Immigrants must overcome stereotypes in order to adjust to life in America

November 25, 2019 — by Andy Chen and Benjamin Li

When senior Chris Feng first moved to the U.S. from China in 2013 as a 12-year-old, he thought of Americans as something akin to “mac-and-cheese and fried chicken-eating savages.” Similarly, sophomore Jason Lin, who moved to the U.S. from China in 2018 as a 14-year-old, initially viewed all American communities as “part of the hood,” and filled with violence and drugs.

Every year, more than 1 million immigrants arrive in the U.S., and they now account for nearly 14 percent of the nation’s population, according to Pew Research Center

In the Bay Area, the percentage of immigrants is even higher: One third of all residents were born in another country. However, immigrants don’t just bring themselves to the U.S. — like Lin and Feng, they also bring preconceptions of how Americans act and think and what life in the U.S. is like. 

Students and parents who moved here often have differing stereotypes regarding Americans, some positive and some negative, and they have had to learn about their new country and adjust their views as they’ve lived here.

Lin, whose family moved to California for educational and financial reasons, had several misconceptions regarding American society because of the way Americans were portrayed in Chinese media, most notably in movies. He thought that Americans were generally “just dumb and uneducated,” “xenophobic” and “boisterous,” and due to these stereotypes, he was wary of who he spoke to for his first months in America.

“I always thought about who I was with and that maybe I shouldn’t hang out with this group or that group,” he said.

Lin soon realized that many misconceptions he initially had were unfair. He saw that most Americans bore little resemblance to the images he had internalized. Eventually, Lin was able to overcome these misconceptions.

“I was obviously really sad when I left China because my friends were essentially my young life and I was probably saying bye to them,” he said, “but moving here for a while, I realized that, hey, a lot of you guys are pretty cool too.”

Feng had a different response as a Chinese immigrant: Instead of avoiding people who he deemed to fit into negative stereotypes, like “nerds” or “jocks,” he decided to embrace many traditional American activities in order to fit in with his peers. For example, he started to watch football because he “felt that would make life and making friends a lot easier.” He found the experience to be so enjoyable that he still watches football today.

Although Feng admits he initially held negative stereotypes about Americans, he quickly realized that these stereotypes were unwarranted and overcame previous notions through extroversion.

“When I first moved, I forced myself to go out and make friends,” Feng said. “I joined debate and band, and it was kind of weird dealing with people who still felt like foreigners, but I got used to it after a while.” 

For both boys, overcoming their preconceived ideas was a necessary part of fitting in with their peers, although they took different approaches in doing so. 

These negative associations about Americans may also be somewhat generational — more common among the young than those who came here a generation ago.

Bin Yuan, the father of senior Callia Yuan and sophomore Bill Yuan, said he held positive stereotypes of Americans prior to moving to Baltimore, Md., from China in 1993 in search of better job opportunities and a financially stable life. Describing himself as a “brave young man at the time,” he said that he was never worried about Americans threatening his safety, and was pretty comfortable and excited for the moving process.

“At that time, before [my wife and I] moved to America, I actually knew a lot of really good things about the U.S,” Yuan said. “The country was really well developed. A lot of people were actually dreaming to come to the United States because it was the best place you could go.”

Before he immigrated, he thought of Americans as “incredibly polite, wealthier on average compared to people in China, and generally just pleasant people to interact with.” 

When he arrived, he said he didn’t have trouble adjusting to his job as a visiting scholar teaching mechanical engineering or making friends, due to the abundance of immigrants with similar experiences as he had. This, as well as the ”maturity and ease” of the adult workspace, allowed him to bond easily with native-born Americans.

Yuan said that he believes adults moving to America often have an easier time adjusting to their new environments compared to teenagers who are still evolving in terms of their personalities.

The process of becoming an American citizen takes a grueling 14 months on average, and getting a green card can take anywhere from 7 to 33 months, according to After receiving permission to move from both the U.S. government as well as the country that they’re leaving, immigrants must pack up all their necessary belongings and say goodbye to their previous lives, which is often a mentally taxing experience. Finally, they must quickly adjust to a strange, unfamiliar lifestyle and familiarize themselves with American customs and traditions, all the while trying to speak English instead of their native language. 

Almost two years after his family immigrated here, Lin acknowledged how much life has changed for him.

“At first, I was kind of sad, ” said Lin, “but after a while, after I sort of adjusted, I realized that I’d be willing to call America home.”

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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