When I first met Chulwoo Kim, we went to lunch at Taco Nazo, an Azusa Avenue mainstay known for Baja-style fish tacos. As Chulwoo's eyes communicated caveat emptor, I ordered two each. Our conversation began with me firing question after question, avoiding the silence awkward in any culture. What city are you from? Do you have brothers and sisters? What are you studying? Can you pass the napkins?
But it was not until we started talking baseball that Chulwoo’s eyes lit up. “Do you know BK?”
I knew who BK (Byung-Hyun Kim) was because he had nearly lost the 2001 World Series not once, not twice, but three times for the Diamondbacks, giving up a handful of home runs to Yankee batters. “Sure I do. The great Korean relief pitcher, right?” We talked baseball while finishing the world’s messiest tacos.
The second time we met, Chulwoo treated me to fish tacos. The chitchat started with me asking how his classes were going, him answering fine, and then switching gears quickly, asking if I saw Chan Ho Park pitch the night before on TV.
Baseball. We talked about baseball. We talked about the differences between Korean and American baseball; how in Korea, fans arrive early and stay late; how in Korea they serve rice and kimchi at the ballpark; and how in Korea they have “very pretty cheerleaders at the games.”
Jeanie Hartranft, instructor in APU’s American Language and Culture Institute (ALCI), saw an unhealthy pattern developing in the international students. She would assign them homework requiring her English as a Second Language (ESL) students to converse with American students. Hartranft was puzzled when the assignments came back unfinished. She asked her students what the problem was. “I found that communication between internationals and domestics was not occurring naturally, nor was it easy,” said Hartranft. “After finding that the only program on campus that encouraged interaction between the two groups had only eight American students signed up, I decided that another approach had to be taken.”
Enter the A.I.M. Program. The American International Mentoring Program matches international students with university students, faculty, and staff. These small groups provide internationals opportunities to interact with American students; opening up doors to the new culture in which they are submerged, while educating the American partner with a lesson in internationalization.
“Before A.I.M.’s proactive approach to cross-cultural friendship-building, these relationships were not generally occurring as widely or as deeply among students and scholars on campus,” said Michael Chamberlain, A.I.M. partner and ALCI special programs coordinator. “The result: segregated pockets of monocultural groups that did not benefit the community at large.”
"A.I.M. attempts to lessen the severity of culture shock experienced by international students. In this capacity, American students function as assets for newcomers, answering questions and being a personal resource."
A.I.M. Program participants, both international and American, reap benefits, a give-and-take opportunity to be mentored in the understanding of another culture.
My relationship with Chulwoo has deepened my perspective of an Eastern culture very different from my own. He practices his English while I learn the art of articulating obscure Americanism (e.g., holy-mackerel and tomāto-tomäto). He teaches me what it is like to be a believer in Korea; I tell him the American take on 9-11.
“My A.I.M. partner is like a sister,” said Elissa Wilson ’02. “She has been a true friend, who has taught me so much about generous giving. I have learned about the Chinese culture: how they value family and eating together, as well as their work ethic and generosity.”
A.I.M. attempts to lessen the severity of culture shock experienced by international students. In this capacity, American students function as assets for newcomers, answering questions and being a personal resource. Even with the help of a partner, the shock of entering a new country is very real.
“In this movement from a familiar to an unfamiliar environment, expected signs and symbols for relating to others are suddenly upset,” writes Jane Bennett in "Transition Shock: Putting Culture in Perspective." “These signs are the 1,001 ways we learn to conduct ourselves in everyday life: what to wear, what language to use, what to say when we meet people, how to signal for help, how to respond to strangers, and how to express emotion, just to name a few. These cues become as second nature to us as the language we speak, and are communicated among our own kind through an interconnected system of words, facial expressions, gestures, and habits. It is the cultural air we breathe. When we enter a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. We are like a fish out of water.”1
Many international students do not have the chance to begin friendships with American counterparts, let alone set foot in an American home while they study in the United States. The A.I.M. Program also exists to address this concern. When international students have a relationship with someone in the new culture, they have a connection, a scrap to call their own in the midst of the unfamiliar. Case in point: Kerri Fernsworth ’02.
Fernsworth was an A.I.M. partner with a Taiwanese student and knows firsthand the woes of culture shock. She studied in New Delhi, India the summer before her senior year, traveling alone to a faraway nation of close to a billion people. Her sojourn included a homestay with an Indian family. “Having someone know who I was, where I was, and truly care about me was comforting,” said Fernsworth. “It helped me understand the culture more. If I had questions or if I was confused about something, I could ask my cultural mentor. Having a person to go to made me feel safe and accepted.”
In many cases, A.I.M. partnerships are not limited to English language acquisition and easing culture shock. For some American partners, there is an opportunity to share the Gospel message to ears that have yet to hear it.
Lana Gray, M.A. ’02, a graduate of the Leadership Studies Program, was enthusiastic about her discipleship opportunity through the A.I.M. Program. Gray’s partner, Evelyn Huang, is Taiwanese and has a Buddhist background. Huang approached Gray during a class they shared, asking her to be her mentor. “Evelyn’s desire when we started meeting was to learn more about the Bible,” said Gray. “She came with wonderful questions and a sincere desire to explore who Jesus was and is.”
“Since I am a new Christian, Lana helps me a lot in explaining some stories and my questions about God and the Bible,” shared Huang, also a Leadership Studies student. “She encourages me so much in knowing about God, and she really helps me a lot as I grow as a Christian. I really appreciate that God let Lana walk into my life and become my mentor. I believe our relationship is building on trust. I trust her, and she also gives me support and encouragement when I share my feelings and questions. It is great that I can have her as my American mentor.”
Chulwoo and I are now two semesters into our relationship. The cultural exchange between us continues to focus on America’s pastime. We even went to a Dodger game – his first in the United States. In between our typical sports banter, I almost forget this guy is from Korea. And I am not sure, but I think he forgets he is 5,000 miles from home.
Posted: January 1, 2003