Crossing cultural borders

Toshiki Nakamura, a freshman English as a Second Language major from Japan, laughs with friends in the Kent State International Mentors program before KSIM’s India night in the Williamson Alumni Center on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014.

Danielle Hess

Chinese exchange student Yiming Li began his junior year of college on the opposite side of the world from where he grew up. Li, an aeronautics major whose university in China partners with Kent State, came to the United States prepared with an American name: Ian.

“At 12 years old, I had a teacher who started calling me Ian because the pronunciation of ‘Yiming’ sounds similar,” Li said, referring to an English-speaking teacher who first gave him the nickname.

Kent State’s Asian international students often find themselves adjusting to an entirely new culture. Switching to the English alphabet, mastering the American public transportation system and remembering to use different units of measurement are only a few of the cultural disparities they encounter in the U.S.

Li said for him, language and cultural barriers have created an obstacle in integrating into American culture.

“Your friendship circles have just disappeared,” Li said. “You have to build a new social group, and that can really be a challenge with language and cultural differences. But I’m hoping I’ll make more friends as I go on with my schooling here.”

Although Kent State’s international student population is comprised of students from all over the world, students from Asian countries compose more than half of the international student body, with Chinese students representing the largest group, said Desnee Stevens, assistant director of international student and scholar services at the Office of Global Education.

Many Chinese students choose Kent State for the opportunity to study business and learn English at the same time, Stevens said.

“We have a large number of Chinese students who come here to study business,” she said. “To be competitive in a global economy, you have to know English, so many students attend universities in the United States.”

Moving to a new country and attending a new school can pose a variety of challenges for international students, but many have found support and built friendships through the programs and organizations Kent State offers.

Haruka Takabayashi, a junior from Japan and secretary of Kent State International Mentors, said joining the group, which pairs international students with domestic student mentors, improved her understanding of American language and culture.

“I lived on campus with American roommates for two years, joined a couple of organizations to meet new friends and didn’t hesitate to talk with my professors during their office hours,” Takabayashi said. “My mentor from Kent State International Mentors helped me out a lot by teaching me American customs and hanging out with me.”

Takabayashi said her mentor graduated, but they still keep in touch.

Mai Hattori, a freshman from Japan majoring in business, said she joined the KSIM to better understand English and make American friends.

“Americans smile more than people in Japan do,” Hattori said. “They try listening to me and try understanding me, and in Japan, people are more shy and don’t really want to talk to strangers who don’t speak Japanese.”

Hattori said although friendly Americans have welcomed her, she’s still self-conscious about her command of the English language.

“My biggest challenge so far is trying to talk to my professors in class because I’m not very confident in my English,” she said.


Takabayashi said even though she’s lived in Ohio since 2012, she still feels like she’s adjusting to American culture. While growing up in Japan, she expected instruction and organization in school and in social life, but soon realized Americans tend to be more relaxed and spontaneous.

“People in Japan like to be very organized when we plan something,” Takabayashi said. “We have to have plan A and B, and maybe C…I want to know what I need to do and what I should expect in advance, so I don’t feel comfortable having American style.”

Although the cultural differences create challenges for Chinese students in the U.S., Li said he enjoys learning about American customs as well as meeting international students with other cultural traditions.

“The best part about coming to an American school is being able to meet other international students from other countries,” Li said. “I can talk to them in classes we have together, and learn more about their background and where they’re from. That’s the most attractive part of my new school life, and I love it very much.”

All three students said they have had their ups and downs during their time at Kent State, but they are embracing the challenges and treating each hurdle as an opportunity to grow.

“I’m trying to be positive and optimistic, and not let small things get to me,” Hattori said. “Americans are so dynamic, and I am more shy, so I’m trying to make more friends and become more confident in my English.”

Contact Danielle Hess at [email protected].