Learning Customs Isn’t as Quick as a Wink, Foreign Students Write

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Learning English was relatively easy for Edward (Te-Lung) Chang. But the Taiwanese-born student needed six months to master the American wink.

Chang wrote about his difficulties in an English-as-a-second-language class at Pasadena City College. His essay and those of dozens of his fellow students were recently published in a book called “The American Experience: A Foreign Student Guide” from Star Publishing of Belmont, Calif.

Mastering an unfamiliar language has its pitfalls, Chang notes, citing a fellow foreign student who evoked snickers from his American audience when he pronounced election as erection. But for people who are new to the United States, nonverbal English and other cultural subtleties can be even tougher to learn.


For months, Chang couldn’t figure out what a wink meant or even when it would occur. “The first person to wink at me was a female cashier at my college; the next one was a female classmate; but when the next one came from a male instructor, I was thoroughly confused.”

Chang finally asked one of his American professors what all this winking was about. “She told me she had not noticed that anyone ever winked that much, and then she too winked at me,” he recalls. “I knew that I was beginning to adapt to American culture the other day when a friend of mine who had just arrived from Taiwan asked me why I had just winked at him.”

As teacher and editor Karen M. Holgerson, 45, explained, the 49 essays in the book show American life through the eyes of people confronting its intricacies for the first time. All the contributors were recent immigrants or foreign students studying at PCC. Their work reveals some of the hidden values and perspectives of their native cultures and, at the same time, sheds light on American cultural practices and biases that many native-born Americans are all but unaware of.

The published essays were edited to correct grammar, spelling and the like, but the content is entirely the students’, Holgerson said.

In Holgerson’s view, cross-cultural communication is often hampered by the assumption that we are all alike.

“The fact is that people of different cultures have different ideas,” Holgerson said. “They perceive and react to the world in different ways. They can observe the same thing and not necessarily see the same thing. Most people, in fact, are blind to what makes their own culture and point of view unique and, consequently, find it difficult to pinpoint what foreigners would find difficult to understand or adapt to.”


A major purpose of the book, Holgerson said, is to help newcomers to the United States by telling them, in the accented voices of experience, what they can expect.

The first essay, by Jennifer Chang of Taiwan, reports her fresh-off-the-plane wonder at the ethnic diversity of an American airport. Instead of a waiting room full of the stereotyped blue-eyed, blond Americans she had anticipated, she saw people of every description. “Some people were amazingly tall; others were short even by Asian standards,” she notes. “In my country, people have a much more homogeneous look.”

Some of the essays deal with such practical issues as what to expect on a date, what to do if you are in an automobile accident and how to find a comfortable place to live.

In the matter of housing, Chi Leung of the People’s Republic of China and Tji Jong Ong of Indonesia warn that foreign students may feel isolated among American roommates and advise against settling in neighborhoods full of burglar-barred windows.

In the course of their essays, many of the students reveal how shocked they are by aspects of American culture.

Freedom of choice is one pervasive characteristic of the American experience that unsettles many of the students.


“Americans are free to select their own jobs, their own religions, their own life styles, no matter how strange, wrong, or illogical they might seem to others,” Cherry Lim Co of the Philippines explains. “Many of us will observe that Americans have too much freedom, yet many Americans complain they don’t have enough!”

American culture is viewed as downright boorish by some. Rosa Flores de Avila of Peru denounces the American tendency to shorten words. “Hippopotamus is hippo,” she notes. “In my opinion, an animal of that size must be called h-i-p-p-o-p-o-t-a-m-u-s.”

She also discusses another “very original” American custom she could obviously do without. “Sometimes I have been asked, ‘May I ask you a personal question?’ How could anyone say no, especially if one doesn’t know what the question is going to be? Then after this innocent introduction comes a question that I would not dare to ask even my own sister.”

Grilled Grandmothers

Holgerson, who has a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Minnesota, said she has been fascinated by other cultures since she was a child, when she grilled her Danish and Swedish grandmothers about their native lands over Thanksgiving dinner.

Now a doctoral candidate in international relations at the Claremont Graduate School, Holgerson first began asking her foreign-born students to write about the advantages and disadvantages of life in America about five years ago.

Turning Point

In the course of struggling with their essays, some students do more than perfect their English language skills, the teacher said. For some, the essays seem to become a rite of passage, a turning point in their transition from one culture to another.


Holgerson recalled the example of Kim Lang Pu, a sullen, unproductive presence in one of her classes. Holgerson called the young Cambodian woman into her office and warned her that she was on the verge of failing the course. The young woman became so angry, she hissed: “You’re just like all Americans. You’re so pleasant and smiling. You don’t know what it’s really like!”

The “it” that Holgerson didn’t understand was the hell Kim Lang Pu had endured under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The student was ultimately able to write a searing essay about the murder of her father, brothers and countless of her countrymen called “Dealing With Our Ghosts of the Past.”

In the process, her whole demeanor seemed to brighten.

“It was almost therapy for her,” Holgerson said.