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Expat students advised to keep an open mind

MOVING to Shanghai isn't the easiest lifestyle transition for a student, especially if the move is from outside of Asia. Many expatriate students often detest the Shanghai city atmosphere when they first arrive.

Shanghai's first impression only seems to reinforce the unwillingness to settle in the city. Stepping out of the airport after a 12-hour flight (or more) into the exhaust fumes of thousands of ill-maintained vehicles does nothing, but to dampen the discomfort and uneasiness of a strange place.

Then, there's the city and the culture shock. Shanghai's impressive skyline and fast-paced lifestyle may throw off balance on those who have never lived in a big city. Those who have never lived in China or even Asia may have difficulty understanding Chinese culture and customs that clash with personal lifestyles back home. For those who will have their first Shanghai experience, life will be considerably bewildering for the first few months.

All of these factors will be extremely detrimental to an expat student's education - it is near impossible to learn effectively when one isn't comfortable in his or her own learning environment.

"Shanghai is similar to cities all over the world," says Denise Cox, college counsellor at Dulwich College Shanghai. "Teenage problems enter all socio-economic groups including expatriate families living in Shanghai. The road can become a little bumpy for the average teen and a challenging time for the average family.

"It is at this time that teenagers need love, calm guidance and a supportive environment in which to correct their behavior. Parents also need support and guidance and should approach friends, family and teachers for guidance," Cox added.

So how are expatriate students supposed to endure their time in Shanghai?

Our advice is this - before attempting to tackle your courses, find your place. If you want to survive in Shanghai as an expat student, whether in a local or international school, you must find your niche, and get comfortable with it. Only after you've established a semblance of normality and order in your Shanghai life will you get ahead in your academia.

People manage to accomplish this in many different ways - some assimilate into the surrounding culture, and some find expat bubbles and social circles that mirror life back home.

Those who seek to do the latter are in luck. Shanghai is full of international schools that attempt to recreate educational systems similar to that which expats are accustomed to. These schools mirror foreign school systems step by step, with foreign teachers and curriculum, as well as preparation for international standardized tests and universities. Other expat students with similar backgrounds will flock to these schools, so making friends won't be a problem.

Linda Hartree from Yew Chung International School Shanghai's Student Support Office advises parents that timing is important when helping their children adjust to a new environment.

"A fast transition helps," she says. "If issues are not resolved early, student will take a longer time to adjust to their new environment, which may in turn affect their academic performance."

At YCIS Shanghai, the Student Support Office organizes the Student Buddy system to pair existing students with new students to ensure a smooth transition. Existing students volunteer for the system before the summer and return to help with activities like the scavenger hunt, where new students search for specific rooms and teachers as a fun way to learn their way around the school.

"We also want our students to recognize their ability to serve as an ambassador of YCIS Shanghai, and that if they make a connection with a new student today, they may be making that connection for a lifetime," Hartree says.

As for lifestyle, Shanghai is relatively kinder to expatriates than other Chinese cities. There are numerous expat communities that recreate foreign societies in Shanghai, allowing newly arrived expats to quickly settle down. Expats will find restaurants and businesses similar to the ones back home, from American fast food chains to Korean clothing shops.

"Honestly, I hated Shanghai when I moved here from America," says Samantha Fitzmaurice, a former expat student at the SMIC Private School in Shanghai. "But I began to love it as I discovered a different side of the city - Shanghai's a great city, a cultural center! I felt at home in Shanghai's shops and restaurants, and there's so much to do with friends in this huge city."

However, expats that enroll in local high schools may have greater trouble settling in. Chinese culture can be hard to adjust to for an expat, especially if he or she has never lived in China before. The Chinese educational system can also be comparatively harsh for an expatriate student.

Expat student Natalie Lee, a former local high school student, offers her advice: "Just be more open. Instead of hating this place, I remained tolerant of culture that was strange to me and tried to fit in with the people around me. Soon, I grew used to Shanghai culture, because people helped me warm to my environment. If you try to be a little more open-minded, people will try to help and things will work themselves out."

Amanda Abel, middle school counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai, says it is important for parents to have confidence that this move is happening for a positive reason in their life.

"Feeling optimistic about the opportunity to be in a new place makes all the difference in how you will handle any 'bumps in the road'," Abel says. "Get involved. Finding an activity that interests you or your children can be a great way to forge new friendships.

"Let your children lead you and teach you as they experience the culture. Your children, through their activities and friends, will show you a side of China you might not otherwise experience."


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