The Best Advice I Ever Got for Writing in English: ‘Treat the Professors Like Idiots’

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.

When this is all you want, and you can't remember the word for it
When this is all you want, and you can’t remember the word for it

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.

What a small, discussion-based class might look like (Creative Commons Photo: Marcos Ojeda)

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.

[More about surviving academics in English]

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.

[10 additional ways academics in the US are different]

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.

[Tips for fitting English and TOEFL practice into daily life]

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

Silliman Dining Hall - by Flickr user superfem
My textbook! (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user superfem)

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.



  1. I know it’s probably a little late to be writing a reply to this post, but as an American high-school senior seriously considering a career in writing but also harboring a desire to be immersed in a myriad of various languages and cultures, I can honestly say that nothing I have ever read has ever so effectively sparked my interest and curiosity for the world of ideas outside the English language than this blog post. What I found most thought-provoking was that which you said about the Chinese style of writing, the “leaving of space for the reconstruction of our words”. It had never fully occurred to me that speakers of such a drastically different language from such a drastically different country could have such a drastically different approach to writing, and henceforth (I would assume) such drastically different (yet equally relevant) philosophies and ideas. And it is at this realization I am struck with the fear that what seems to be such an intriguing world of unique and compelling ideas could be forever locked away from me by the great obstacle commonly referred to as the language barrier. I found that my intellectually-thirsty mind held no greater a fear than to be a prisoner to the Tower of Babel. Having learned such about myself, I now feel a compulsion stronger than ever to absorb all I can of foreign language, culture, and ideology, and thus I am compelled to inquire in regards to certain aspects of the modicum of insight into Chinese culture which stood out to me in your blog post – and there’s no way to tell you how much your honest response to these inquiries would be appreciated. Firstly, I would like to ask you if you have any opinions/theories/insights as to why the Chinese culture would tend towards literature containing more implicit messages as opposed to the explicit messages of American literature – is it because the Chinese language is (and this could be wrong as I know nothing of the Chinese language) less extensive than the English, or that the Chinese have a more genuine desire to be intellectually involved in what they read, or even that they simply do not enjoy reading detail nor going into it? Secondly, I’m curious in regards to your allusion to a tenet of Kung-Fu. As you probably well know, American stereotypes commonly associate anything and anyone oriental with the martial arts. Though I make it a point to never allow any of these stereotypes to effect my reasoning, the aptitude with which you make a reference to Kung Fu in a written work concerning a subject entirely different from martial arts suggests that such martial arts could actually be as integral to your culture as stereotypes would suggest, and I would very much appreciate it if you could either confirm or disconfirm this conclusion. Thank you for your time and I’m really sorry for such a long reply to your post, but for some reason my mind can’t leave well enough alone and thus I’m writing this hoping you’ll respond – Thanks again!

  2. Hi Sunny,

    You remind me about an article that taught me the similar things. It said that the best way to write a thesis is to let those not well educated to fully understand what you wrote.

    Your experience is truly interesting and helpful. Looking forward to read these type of posts.
    Btw i’m a chinese from Malaysia.

    1. Hi! I’m Amy from South Korea.
      I’m 16 year-old and female.
      The reason why I’m writing a message to you is because I want to make Chinese Friends.I’m learning Chinese in a class and I’d like to make Chinese friends just like you! If you want, I can teach you Korean. for this, you can enjoy K-pop!
      So if you want to contact me please send me a friend request via Facebook:Amy ilwoo

  3. Exactly! My original message was also to pretend to teach readers about something when writing an essay. However, my TA’s comment “treat your professor like idiots” is exaggeratively true to me. Thanks for your comment!

  4. The advice to treat your professor as an idiot is mostly a sound idea. The professor is, of course, not an idiot, but one who looks to be able to evaluate your understanding of a subject from your writing. If you leave a lot of conclusions unexpressed or leave them seeming to be ignored, the professor will not know what you know.

    I found in my academic writing that it was best to pretend I was teaching the reader about the subject. That always gave me an incentive to be more clearly expressed.

  5. Hi, I may be the late-est person to know about this amazing website. I am too such a mess in learning English language. I am from Malaysia and still living in Malaysia. I am coming from a family who only speaks Malay and English is a alien language for us but then thanks to tele, the language is not an alien language anymore.

    When I managed to get an offer from local university learning English language with Communication, I am so very pleased. I do and I am grateful for that opportunity, but then when I was in the class, I have problem conversing using English language but then when I am no longer study in university, I have problem in conversation using English language. All I can do is writing. Writing in English but sometimes, the reality is we are not using words to converse. We speak.

    But then, my point is, whatever it is, as for second language user, learning the language itself is a process that never stopped. Never. We need to improve ourselves in many ways and we have to choose the best way to learn English language.

    Personally, I love reading your writing here.I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you.

    1. Yes what you pointed out is very true. I also feel that learning a language is always an on-going thing, We can learn English basically from everywhere at anytime as long as we pay attention and make efforts! Good luck and thanks for your encouragement!!

  6. This was a very well written and insightful article and you deserve to be very proud of your accomplishments both as a language student but also as a communicator regardless of what language you are using to do it.

    Just to comment on another post-

    It is precisely because they *do* apply critical thinking skills to what they read that most Americans tend to prefer that writing be more direct and thoroughly expository, and not dependent on the reader bringing anything to it but an open mind.

    Americans are culturally predisposed to be skeptical of non-fiction writing- especially journalism- that takes anything but a very straightforward and objective approach, and many of America’s best loved and most representative fiction writers like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck are known for their masterful ability to use very simple and honest prose to present very complex ideas .

    To use a common American phrase, they “tell it like it is” and in the end still require the reader to interpret what the intended message is…but Americans want to do that after getting all the facts in as plain and unvarnished a manner as they can, and tend to see any room left for interpretation in the original presentation as something to be concerned about, since that kind of vagueness is often used to justify all manner of tricks and scams.

    We are at out core a nation of frontier dwelling pioneers, and people like that are generally not impressed by anything but straight talk and direct action and as a practical matter cannot afford to be hornswoggled or bamboozled by fancy talk.

  7. Hi,Sunny
    I definately agree with your post.I’m from Korea and planning to go America.
    I have many freind that they failed their life in America(they went a broad for a years)
    They didn’y get anything from their broad.
    So, I’m wondering that can you tell me more in details about your life in America and how did you study and success to speak English very fluent?
    I’ll wait for your reply.

  8. Hi Adele,

    Thanks for your comments! haha I am wondering how a professor feels reading this title…Best of luck with studying as an international student!!

  9. Hi Sunny,

    Great post!
    My Prof. shared this post with me and she told me she will use this in her class!

    I’m also a Chinese student and I went through the same situation. I really feel a connection from your post.

    I like the idea to learn vocabulary from the menus.
    Hope we can discuss more about how to improve English.



  10. Hi Sidney,

    Thanks for reading it and your compliments encourage me a lot!! What i think may be different from you. I feel that critical thinking is one of the most important things I have been learning from Americans—my classmates, friends, professors, etc. What makes Chinese and English writing different lies in the different ways in which ideas are made sense and explained to others. English academic writing tends to be more specific and rigidly structured, which makes people not familiar with an author’s background and assumption easier to follow the author’s logic. Chinese writing, on the other hand, calls for the cooperation of authors and readers to make sense, and therefore writers avoid throwing out everything in their logic directly. Your comments bring up interesting points. Thank you!

  11. Sunny,
    This was a terrific post…well written and very clear. First, we are glad you are here. People who come from different countries and cultures willing to work hard are what makes America great and unique. Second, you have already learned a big lesson…Americans, unlike Chinese, on the whole prefer to avoid critical thinking. This has significant implications for your writing in the future. Best of luck!

  12. Hi Sunny!

    Wonderful post! One of the things that happens to me is that it’s very different to talk to teenagers than to other people. I’m used to picking up teenage slang in my own language, but it’s very different in English. Most of my students at Susquehanna University are about 18 and the majority of my classmates is about 8 years younger than me, and I realized it’s more difficult for me to understand what they say. It might be related to the fact that they use language I don’t know or also to the fact that in class, they don’t tend to speak up. The thing is that forcing myself to participate of those conversations and asking my students and classmates for some help as well has made a huge difference in how I deal with the language.

    1. Hi Paula,

      Thanks for your comment! Yes that has been a problem for me as well. As an anthropology major, I learned a bit of how language is related to gender, age, etc. Teenagers definitely have their own lingo, and sometimes it extends beyond just words and has something to do with things like pop culture which seems obscured to outsiders. However, this doesn’t only happen to foreign languages. I remember talking to my younger sister at home back in China this past summer made me wonder whether she wasn’t talking in Chinese. Language evolves overtime, and generates gap between generations. I am looking forward to hearing more about your teaching experiences which quite fascinate me!


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