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Social support has been viewed as a major resource in the stress and coping literature and as a significant factor in predicting the psychological adjustment during cross-cultural transitions. Based on interview transcripts, for Chinese students, social support may arise from a variety of sources, including family, friends, church, and professional counseling.
Support from Family
Parents and family members are the most important resources for students when they are in crisis. When seeking help from others, Chinese international students tend to look first to their family. When ranking the four sources of support—family, friends, church, and professional counseling—most of the students identified family as the preferred help resource. This result reflects the Chinese cultural emphasis on family ties. Another factor accounting for their unwillingness to request outside help for emotional concerns might be the need to “save face” and preserve the family name.
Support from Friends
Conational Support (Support from the Chinese Student Community)
When it comes to conational support—support from fellow citizens from the same home country, in this case, the Chinese student community—participants indicated that conationals provide necessary support when needed, but these relationships tend to contribute to the Chinese students’ social isolation from American society and culture. On one hand, the interviews indicate that Chinese friends not only offer knowledge-based resources and share information about coping with a new environment but also provide emotional support. Because most Chinese students have experienced varieties of stress in the American educational settings, conational friends are an important source of emotional support. Although Chinese students do not usually or easily reveal their thoughts and feelings to others, it is not uncommon for them to share their sufferings or pressure. A male computer science student confided:
To me, my [Chinese] friends here are the most preferred source of help for solving
adjustment problems. They not only give me lots of information about how to adjust to the new environment but also encourage me when I am stressed, depressed, or frustrated. (Participant 15)
A political science student stated:
I need to feel I belong, especially on weekends. Walking home carrying my backpack, I saw cars passing by, each one loaded with American students laughing and screaming on their way to parties. I felt so sad. Then, three Chinese friends and I decided to get together every Friday night. Whenever I am with my [Chinese] friends, I am relaxed and happy. (Participant 3)
Although acknowledging that the cultural enclave enhances their psychological security, self-esteem, and sense of belonging, as well as alleviating their stress and anxiety, Chinese students also realize that dependence on their conationals pressures them to withdraw from social activities and thereby impedes their culture learning. An industrial engineering student complained:
Going abroad is supposed to provide an opportunity for broadening a person’s perspective; however, it turns out that most Chinese international students here confine their lives to a small circle of friends and activities. Frequently, we live in the same place for several years.
On campus, we meet the same people, say the same things, and buy the same things from the same stores. During holidays, the same friends take turns hosting get-togethers. (Participant 10)
A finance student added:
A small circle of Chinese friends is just like a besieged fortress. It seems no one inside the besieged fortress really cares what is going on outside. The monotony life within the circle makes what we are concerned with become increasingly trivial, such as how to get a good deal on eBay or Dealsea, who was supposed to host the dinner on the coming weekend, and the most important issue in life was how to get an H-1 visa or a green card. I feel I am becoming increasingly parochial, bored, and passive, when my social life is confined to two or three good friends. I want to escape this besieged fortress and have some real interactions with Americans. (Participant 16)
While they display a willingness to get to know more Americans and make friends, their actual behavior does not support such inclination. A sociology student said:
Somehow, I feel I need to make American friends, because I know the more I interact with Americans, the more I can learn about American society and culture; however, I only made the effort and took the initiative when I first got here. Later on, I went back to my small circle of Chinese friends again, since it is natural for people to take things easy and avoid difficult situations. Believe it or not, it is easier and more enjoyable to chat in your native language. (Participant 2)