Making Connections as an International Student in Shanghai

Some down-to-earth tips for making friends and networking at NYU Shanghai and beyond.

Welcome sign behind a tree of flowers

Going to college is exciting enough on its own, but attending a university outside your home country brings it to a whole new level. You might have become a self-taught expert on academic and student life at NYU Shanghai. Or even better, you already know the best Xiaolongbao places in town. But nothing tops the friendships and network you’ll build while attending college outside your home country. Spending at least 3 years in Shanghai means you will have friends around the globe when you graduate. Moreover, you will have plenty of opportunities to make connections with people outside the NYU Shanghai community.

However, cross-cultural communication is not an innate ability for anyone. If you ask any of our current students, I’m sure a lot of them are no strangers to the occasional awkward moment: the subtle fight for the control over the AC temperature with a roommate. “Overly-generous” Chinese friend buying the meal for everyone when eating out. The chatty cab drivers amused by your Chinese accent pushing you to speak more… But these ARE exactly room for you to grow as a cross-cultural communicator!

Inside the NYU Shanghai Community

a group of people taking a group selfie

The Ideal Habitat for Cross-Cultural Friendships

NYU Shanghai is a community of both diversity and cosmopolitanism. This half-Chinese, half-international student body is represented by 33 provinces in China and over 80 countries and regions around the globe. It is small and tight-knit. Making friends in such a place is easy because everyone genuinely wants to hang out with people different from them.

While cross-cultural friendships open up new perspectives, it also requires more effort in communicating. At first, cultural differences could come across as culture shock. Take “splitting the bill” as an example. Many Chinese people feel weird about it. This is because, in Chinese culture, friends usually take turns to “treat each other”.  Also, people from certain cultures are more reserved in terms of revealing emotions. As a result, they might appear to be “uninterested”, but many times that’s actually not the case. Some people are just naturally “slower” when building a relationship. Therefore, this is the time to keep in mind the balance between curiosity and respect. With time, you will eventually find the pace comfortable for both parties.

Communicating with Chinese Roommates

At NYU Shanghai, first-year students typically room with a student from a different cultural background. Like Frank and Justin, you may find in your Chinese roommate a travel buddy, Chinese teacher, and street food hopping partner. But keep in mind that this may be the first time you or your roommate share a room. You may have different lifestyles, schedules, habits, and there will definitely be a period of adjustment. 

You may even have different “common sense” – sneakers vs. slippers in the room; night owl vs. early riser; shower at night vs. in the morning… In fact, these are learning opportunities to understand each other’s culture in terms of lifestyle! Plus, you can also get to know your roommate better through open and genuine conversations about your similarities and differences.

Dorm room with two beds and two sets of desks and chairs

Outside the NYU Shanghai Community

Being a college student, your main social life and friend circle is probably inside your academic community. But who said that has to be the case? From the Jianbing uncle selling your favorite snack between classes around the corner of the academic building to the successful entrepreneur you met at a networking event, you can always learn something that cannot be found in classroom.

Yes, I do Speak Chinese!

In any country, knowing the language immediately improves one’s ability to engage and enjoy the local social scene. This is especially true in China. Being able to speak even just a little bit of Chinese will set you apart. When you switch from English to Chinese, you will feel the change of dynamic in the audience. People just perk up when they know you’re making an effort to meet them where they are. To start, you can check out these 5 tips for Mandarin Chinese beginners

But remember, sometimes people can get overwhelmingly enthusiastic about you – like the cab driver I mentioned in the beginning.  In 99% of these cases, people do that out of pure curiosity and mean nothing bad. Therefore, taking more time to evaluate the situation is probably a good idea. And by giving them the benefit of doubt, you might find unexpected friendliness and good intentions out of what you first thought was a little “too much”. Afterward, I recommend talking to a Chinese friend and asking for their opinion about this. This is because locals who know you and have cross-cultural communication knowledge can help you understand your experience at a deeper level.

Networking with Chinese Professionals

five panelist are sitting at a stage

Networking in professional settings is HARD (even for Chinese)! But there are certain things that can help you develop a great first impression. In a country where workplace culture is generally more formal and reserved, a smart thing to do is to observe and absorb the way other people carry themselves. But, also, no need to worry if you don’t behave like them.

One thing you should pay attention to is how to address people. In many English-speaking countries, most professionals go by a first name basis. Even out of respect, “Ms.” and “Sir” are standard correct answers that no one will frown upon. In China, however, the best way is “last name” plus “title”. This gave me a huge headache when I first started networking professionally as an intern in college.

So here I want to share with you a trick my dad taught me. Instead of the impossible-to-memorize titles, call them “last name” plus “老师,lǎoshī (teacher)”. No matter that person actually teaches or not, “老师” is a magical remedy when you’re not sure about how to address a person, especially when they’re older and more prestigious. Of course, if you have made the first connection, you can then spend the time to figure out how they’d like to be addressed.

Another thing to keep in mind is the boundaries between work and life – it can be quite different from what you have back home. Although different companies and individuals have different rules, Chinese professionals usually have fewer restrictions about adding coworkers on social media. In fact, the vast majority use WeChat for work purposes. In contrast, Chinese professionals don’t hang out with each other out of work very often compared to many other countries.