New course explains U.S. to students

Ana Pedroso was always late.

She didn’t know not to be, until she took USC’s new American Culture Class, a no-credit class aimed at introducing graduate students from other countries to life in Los Angeles.

“I am Brazilian — I am always late,” Pedroso, a graduate student studying economics, said. “They said that if we make an appointment we should be five minutes earlier. This is a detail that I think makes a difference and I would never learn such a thing in a book.”

Teaching things not found in books is precisely the aim of the American Culture Class, created by Chrissy Roth, assistant director of the Office of Orientation Programs and Becky Peterson, an international adviser in the Office of International Services. The class, which debuted last fall and is expanding to offer more sections for the upcoming semester, strives to provide international students with a grasp of some of the finer details of American culture.

Those details range from communication styles to politics to football.

“Football is very popular in the U.S. but in China we don’t have that kind of sport,” said Qi Li, a doctoral candidate in computer science. “So we spent one class to learn football. It is still very complex for me, but I already know the basic rules so maybe I could attend this season’s match to get involved in sports.”

Roth, who co-taught the class both semesters and will assist in training next semester’s instructors, said football was actually one of the most difficult subjects to teach.

“Explaining football and baseball is so incredibly difficult for someone who has never even seen a football,” she said. “It’s kind of realizing that you really have to start with the basics — things that you would never teach Americans, things that Americans just kind of know.”

Starting with the basics can mean explaining how to know if a girl likes you, describing why the Monica Lewinsky scandal was a big deal in the United States, negating Hollywood stereotypes or teaching that Americans don’t arrive late.

While former students of the American Culture Class appreciated this practical knowledge, many said what stood out more to them was the way the class approached larger topics — issues of communication, relationships and diversity — and the opportunity for dialogue.

“What impressed me most was this communication and this channel of sharing thoughts about the beginning of life as a foreign student in the U.S.,” Pedroso said.

Chen Chen, a graduate student studying strategic public relations from China, felt the same way.

“I cannot confidently say that I successfully transit myself into American culture,” Chen wrote in an e-mail. “To some extent, many of my Chinese friends have done a much better job than I do. However, I think the value of the class is to have a face-to-face communication to establish mutual understanding among people from different countries.”

While the students learn about diversity in America in one of the most diverse cities in the country, they also learn from the members of the class. Though most of the students come from Asian countries — which Pedroso said made her feel lonely at first — there is a varied representation of cultures.

“It’s a good spread that we have,” Peterson said. “China, Korea, India, Japan, Sri Lanka … just by the numbers we couldn’t have everybody represented but the interest was across the spectrum of our countries.”

Li said she felt the presence of different cultures allowed for a productive dialogue.

“I think it is a good way to communicate with people and to explain some things and maybe some conflicts to each other,” said Li. “The most useful thing I think is the diversity and we get to know what everybody thinks and to think this way we could minimize the conflicts between cultures.”

Both Roth and Peterson said they learned as much teaching the class as the students did.

“I’ve learned that apparently Americans do their laundry incorrectly,” Roth said. “I’ve learned that in China they don’t give out fortune cookies at the end of the meal. And then on a deeper level, I’ve learned how incredibly brave these students are for coming in from all over the world with a language barrier, without having friends or family around them, really to get an education to better themselves — usually so they can bring it back to their country, so they can better their country. And it’s something that I don’t think I would ever have the strength to do, and I just admire them so much. They really are inspiring people.”

The program will expand to three sections for the upcoming semesters — compared to one that was offered this year — to better accommodate the number of interested students. Though Roth and Peterson will not teach the class, they will train the new instructors, who will be graduate students and representatives of different departments at USC.

Peterson said the experience was inspiring.

“It’s incredibly, incredibly rewarding and beautiful,” she said. “You just step back and go: ‘That was cool.’”