Lucy Zhang noticed several years ago that Chinese students in U.S. colleges tended to interact mostly within their own groups, so she set out to change that dynamic.
She co-founded SetSail, an online company that not only teaches English, but also instructs students on how to navigate the tricky labyrinth of American university culture. In so doing, she is preparing around 150 students, whose average age is 12 to 13, in China to better integrate into U.S. college life.
"As a Chinese American, a lot of times when I was in college, I felt there were Chinese international students who tended to mostly interact with each other, have other Chinese friends. So it didn't feel like there was that much cross-cultural exchange," Zhang, the company's CEO, told Xinhua.
While there are many online companies that help Chinese kids get into university, many do not focus as much on getting Chinese students to engage -- both in and out of the classroom, Zhang said.
"We focus our classes more on critical thinking, speaking up in class and debating," she said, adding that her company emphasizes student-teacher interaction, rather than just passive listening in the classroom.
That principle also rings true with Americans studying Chinese.
"For adults and young adults, while learning Chinese, they are also indirectly learning the Chinese culture," Christina Hayes, a Chinese language teacher in the Washington, D.C. area who came to the United States from China, her native country, over a decade ago, told Xinhua.
"I definitely think learning the language is the first step to get to know the culture better. When we understand each other's cultures better, I feel like people will be more open-minded, instead of being very judgmental," Hayes said, adding that grammar rules and linguistic patterns can often influence how people in a culture think and act.
For people who study and teach foreign languages, there is something particularly meaningful in connecting with someone from a different culture.
"I love learning about my students' day-to-day life, how their school works, and what life outside school looks like," Sarah Gourevitch, a teacher at SetSail, told Xinhua.
Exchanging ideas about books, current events and daily life "has expanded my world outlook," Gourevitch said.
She has also gained a new understanding about how various countries are dealing with the pandemic that has, in many ways, lumped the entire globe into one boat -- amid lockdowns, daily mask wearing and more hand washing.
"It's also been such a unique time to be having this exchange -- my students and I have been comparing notes on how our lives have been changed by COVID-19 in our respective locations," Gourevitch said.
An estimated tens of thousands of Americans are now teaching English online to students in China, reported USA Today. The trend has been made possible by technology advances that allow anyone with a laptop and an internet connection to connect with millions of others across the ocean.
It also creates opportunities for students, whose foreign language and cultural skills could command a higher salary once they enter the workforce.
Hayes' husband, Brian Hayes, an American, told Xinhua one thing that has always motivated him to study Chinese has been gaining insights into the Chinese culture.
"I'm learning the language but I'm learning the culture at the same time," he said.
Hayes said studying the Chinese culture and language, at least in the beginning of their marriage many years ago, helped him and his wife get along well as a married couple.
"Especially in the beginning, it was having another common thing to talk about, I think that helped us a lot at the beginning," Hayes said.