as if I had never learned English before! I was considered to be good at English in China, yet I almost felt the worker at the airport was talking to me in another language.
My mind was blown again when I ate at an American restaurant for the first time. I had no idea that most of the words I had learned for food were about fast food.
It is true that we international students take the TOEFL exam before coming to the U.S., and this exam seems well-balanced in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. But it still doesn’t fully prepare you for what it’s like to be immersed in a language.
Why academics turned out to be the biggest struggle
It was inside the classroom where I really had trouble at first. I could understand lectures for the most part, except for certain accents that I had not been exposed to before. However, participating in classroom discussion was very hard.
I was so shocked by my American classmates’ thought-provoking and nicely-phrased comments that I did not even try to speak out – not because of a lack of ideas, but because of a lack of confidence in my English. Since we have many interactive, small-sized classes at my school, not being able to participate in classroom discussions disappointed me very much.
Writing papers was also difficult, which was a problem because as a liberal arts major my life is always occupied with writing—lots and lots of writing. In my first semester, I would always receive comments on my papers like, “Try to be more clear (explicit),” no matter how clear and explicit I thought my papers were.
Treat the professors like idiots
I still remember when my TA (teaching assistant) finally figured out why I always thought my writing was clear while he did not. “You Chinese write in a subtle way compared to English writing, right?” he asked.
It made sense. My high school Chinese teacher always reminded us to not tell readers everything, but rather to leave space for their “reconstruction” of our words. This does not work in the U.S., where you are expected to be very explicit in making your arguments and not make assumptions without fully explaining them.
My TA told me (in a very blunt and funny way) to treat the professors like idiots, and explain everything very clearly to them in my essays. Since then I have kept in mind that my words should not let my readers’ brains work too much.
It is easier said than done, and I am still working on it, but I’m now getting through classes with no problem, and one of my professors even teased me, “How can you write so well? You are not even a native English speaker. That makes me so mad!”
Improving my vocabulary through conversation
In fact, things have changed greatly over the past year. I am now living happily in a house with three American girls, and communicating with them quite easily. And I even volunteered this year to help new international students adjust to living in an English-speaking country.
It wasn’t easy though – I put a lot of effort towards the improvement of my English.
I spent a good amount of spare time that first semester just chatting with American friends. I tried to focus on every word coming out of their mouths, and asked them whenever I could not understand something. I also attempted to make these informal conversations about American culture, which satisfied my thirst for cultural knowledge as well as vocabulary.
My vocabulary, especially colloquial words, began to grow as a result, which was very important, considering some American students told me that the English I learned back home seemed more formal than what people actually speak here.
Becoming a Kung fu master in English
I also developed a more unusual method for improving my vocabulary. I started collecting menus from different types of restaurants and using them as “textbooks.” This trick turned out to be very useful, since I learned not only the words on the menu but also the diversified American food culture.
It might sound a little weird, but I believe that one has to have his/her unique tricks, which is a tenet held by Chinese Kung fu masters.
The reason why I talk about all this is not to brag about my English – it still remains to be improved – but to show that all international students go through barriers during their first year here, and it’s only through hard work that they can be overcome.
This fall I found myself back at Dulles Airport, once again standing in the terminal and once again facing down airport employees. But this time I was waiting to meet the newly arrived international students, ready to help them get through their first conversation with an American.