Layers of culture, layers of learning

While we began Spring Semester discussing new professors and new classmates, 63 students are experiencing a transition from a foreign culture back to America’s culture. They studied abroad in Fall Semester, and it opened their eyes to new perspectives.

For some of them, studying abroad is even more than that.

“When I was in France, I represented both America and Vietnam,” junior Mai Doan, a four-year international student from Vietnam, said.

To complete a French minor, she studied at the American University Center of Provence in Aix, France, last fall.

Junior Cassie Kwon, a Korean-American born in Seattle, Wash., who studied abroad at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan, is another student who had a unique multicultural background before studying abroad.

“People in Japan greeted other girls that I was abroad with in English but greeted me in Japanese,” Kwon said. “I might integrate that culture more, but I definitely felt the wall between us.”

Junior Michele Wong studied abroad last fall at the Hong Kong Baptist University. She said she didn’t feel like she was living in a foreign country but rather a big U.S. city, such as San Francisco. She visited Hong Kong for two weeks when she was in high school, and her father is originally from Hong Kong.

Learning their languages

Not all the study abroad programs at Linfield have language course requirements, but learning the language of the country you’re visiting seems to be the best way to learn everything else.

Doan said she was already interested in the French language when she entered Linfield and that France has always been a place she has wanted to visit.

Kwon said she didn’t expect to learn and speak Japanese fluently, but Japanese has become her third language besides speaking Korean at home and English at school.

“It’s such a privilege to learn a language and know other languages; it’s so important to keep on top of that,” Kwon added. “A lot of people assume that because I speak Korean, Japanese comes naturally for me. But I only found these similarities as I was learning Japanese not [because] I already knew the similarities.”

Culture barriers

While learning the language is the first step to communicating well with locals, culture shock as another challenge that presents itself as students come down from their excitement of being tourists.

Wong said she was excited about everything during her first visit to Hong Kong in her senior year of high school, but studying abroad last fall let her tourist mood shift to that of a resident.

Kwon agreed. She said she took pictures of everything including each meal she had and shopping goods during the first month in Japan.

“I thought [going abroad in France] would be simple and easy as I already had study abroad experience at Linfield. But it’s not true,” Doan said. She has been to the U.S. since senior year of high school.

On the other hand, study abroad experiences let these girls understand the cultures they already hold onto.

Kwon said she realized her attachment to Korea didn’t mean that she is Korean.

“Even though I was in Korea, I was an overseas Korean,” she added.

For Doan, a third culture helps her open her mind, she said.

“[Before I studied abroad in France], I always kept my Vietnamese value and doubted U.S. value. I didn’t accept being an American but preferred Vietnamese food and boys,” she said. “French people helped me to push myself into French culture.”

Learning from cultural differences

Definitions of culture shock differ for everyone, but these three girls said they learned from the cultural differences they noticed.

Kwon said she was impressed by how locals taught her rules patiently. And she was able to learn more about the Japanese culture through her mistakes by getting in “trouble” and breaking the table manner rules.

Influenced by Korean custom, she said she thought she was an expert at using chopsticks. But when she and other Linfield students had a barbecue in Japan, she and another girl grabbed a piece of chicken with chopsticks at the same time and everyone froze. Later, a native Japanese explained that it’s unacceptable for two pairs of chopsticks to hold one piece of food.

Kwon also provided two other tips she learned in Japan: Don’t stick chopsticks in the rice bowl, and don’t ask to change orders in the restaurant because it means you are destroying the chef’s creation.

When she lived with a host family in France, Doan said she felt like she was a princess the first day she woke up. Her host mother cooked breakfast and took care of the laundry for her.

“These are things that even my mother won’t do for me. Being independent in America is what I learned [as an international student at Linfield], and I learned being interdependent from French culture,” Doan said.

Although Wong said she did know what she should have expected before going abroad, she was moved by how local students are tied to family, as she has many family members on her father’s side in Hong Kong.

Distinct changes

Besides the culture shock, Kwon said she noticed distinct changes in herself after she came back.

She said before going abroad, she knew she should practice her Korean and Japanese with some Korean and Japanese exchange students at Linfield, but she didn’t care at the time. She thought they came here to learn English, so she only spoke English with them.

“After going abroad, and I came back, I spoke Korean to Korean exchange students this year, and they spoke English to me — practice for both of us,” Kwon said.

Doan said she changed when her host family helped her embrace the French culture, which helped her loosen her grip on her American and Vietnamese identities.

Opening her mind to fully understand French culture, Doan plans to go to France for a master’s degree after she graduates from Linfield.

Wong also said she plans to go back to Hong Kong in the future because of the friends she made and family members.

by Jaffy Xiao/Features editor
Jaffy Xiao can be reached at

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