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USC offers America 101 for foreign students

The topic was baseball and the class members, foreign graduate students recently arrived in the United States to attend USC, were befuddled.

Not only were they struggling to follow the instructor’s litany of batting and pitching rules, they were mystified by the title of the hallowed championship games. Why is it called the World Series, one Chinese student wondered aloud, if all the teams in it are from North America?

Instructor Edward Roth was both taken aback and pleased. The grandiose title might reflect America’s arrogance about its national pastime, he acknowledged, but he also praised the question. It reflected the type of cross-cultural debate he encourages in a course aimed at helping these newcomers from overseas adjust to life in Los Angeles.

Then Roth reeled off some American sayings that spring from baseball: Step up to the plate. Knock it out of the park. Get your bases covered. Don’t drop the ball.

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“These are very useful English phrases and we use them quite a bit,” he said. The 17 students, mainly master’s degree candidates from China, dutifully took notes.

Called “The United States: An American Culture Series,” the USC class is an unusual semester-long effort by the university to help its international students learn about the strange food, difficult idioms and bewildering customs that surround them.

To succeed academically, the theory goes, foreign students must also adjust culturally and socially to their new surroundings. So in Roth’s class and four similar courses by other teachers, these are some of the topics: What are tailgate parties? What are baby vegetables? To whom should you give Christmas gifts? Is it an insult to call someone a couch potato? When should you call police in emergencies?

By semester’s end, Jingjie “Ginger” Li, 22, a Chinese graduate student who is studying public administration, said she felt could interact more easily with Americans. “Everybody from outside the country gets culture shock and needs to get over that,” said Li. The USC course, she said, gave her topics for conversations with American classmates and, more important, “taught us to express your own opinion.”

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After Roth’s lecture about sports, Li attended a USC football game and enjoyed it, even though she did not understand much of what happened on the field. “It makes you feel that you are a member of USC, and I was proud of that,” she said.

The university has reason to offer the free, non-credit courses in American culture. For the eighth consecutive year, USC last year enrolled the largest contingent of foreign students of any U.S. university: more than 7,500, or about a fifth of its enrollment. Final numbers for the current school year are expected to be even higher, with India the largest exporter of students to USC and the People’s Republic of China second and growing fast, officials report.

The university has recruitment offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo, as well as in Mexico City, and it holds numerous events for prospective engineering students in India. It also has a network of 19 international alumni clubs, 16 of which are in Asia.

The culture courses began as an experiment last year with one section each semester and were expanded this fall to five sections, each meeting for two hours once a week for 12 weeks. Field trips took students to downtown Los Angeles, the California African American Museum, the Getty Center and, for gourmet tourism, an In-N-Out Burger drive-in. Total enrollment was about 60, mainly Chinese students with a sprinkling from India, Pakistan and Turkey.

Many universities offer one- or two-day orientations for foreign students at the beginning of the school year. But experts say it is rare for schools to provide courses that last beyond the initial culture shock.

“It’s a very good thing that USC does this, and I hope many more schools will copy it,” said Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that runs many overseas and exchange programs.

At USC, part of the goal is to ease international students’ isolation. Some say they feel trapped by their heavy academic loads, strong accents, shyness and cultural confusion, while an alien universe of parties, study groups and romances swirls about them.

Ironically, it can also be tough for many Chinese and Indian students to break out of their own national circles at USC because those groups are so large and are concentrated in engineering programs.

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Broadening their social experience “is a constant struggle,” said USC orientation official Chrissy Roth (no relation to Edward Roth), who helped start the classes. “Hopefully, this class contributes to them meeting new people.”

Electrical engineering student Fang Li, who adopted the name Jason in honor of NBA star Jason Williams, said he was homesick his first few weeks at USC. He disliked American foods, except for turkey sandwiches and coffee, and lost weight. Now he is feeling better, partly because the American culture class “helped me adjust more quickly,” said Li, 23.

Still, he has yet to make strong friendships with Americans, he said. He hopes to widen his circle soon and “become more familiar with the way American people think and the way they live.”

Edward Roth, who also heads USC’s programs for disabled students and has taught English as a second language, said he empathizes with the foreigners because he was once an exchange student in rural Japan. An athletic man who enunciates with care when speaking to the students, Roth said he wanted them to see his class as a haven.

“It’s very helpful for them to share experiences they are having and to know they are not the only one going through this kind of thing,” said Roth. He urged them to join campus clubs and volunteer efforts.

For an American visitor to Roth’s class over the semester, there were constant reminders of how much we take for granted in customs, speech and ways of thinking.

In an early class, a campus police officer gave security tips, instructing the newcomers to lock up their bicycles and apartments and telling them how to deal with emergencies. One student announced that he already had lost money to an Internet fraud. “Be very, very careful,” Roth said. “Live life and enjoy it but don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation.”

In a subsequent session, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas rituals were detailed to people who had never gone trick-or-treating, tasted pumpkin pie or been to a church. With the Halloween parade in West Hollywood at hand, talk turned to the large gay community in the area. Some Chinese students expressed surprise at the comparatively open homosexuality in the U.S.; others later attended the parade and said they had fun.

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“I think it’s great,” said Lena Wang, 22, who is working on a master’s degree in teaching English. “Nowhere else in the world can you do such crazy things. It can never happen in China.” The biggest difference she sees between the two countries is America’s individualism, compared to China’s emphasis on the communal, she said.

She and most other class members said they were shocked, however, by the heavy drinking and partying among some USC undergraduates.

The class explored mass transit and downtown landmarks, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall. On another day, their visit to the California African American Museum elicited mixed response. Because most did not know the U.S. military had been racially segregated, they were puzzled by a display about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in World War II. But they appeared fascinated by an 1857 bill of sale of a slave woman, which triggered discussion about serfdom in China’s history.

A final class delved again into idioms, with Roth using anecdotes to illustrate the meanings for “beat around the bush,” “grab a bite,” “bent out of shape” and others.

For “head honcho,” he asked the class to name the person who fills that position in the U.S. The students replied, “Barack Obama” and then one asked Roth to name China’s head honcho. The teacher hesitated, then asked for a hint and, given an H, correctly answered: Hu Jintao. The class murmured approval, knowing that many Americans would not have been able to answer.

As the class wrapped up, some students were planning to use winter break to explore Los Angeles and beyond.

Guolin Meng, 23, an electrical engineering student, said he was heading on a U.S.-style road trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Meng likes to be called “Fred,” short for freedom, he said, and appears to have embraced at least one American ideal.

“With freedom, you can do whatever you want,” he said.

larry.gordon@latimes.com


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