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Culture Focus

My American Mistakes

Illustration Credit: Margot Whipps

As a Chinese student who has lived in the US for four years, I still cannot forget some mistakes that I made when I first got here. Cultural shock is the most challenging thing that every new international student needs to get over, but moody days will fade away as long as students get familiar with local customs. However, as a newbie in America at that time, I had to learn my lesson in a hard way. 

The American Politeness

I was struggling with how to make myself sound more polite in my first a couple of days in America because I felt that people gave me an attitude after I asked them a question. It first happened when I was asking a person for directions at the airport. At that time, I went straight up to a counterwoman without greeting and said: “how do I go to the terminal 3?” She looked at me and did not answer my question, but just repeated it in a satirical tone. I froze for a second, and I followed up with another sentence, “Please tell me how to go there.” She finally pointed out the direction with an unwilling attitude. I started to question whether I was being rude, but I could not figure out how I acted rudely in this short period of time. Before I left, I spent all my strength to emphasize “so” in my ending sentence “thank you so much!” 

Was I rude? I kept questioning myself in the next couple of days because I felt people’s unwillingness to answer my questions. The question remained unanswered until the day that I was waiting in line in Temple’s dining hall. I heard my friend, who had lived in the US for a long time, say,  “Can I get pork and veggies?” to the server. I suddenly realized why I sounded rude. Saying “can I,” or “could I,” at the beginning of the sentence does sound more soft and polite.  

The American “Nice”  

I believe most Chinese students have heard that American culture is very straightforward and that people will express their feelings directly without too many flowery words. However, after I came here, I found this statement is not quite accurate when it comes to meeting new people.

The big mistake that I made was that I was too honest about everything because I thought that is American culture. I remember the first time that I dined in with my new American roommates. They brought me to Chipotle and ate their favorite salad. They asked me with enthusiasm, “How do you like it?” 

I reminded myself that I needed to tell them my true feelings, so I straightforwardly said, “It’s not good.” 

When I think back to that moment now, I can tell how disappointing it must have been for them. Even though Americans are free to express their minds and do not hide their feelings, most of them will do so in a positive, enthusiastic, and nice manner to people who they first meet. Therefore, American straightforwardness shares a distinct definition in my personal dictionary.


I used to have a fantasy that I would make tons of American friends after I come to the US, and I would not have any cultural shock because of my excellent adaptability. However, the reality is more drastic than what I imagined. The hardest transition for me was to get used to my social status’ shift from majority to minority. I am from the major group back in China, which means I share similar habits and commonly accepted ideas with the majority of people in China. No one has ever judged my race, style, and personality. 

Once I came here, things became very different. There are only 5.6% of Asian people in the US, and I am not from the majority anymore. Aside from the most basic things, such as eating habits and common ideas, I do not even look the same as most of the people out there. I remember the first day that I was sitting in the classroom, I was the only Asian student in the whole class. It was so overwhelming, and I felt fearful and helpless. 

Learning visible customs is very fast, but truly getting used to the environment and accepting your status change takes much longer. Regarding this point, I am wordless when it comes to providing tips, and the best suggestion I can provide is to psychologically prepare for your status shift. It is very different and you may receive harm from outside.    

Living in a different country alone is hard for everyone. Challenges are everywhere. I hope every international student can encourage themselves more and be brave for everything. I also hope other people can treat new international students nicely and be more tolerant. New international students may look like a “freak” because they have not adjusted to local culture yet, but please give them more time and patience if you know someone is a newbie in this country.