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GOINGS-ON | Bridging the gap: How to forge intercultural friendship on campus

09 January 2018 | By Zhang Jingru, Ma Yijia, Han Yiyuan and Zhou Jiawen | Copyedited by Gu Yiqing

  • Intercultural Friendship

    International students at Shanghai International Studies university.


very Tuesday evening is Ons Mlayel’s favorite moment during a whole week. She would go to D-like dancing club, where she can communicate with her Chinese friends through dancing.

Having been away from her hometown in Tunisia, Ons now finds it easier to make a local friend in Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), where she is pursuing her exchange study. “But at the beginning,” she said, “it was a tough task.”

Clubs and activities on campus can provide good opportunities for students to meet friends. However, for international students, where and how to get the information is not easy.

“I expected that there would be more international students in the club,” Ons said. “But it turns out that I am the only one.”

Ons is not a sole case. The difficulty of forging intercultural friendship can be seen all over the world. The Journal of International and Intercultural Communication recently published a study done in the United States. It shows that international students are more likely to be happy with their friends from the same country or state. According to the study, 38% of them said they have no close friends in the foreign country where they are studying.

Half of them said they were unhappy with the number of local friends they had. Professor Elisabeth Gareis of Baruch College in New York says 30 percent wished their friendships could be deeper and more meaningful.

SISU now has 1,357 exchanged students from more than 90 countries. Classes are great places for them to find local friends, but most of them feel that two or three hours’ classes a week are inadequate for them to forge deeper friendship.

The core issue here, the study found, is that international students have different cultural backgrounds. However, on the way of breaking the culture barrier, they also meet problems.

“Language problem hinders them first,” said professor Gareis, “The lack of social skills, such as small talk, also makes it hard to initiate intercultural friendships."

Wang Yifeng, a master student majoring in Intercultural Communication at SISU, did her own research to find out how conversation on cultural backgrounds between international and local students can help them get close to each other. More than 100 students, about half of whom were exchange students, took part in.

About 60% of the international students said they feel better after they once managed to talk with Chinese friends, despite of their language problems.

Ons still remember when Sun first waved to her and said “hi”, after which they became training partner. “Every Tuesday night is fantastic because I can talk to Sun and learn some Chinese,” Ons said. “Time just flies when we are together.”

“What is your embarrassment?” When asked about this question, Ons shared her experience of misusing words with the same pronunciation in Chinese. Majoring in TCSL (Teaching Chinese as a Second Language), Sun introduced useful idioms as well as some network catchwords to Ons. “Sun is like my private tutor,” Ons said.

Apart from language barrier, the impact of geopolitical tensions on interpersonal relations cannot be ignored, Wang’s study suggests.

“Conflicting views of international political and social situation can sometimes lead to intense hostility between international and local students,” said Panggih, an exchange student majoring in international relationship. “So, international students perform more careful while making friends in the host country.”

Panggih is from Indonesia, a country south to China. Raised from a big family, he features the ability to lighten the atmosphere.

“But in an unfamiliar environment, I am inclined to be more serious,” he said and frowned. Before coming to China, Panggih has read hundreds of websites and guidance books including the Lonely Planet, which introduced not only the basic living information but also some culture customs and traditions.

“Making a friend here is quite different from which back at home,” Panggih said. “Even choosing a gift to a Chinese friend can be hard because something normal for us might seemed weird or even impolite for Chinese friends.”

In one club, local students can do more job helping them integrate. “We actually learn from each other,” Wan Jian said. He knew Panggih a few months ago and they developed a deep friendship starting with talking about some cultural knowledge.

When coming across a custom informing not to send a clock to a Chinese friend, Wan told Panggih about the pun in Chinese characters. “Cultural awareness is like water and air for the cross-cultural friendship,” he said.

Now at SISU, many international students are on short-term exchange programs, usually for one semester. They said their dreams of becoming intimate friends with Chinese students were harder to realize because of the time limitation. “It can take a year or more to develop close friendships,” said Daphen Manon van Tongeren, an exchange student from Netherland.

A study conducted in Australia advisory council, an international education strategy center, shows that coming together with other students around a common activity or interest can do much help.

“In this kind of setting, friendships tend to happen more organically, without feeling forced,” said one council student officer.

“My foreign friends on campus always tell me that they want to join us,” said Chen Mengjiao, the student chair of Heluo Culture Exchange Club at SISU. “It will be great if they can join us and share those fantastic experiences with us.”

Students from campus clubs also gave a couple of suggestions to keep in back pocket when cross-cultural friendship happens, including:

1.     Recommend involvement: When it comes to making friends, there is simply no substitute for coming together with other students around a common activity or interest.

2.    Encourage balance: College is a time of all new experiences, including the opportunity to manage time and priorities. Balancing time in library and in social activities can be challenging, but it's important.

3.    Seek out multicultural resources: Find lectures, seminars, and social events on cross-cultural knowledge that offer a great way for international students to connect with lcoal students.

Now at SISU, the Students' Union and International Student Office are working on establishing a platform for sharing and exchanging information of campus events, seeking out more multicultural resources for both Chinese and international students.


Press Contact

SISU News Center, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Tel : +86 (21) 3537 2378

Email :

Address :550 Dalian Road (W), Shanghai 200083, China

Further Reading