Becoming a “friend” to an international student at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside is an opportunity for local families and individuals to learn and share history and culture. It means discovering differences and similarities in values and beliefs, hopes and ambitions. It is an opportunity to revive a family’s own experiences in Kenosha, Racine and Wisconsin and rediscover the value of things often taken for granted.
Through the International Friendship group, families, individuals & students can contribute in a small way to global understanding. At UW-Parkside, most Friendship members are from the Adventures of Lifelong Learning (ALL), an organization of active retired citizens.
Unfortunately, the lack of U.S. friends emerges as one of the most critical complaints voiced by international students. More importantly, making close friends across cultures can be a challenge. As one noted researcher explains, contact per se does not result in positive attitudes. What is necessary is intimate rather than casual contact. (Hull, 1978).
In intercultural friendships or cross-cultural encounters not only do the parties have a collision and intertwining of cultural differences, but there may be a discrepancy in the definition of friendship itself. Over the last few years, families and students have asked for some guidance in cultivating and navigating through their intercultural friendships. With this in mind, it is the intent of this document to explore the nature of these cross-cultural encounters: to provide information; increase understanding & communication; and provide some guidelines to assist families and students to survive these encounters.
In order to understand some of the challenges of being an international student, let's further define some terms.
Family in the US: Traditional/Non-traditional families.
In American traditional terms, a family refers to a father a mother and their children or a nuclear family. The family is a small group of people not an extended family. Grandparents, aunts, cousins are considered the “relatives.”
More recently, due to changes in American society, a traditional male-dominated family is less evident. There are more and more households where both parents work and where dads take care of children & household responsibilities. There are more single parent families where there is only one parent and teenagers usually work outside the home. It’s also common to find couples who are not married, married women having children and ‘blended families” or a man, woman, and both children from previous marriages. (American Ways, by Gary Althen).
Non US Family:
In some countries, in addition to a nuclear family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and others are also labeled “family”.
Friendship in the US: A friend is used “to describe a variety of relationships ranging from short-term superficial ones to long-standing ones to which the persons involved are deeply committed (Matthews, 1986, pg. 11). Casual friends or acquaintances are bonded together by sociability and close friends are more intimate and closed to the outside world. Friendship in the U.S. is not formalized, it is voluntaristic, there are no friendship rituals or ceremonies and obligations are ambiguous and merely implied (Bell, 1981, p.12). Also, friendship in the U.S. tends to be more based on different areas of life that are clearly separated and relationships are based on interests.
Friendship - An International Student Perspective:
The definition of friendship varies from culture to culture with respect to spread, obligation, duration and mutual trust (Fahrlander, 1980, p.16). In non-western societies, friendship carries with it a social rituals, public ceremonies, behavioral norms and a well-developed set of obligations (Rubin, 1985, pp.4,8,199). In some countries, “friendships flower more slowly but then become lifelong attachments, with mutual obligations, extending sometimes deeply into both families”. Living in the U.S.A. (p.64).
For example, among the Bangwa people of Cameroon, in a custom like… arranged marriages, children are given a best friend by their parents and the friends then assume lifelong commitments and obligations to each other.
For Germans, “relationships are seen more holistically, trying to base friendship more on character than interests and preferring a slower pace and a longer observation period.” Germans are “frequently frustrated by the hurried pace of American social gatherings and being so quickly labeled according to their occupation or interests (Kalberg, 1987, pp 612-614).
A Chinese Student from Taipei, Chiu-Mei reports that a friend is someone who “can share the feeling,” including secrets. Accepting “the whole of them”, strengths and weaknesses without wanting to change them. Get together with them to “share the work experience, the feeling experience, your future plans, and share the personal thinking, and personal secret. Also, they have common interest in movies, books and art. Chiu-Mei reports that opportunities to form friendships are lacking (in the U.S.) She states, “I don’t have a chance. Everybody just in class… and when the class is over, everybody just say “bye-bye. Seldom to have a chance to make a close…….”(Gareis. p.117).
At the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, due to the nature of the student body which is largely composed of commuter students, the environment itself may limit friendships opportunities. Thus, careful cultivation of friendship opportunities is crucial.