For foreign faculty, an adventurous path to NU

Years ago, two Norwich professors, despite coming from different countries, had a common dream. That dream is what brought them across the ocean, and made them settle in the United States.

“When I was young, I really wanted to go to Washington DC, study politics, and then go back to Korea and become a politician,” said Prof. Yangmo Ku, an assistant professor of political science. “As that time went by, that plan changed dramatically, and rather than go back I decided to stay here, study more, and eventually I became faculty.”

Alex Chung, an assistant professor of economics and finance from Taiwan, China, tells a similar story. He was just a young student when he made the same decision to undertake a study abroad experience in the USA.

“At the beginning I had no intention in staying here for a long time. I just wanted to get a master’s, work for a couple of years, and then go back to China,” Chung said. “In Taiwan you get more job possibilities if you studied in the United States, plus my entire family lived there.”

Among the faculty members at Norwich coming from different countries, many started as international students who then became permanent immigrants to the United States, thanks to study or work opportunities, according to Chung and Ku.

Often, when a person decides to study or work abroad for an extended period of time, she or he ends up remaining. Especially young people, once they reach the destination, often find good opportunities or reasons to stay, and end up planting roots.

However, it is never an easy decision to leave behind one’s home. “I was always in a half and half position. One part of me wanted to stay, because I knew this country would offer me many opportunities as a teacher. At the same time, I was not sure how I would fit in in the future,” said Min Li, an assistant professor of sociology from Shanghai, China. “I decided to focus on my studies before making a final decision, and after 10 years, my family moved here. I had a job, so we decided to simply stay here.”

The United States, not by chance, is known as the ‘Land of Opportunity,’ and several professors among the international community at NU have had a similar experience.

“As long as you study and work hard, you can always find your position, and the American Dream is actually a pursuable dream for those who put their hearts and souls in it,” Chung said.

Particularly in a teaching context, many of the faculty members coming from Asian countries seek a job in a less restrictive environment, like the American one.

“I just came here to get a master’s and then I found a job, so I stayed for a couple more years,” Chung said. “Then, without even taking my GRE (graduate record examination), I got offered a full scholarship for my PhD. I did not pay a dime for five years, and I had plenty of time for both my research studies and traveling around the States.”

Studying and finding a work place in a different country is an easy task compared to the challenge of starting a new life in a foreign country and, on top everything, adapting to a new culture and lifestyle, according to Chung and Ku.

“At the beginning I did experienced culture shock, since the two cultures and traditions (Chinese and American) are so different,” agreed Li.

Even the simplest actions, like formally introducing or getting to know someone new, can be hard when the background habits are based on different rules. Used to a more private and confidential lifestyle, Li was “shocked” when introduced for the first time to an Italian-American man, who automatically tried to hug her, Li explained.

“It came naturally to me to step back, I did not even think about it,” Li said. “It is not in the Chinese culture, at least not when I grow up. I would not even hug my husband in public space.”

Episodes like this are common to most of the foreigners, who, in spending time abroad, go through different phases of culture shock (defined as a feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes).

According to Ku, one of the hardest steps when living in a different country is learning to integrate yourself with new friends and a new lifestyle.

“It was not very hard for me to adapt to the American culture, but sometimes it was difficult to intermingle with the white students,” Ku said. “It is natural for the same ethnic groups to blend together. When I was a student, American students would rather spend time with other Americans instead of foreign students, so at the beginning it was hard for me to fit in.”

After 18 years in the States, Professor Ku is now used to the American lifestyle, but has struggled with the only “downside of the culture,” overcoming the ethnic divide.

“It is hard for Chinese people to get in the American ‘circle.’ Even though we can speak English, since we were not born here, we do not know how they have experienced their childhood, or high school,” Chung said. “Some ways, it is like there is no common language. They (are able to) speak more sensitive, more private issues, which is hard for us because we tend to be more private and closed.”

Cultural differences can be something that set people and groups apart, but, with patience and time, people can learn to accept other cultures’ habits and differences, and in the best cases, to adapt to them, the professors said.

“You are not here just to learn a culture; you are here also to adapt to that culture, and being part of it. You have to live, be part of the community,” Chung said. “Going on vacation for a limited time and actually living in a foreign country is completely different. The cultural difference is a reality, but if you do not dare to cross that barrier, your life is not going to be easy.”

Once they overcame the initial culture shock, most of the faculty members coming from foreign countries got used to and started to appreciate the positive aspects of American culture.

“Americans have a very high acceptance level compared to Europe. The United States are more of an immigrant country, they accept people who are willing to work hard and to contribute,” said Miri Kim, an assistant professor in the history and political science department at Norwich, who comes from Seoul, South Korea. In order to follow their dream career, and pursue a happy life in the States, these professors have learned, with the passing of the years, to combine cultural attitudes and customs of two nations.

“The more I stay here, the more I feel like I am part of this. My kids always remind me: ‘Mom, you are not American,’ but, to be honest, I started thinking and acting more closely to the American lifestyle,” said Li, who has already spent 30 years in the U.S.

The final step to overcome is becoming bi-cultural, which means being able to coexist maintaining both the primary culture and habits, and those assimilated in the new environment.

“I believe that what makes the United States great, is actually the presence of so many immigrants,” Chung said. “The uniqueness of the immigrants coming from different parts of the world make the United States different from the other countries.”

Before getting to the bi-cultural level, it is fundamental to first deal with ethnocentrism, which is learning to stop judging and evaluating other cultures based on your own preconceptions and customs.

“If you have intentions of staying here, in the American culture, you cannot insist on your culture,” Li said. “If you decide to come and live in a different country, you have no rights to complain or be disrespectful. If you do not like it, maybe you should go back.”

Studying, working, or moving abroad is not a simple decision, the professors note. It requires mental openness and strong will to insert yourself in a new environment and a new community.

“Studying abroad experiences and traveling across different parts of the world, is essential to broadening our perspectives,” Ku said. “My experience, both in Canada and the United States, changed my life dramatically. Without that, I would have not improved my language skills and learned how to overcome my fears. I would not be same person I am today.”

Many are the benefits related to traveling and exploring different places, especially in one’s youth. Among those, personal development, learning to be independent, and counting on yourself are very important, notes Kim.

“I think being exposed to different cultures and backgrounds, being able to travel, meeting a lot of people are all great opportunities you can only get by going abroad,” Kim said. “The world we live in is so interconnected, the more you can understand other people and cultures’ perspective, the more you will be better off.”

“Being able to broaden your perspective and adapting to a new culture means learning to appreciate other people, and embrace the world for its differences,” added Ku. “Traveling abroad is a very important part in our lives, and I strongly suggest our students, and other people, to try this kind of experience whenever they have the chance.”

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