America 101 Many international students studying in the United States don't know when it's appropriate to say hello by giving a kiss on the cheek or using a handshake. Or what it is to "pig out" during dinner. Now, a University of California at Berkeley professor is offering a course to those students on how to decipher American culture. Reporter Lonny Shavelson went to the class.
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America 101

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America 101

America 101

America 101

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Many international students studying in the United States don't know when it's appropriate to say hello by giving a kiss on the cheek or using a handshake. Or what it is to "pig out" during dinner. Now, a University of California at Berkeley professor is offering a course to those students on how to decipher American culture. Reporter Lonny Shavelson went to the class.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Students from around the world flock to American universities. And while they're maybe at ease with complex mathematical theories, they are often bewildered by Americans. At the University of California at Berkeley foreign students make up so much of the student body - 60 percent of all post doctorates on campus - that Berkeley began a special course for them. It's called America 101, and the course explains us to them.

Lonny Shavelson sat in on a class.

LONNY SHAVELSON: In America 101 international students are perplexed. A German asks what it meant when an American friend invited him to dinner saying let's go pig out on Buffalo wings. Others want to know when to use a handshake, a hug, or a kiss on the cheek.

Professor BONU GHOSH (Director, English Studies Institute, University of California at Berkeley): Culture shock means you come into a new country and everything is different.

SHAVELSON: That's English Studies Institute director, Bonu Ghosh. She teaches this 10-week course intended to ease foreign students' feelings of isolation and alienation.

Prof. GHOSH: Very big kind of emotional roller coaster. We call it an emotional roller coaster. Any of you been to a roller coaster?

SHAVELSON: The students answered with silence. Ghosh can't tell if they've understood her or not, but she forges on.

Prof. GHOSH: Is it a bad thing? Is it impolite to say no?

Unidentified Woman: No.

Prof. GHOSH: It's absolutely necessary.

SHAVELSON: Students worldwide, from Israel to Kuwait to Uganda, agree that Americans comfort with a cool no is typical of our abrupt and direct style. But such directness makes many uncomfortable. Saffah Gasser(ph) is an electrical engineer from Egypt.

Ms. SAFFAH GASSER (Electrical Engineer): Sometimes I just get shocked when the answer is like strict and no. This is typically an American, you know, they don't get embarrassed.

SHAVELSON: America 101 course topics include restaurant protocol, telephone styles and the how-to of a firm handshake. Instructor Ghosh says cultural training is as crucial as the students' academic training, like interviewing for a job. Ghosh says that for a student from Japan…

Prof. GHOSH: The response is to be modest. It would be bragging and it would be completely unacceptable to sell yourself. So they say, I try hard. And to an American interviewer this is completely inadequate.

SHAVELSON: Or a Brazilian student might open the interview with…

Prof. GHOSH: Come to my house. And this doesn't mean you're invited to come to their house, it just simply means I'm communicating with you; it's kind of like saying how's it going.

SHAVELSON: And a Chinese student might focus entirely on how serious he is about his work.

Prof. GHOSH: Maybe another candidate will come across as easier to work with because they're casual, they're friendly, they're humorous.

SHAVELSON: But the foreign students' most significant dilemma about Americans is who are the Americans. They say so much of our population, filled with Asians, Latinos, Blacks, Middle Easterners, looks to them foreign. Again, Saffah Gasser from Egypt.

Ms. GASSER: I don't know. The figure of Americans to me are the white, blonde people that I see it on TV. And where are the Americans? I can't find a lot of Americans.

SHAVELSON: For Gasser, the confusion is that the America she's trying to learn about is as diverse and multi-cultured as the students in America 101.

For NPR News, I'm Lonny Shavelson form Berkeley, California.

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