Loving International Students

Loving International Students

When Lisa Espineli Chinn arrived from the Philippines as an international student, her new friend said, “I’ll call you later.” She eagerly waited for a phone call that never came. As she learned to navigate and embrace her new culture, language and people, Lisa’s heart opened in hospitality to others. She shares her warmth, wisdom and vision for hosting and learning from those who come from around the world to live among us.

StudentSoul: When you were an international student, what was that experience like for you?

Lisa: I think when you are transported into a place where you are the minority, you stand out. I didn’t really know if the majority culture would embrace me or how they would perceive me. When students are comfortable in their home settings, and then are uprooted from that setting, they come with questions like, “How do I make it in this culture?” and “How will the people respond to me in this culture?”

StudentSoul: How did you handle this tension?

Lisa: When I left my home, I had one prayer on the plane: “God, give me a friend, just one friend.” I knew how important friendship was. I didn’t specify if it would be an American friend. I just wanted one friend who would walk with me in this new experience. I come from a very relational culture where I was not trained to be self-propelled and independent, like Americans. In the Philippines, we’re always connected with people — as a friend, a sister, a relative. We’re always in a group, or with a kasama, a companion. It’s always, “Come with me” — even to the restroom.

StudentSoul: Is it any easier for international students today?

Lisa: When I came to the United States, there was no Internet or Google, so information was not as available. Now students are more informed before they get here.

StudentSoul: What makes changing cultures so challenging?

Lisa: For many, the language is a huge challenge. Even though I spoke English, I still had to learn how to say it so people would understand. I didn’t want to stand out by always being asked, “What did you say again?” or “I beg your pardon?” I had to be alert to the new language I was engaging in. And then there are the cultural nuances that bombarded me on a daily basis. I’d think, so this is how Americans do it. For example, I’d ask permission for everything, saying “May I do this?” or “Is this okay?” It’s just different in my culture.

Little terms that I may have heard back home, but had to apply here, took on a whole new meaning and expression. I am more sympathetic with students that come with no English, because I came with a lot of English. My education was all in English, and I still had to be alert. I was very interested in the meaning of things. How do I understand Americans and the values they live by? Why did that person say that to me? Or am I too sensitive? Was that a joke, a put-down? Is that a joke for everybody, or is that just for me? Or, I think I just lost face and the person has no clue. You process so many layers internally, yet the person who is in the host culture is clueless that they may have said something that devastated you.

StudentSoul: So you are on alert all the time. Did you find that took a lot of energy?

Lisa: Yes, that’s why cross-cultural encounter is always tiring. On top of that is the homesickness and culture shock, which is a normal transition. That’s why it is so important to have a friend who will walk with you and interpret the new culture for you when you have questions.

StudentSoul: Now you supervise a large team of people involved in ministry to international students on many campuses. What is it that drives you in this ministry today?

Lisa: There are people who paint a picture of the poor, miserable, sad international student and say, “Let’s come and rescue them.” But for me, the most compelling reason to reach out to international students is because of who God is, because our God is so international. He is so global in his perspective that I can’t overlook this international population. I want to be attentive to the people who are different from me. I expect people to reach out to me because I am different, but I am not waiting.

I don’t want to be just a responder. That’s what happened to me as a student. At first I was waiting for Americans to host me like I would have done for them back home, saying, “Oh, tell me why you are here; how long have you been here?” We are all very curious in my culture. Here, nobody was curious. I thought maybe they didn’t know how to talk to people who are different. So I reversed the process and said to myself, “If they are not going to reach out to me, I’m going to reach out to them.” I was the one making friends. They may have thought I was too inquisitive, but I was not going to wait for things to happen to me. I took the host posture. Hospitality is an intentional decision to host, whether it is in a conversation where you listen to people, or whether it is a brief encounter in the hallway. Hosting is really an intentional attentiveness to people, a decision to include them.

StudentSoul: And it doesn’t have to do with place.

Lisa: No! When you meet someone who takes time to focus on you as if you were the only person in the room, that’s hosting! That’s being hospitable. It means that the living room of your heart is so spacious and comfortable, this person who happens to be a stranger has found a home even for that brief time. So the more I understand who God is, the more that motivates me, because God’s heart is so world-conscious and so global in its extent that to do anything less doesn’t do justice to who he is. That compels me.

The other thing that compels me is that technology is creating a level playing field in our globalized world. Before, some may have felt that America is all-powerful, or the center of the world. But our world is different now as technology is being outsourced in other countries, and the people who come here are more savvy in technology than we are. My nephew in the Philippines was text messaging before it was popular here. We are now equal players in this global arena. It’s a matter of our global survival for us to be aware and informed and receiving from international students. There is the reality of the next Christendom — the church in the southern hemisphere — that will rise in leadership, in people, in theology and more. So that compels me.

StudentSoul: So there is a lot of giving and receiving. What can American students do to become more hospitable as hosts? What are some steps we can take to have a hosting attitude with international students?

Lisa: I outlined some steps in my booklet, Crossing Cultures Here and Now. It’s a great resource to get started. It’s crucial to be observant, to get out of ourselves, to just be aware of our environment. It’s easy to just schedule your day, plan what you’re going to do, and then put your iPod on and live in your bubble as you walk from one place to another, not noticing what’s around you. I want American students to start noticing who is around them. Those who are serious could make an hour, maybe, to look around campus and just ask, “Who are the people on this campus that God has brought?” Just look and see all the different kinds of people on your campus on a given day. It begins with being observant and being aware. Pray that God would open your eyes to this world.

Then open your heart. You may notice all the Indian students who are in the dining hall, but then you get fearful and ask yourself, “What do I do? Can I actually do this cross-cultural thing?” So you break it down by telling yourself, “Oh, there is an Indian student on my floor” (or in my class or lab). Start there. Initiating conversation is the hardest part. We think, I don’t know that person. What will that person say? They might be afraid I have other intentions. We don’t know how to be naturally friendly because we are always afraid of being misinterpreted.

If you are sincere and you want to be hosting and hospitable, it’s just takes a welcoming smile, a beginning question. “How are you?” is a greeting, but it could also become a question in a serious way. I think there are many things an American student can begin to see and do. Just engage in a conversation and pick it up from there. Just focus on one or two and be that special friend. It takes a lot of time in some ways, but the benefits outweigh the time because of the world they open up for you. They are not projects. They are your friends. You begin at that level. You are equal; you’re peers.

StudentSoul: Expand on some of the benefits of a friendship with an international student.

Lisa: Wow, where to begin? First, you begin to see the world differently when your friend asks you, “Why did the professor say that in class when it embarrassed the student?” And you say, “Really? I don’t think so; why would you think that?” Then, when the international student says, “Well, in my culture …” you start to really be attentive, because you are being “welcomed” into this new world, and you begin to borrow their eyes and you say, “Oh, I never thought of that.” You learn to ask questions about their culture so the interaction is give-and-take. You are enriched by the addition of information and by a new view of the world.

Another benefit is how scripture comes alive when seen through the lens of another person you’re studying it with. The parable of the prodigal son is a good example. I’ve heard students say, “I don’t know if my father would do that like he did with his prodigal son. No Japanese father would do that.” Or, as a South American student said, “No, my father would ask my mother to meet my brother at the door. And my mother would do all the intermediary work before my father is appeased.” It’s a whole new world when you see that it is multi-dimensional. And so, the scripture passage comes alive as we appreciate that God the Father is beyond all the cultural expectations we have of a father.

There are ways Christian internationals can teach us about prayer. They probably live by faith more than we do, because there are things we take for granted, that come to us as “rights.” We think we have the right to food and other things. In other parts of the world, it’s not a right; it’s a privilege to have food. Faith is stretched in many different directions.

So there are a lot of benefits if you just become a friend. By befriending an international student, they will care for you in unique ways. You might become an extended family for them, like when my Iraqi friend said, “Lisa, you are my sister.” Wow. What does that mean in a Muslim family that I am called a “sister,” with privileges and responsibilities? So you see it has its costs and benefits.

StudentSoul: Recently you spoke to an audience of 21,000 delegates at the Urbana 06 Mission Convention. What did you say to them?

Lisa: My talk was on “Called to do Good Works.” The text was taken from Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (TNIV).” With that theme, I wove in my personal story in terms of the good works that God has called me to do. Essentially, my message was that who we are is God’s masterpiece, in spite of our imperfections. Good works are activities that reflect God’s character and purpose. To be engaged in good works globally is to be out there and reflect his character and his purpose. As a nurse or a teacher or a worker in a HIV clinic you are reflecting God’s character and purpose. God’s call to us is to respond when he says he has already prepared good works for us to do. He considers the unique abilities and makeup of a person. He might say, “You are perfect for this, because you are great with math, or love kids, or have a heart that breaks for people.” God has those places for us. Just imagine that God Almighty has prepared all that in advance! I am not going to drum up the good work for myself. I have to discover what God is already doing. And Urbana was a place where God’s global good works were displayed.

—Lisa Espineli Chinn is a former international student from the Philippines. She graduated with a degree in Foreign Service at the University of the Philippines and a Masters in Communications at Wheaton Graduate School in Illinois. She is the national director of International Student Ministry for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.