As a group of travelers, Chinese students generally experience an array of acculturative stressors: (Lu D: Facing dilemmas: Chinese students in the United States: 1979–1989. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Oregon, 1998) language-related issues, such as understanding and speaking the host language (Lu D, op.cit.; Sheh S: Adjustment of Hong Kong students in the University of Alberta. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Alberta, Canada, 1994); academic issues, such as being unfamiliar with the syllabi in their host universities (Xu J: Chinese students' adaptation to learning in an American university: a multiple case study. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Nebraska, 2002); psycho-social-cultural issues, such as having no close friendships with local people, and homesickness and loneliness; and financial issues such as maintaining their overseas studies and living. Such acculturative stressors have consistently been found to be related to significant levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation (Cho YB: Suicide ideation, acculturative stress, and perceived social support among Korean adolescents. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New School University, 2002; 1, 2). For example, low English-language proficiency was found to be a major predictor of poor adjustment and mental health for Chinese migrants (3). In this study, mental health issues are conceptualized as negative affect that denotes “an internal feeling state that occurs when one has failed to achieve a goal or to avoid a threat or when one is not satisfied with the current state of affairs.”
Berry (4) has proposed four types of acculturative strategies: 1) integration; the individual has an interest in maintaining his or her own culture during daily interactions with the host culture; 2) assimilation; the individual does not wish to maintain his or her own cultural identity and seeks daily interactions with the host culture; 3) separation; the individual places a value on holding on to his or her own culture and avoids interaction with the host culture; and 4) marginalization; the individual has little interest in either maintaining his or her own culture or interacting with the host culture. Studies have demonstrated that integration is related to the lowest degree of acculturative stress; assimilation is associated with a medium degree of acculturative stress; and separation and marginalization appear to lead to the highest perceived acculturative stress (5–7). Acculturative strategy has also been found to affect migrants' mental health. International students who were more integrated had significantly better life-satisfaction and positive and negative affect than their peers who had become assimilated, separated, or marginalized (8, 9; Chan RM: Acculturation of young new arrivals from Mainland China to Hong Kong. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2002).
This study adopted a cross-cultural comparative approach because single-sample studies may limit the external validity of the findings on acculturation research (9), and comparative approach may highlight the contextual and cultural issues of the various countries that affect the adaptation outcomes. Regarding contextual issues, Ghuman (10) found that South Asian adolescents in Australia showed a lower level of acculturation than did their counterparts in Canada and England because of the anti-Asian sociopolitical atmosphere in Australia at the time of his research. Concerning cultural issues, Ward and Kennedy (11) found that Malaysian and Singaporean students in New Zealand experienced more difficulties than did Malaysian students in Singapore. They hypothesized that cultural distance might have contributed to the difference. Indeed, as they asserted, the greater the cultural distance, the more difficulties the students experienced (12) and the greater the acculturative stress (13) and anxiety (14).
Purpose and Hypothesis of the Present Study
The purpose of this study is to compare the levels of negative affect, acculturative stressors, and acculturative strategies of Chinese international graduate students in two host communities: Hong Kong and Australia. Also, it aimed to examine the predictive effects of acculturative stressors and acculturative strategy on negative affect within the two groups. The following specific hypotheses were to be tested:
Chinese international students in Australia would have a higher level of negative affect and experience a higher level of acculturative stressors than Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong.
Chinese international students in Australia are expected to be more likely to use marginalization and separation strategies and less likely to use assimilation and integration strategies to cope with acculturative stressors than are Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong.
Acculturative stressors are hypothesized to have a significantly increased impact on negative affect in both groups.
The use of integration and assimilation strategies would predict lower negative affect, and the use of separation and marginalization strategies would predict more negative affect in both groups.
We conducted a cross-sectional survey between August and December 2005 in Hong Kong and June to October 2006 in Australia. Ethical approval was obtained from the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of Hong Kong and University of Melbourne. We distributed a weblink of online questionnaires by e-mail and posted an invitation letter in both English and Chinese on campus to invite our target participants to take part in our study. We also distributed hard-copies of questionnaires to student residential halls. After clarifying to the students the purpose of the study and explaining the confidential and voluntary nature of the study, we obtained their written consent form, which was attached to the first page of the questionnaire. The questionnaire was administered in Chinese. A souvenir (e.g., pen, towel, postcard) was sent to the participants who completed the questionnaire.
A total of 606 participants completed the questionnaire. Four hundred participants (66%) were Chinese-mainland graduate students who were studying at the universities in Hong Kong, and 206 (34%) were Chinese international graduate students (from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) who were studying at the University of Melbourne. The mean age was 26.7 for the Hong Kong sample, and 24.6 for the Australian sample. In the Hong Kong sample, half were male students and half were female students; 64% were doctoral-level students, and 36% were master's-level students; 45.6% had resided in Hong Kong for less than 1 year, and 74.8% were single. In the Australian sample, 33% were male students, and 67% were female students; 46% were doctoral-level students and 47% were master's-level students; 32.6% had resided in Australia for more than 3 years, and 92.2% were single.
Acculturative stressors were assessed by the self-developed Acculturative Hassles Scale for Chinese Students (AHSCS) (15). Between November 2003 and January 2004, 14 Mainland Chinese graduate students were interviewed about their adjustment problems in Hong Kong. A total of 100 items were generated from the in-depth interviews; 17 items were retained to formulate the final version of the AHSCS by expert checking, checking of wording, item-analysis, and factor analysis. The finalized AHSCS was validated in the present study. Four factors were suggested by exploratory factor analysis: language deficiency, cultural difference, academic work, and social interaction. Participants were asked to indicate to what degree they had experienced or were experiencing adjustment problems in their host society. The responses were rated on a 4-point Likert scale (0: Not at All, 1: A Little, 2: Moderate, 3: A Lot). The Cronbach α coefficient was 0.88. The reliability of the four subscales ranged from 0.77 to 0.81. The AHSCS score was found to be positively correlated with the General Health Questionnaire–12 (16) and negatively correlated with life-satisfaction.
Acculturative strategy was measured by the Acculturative Strategy Scale (AS-C-HK) (Chan RM: Acculturation of young new arrivals from Mainland China to Hong Kong. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2002), which was developed for Chinese migrants. It includes 28 response items on seven culturally-specific topics. Each topic was followed by four responses that were based on the two dimensions of acculturative strategy proposed by Berry (4). Respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with the items, on a 4-point Likert scale from 1: Totally Disagree to 4: Totally Agree. The scores were calculated by summing up across the topics within each alternative. Four types of acculturative strategies were identified, namely, integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization. The Cronbach α coefficients of the subscales ranged from 0.72 to 0.83.
Negative affect was assessed by The Negative Affect Subscale (NAS) of the Chinese Affect Scale (CAS) (17). The NAS included 10 items: sad, tense, helpless, disappointed, frightened, bitter, insecure, exhausted, depressed, and annoyed. Responses were rated on a 5-point Likert scale, from 1: Very Slightly or Not At All to 6: Extremely. Participates were asked to indicate how they had felt in the past month. The reliability of the NAS was 0.90 for the Cronbach α coefficient.
Independent-sample t-tests were performed to compare the differences of negative affect, acculturative hassles, and the four types of acculturative strategies between the Hong Kong and Australian samples. Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to test the predictive effects of acculturative hassles and acculturative strategies on negative affect. The main demographic factors were placed in the first block. The four domains of acculturative hassles, namely, language deficiency, social interaction, academic work, and cultural difference, were placed in the second block, and the four types of acculturative strategies were entered in the third block. The analyses were conducted separately for the Hong Kong and Australian samples so as to explore whether the predictive effects vary in different samples.
Comparison of Acculturative Hassles, Acculturative Strategies, and Negative Affect Between the Hong Kong and Australian Samples
The results of independent t-tests between the Hong Kong and Australian samples are shown in Table 1. The Australian sample was found to experience a significantly higher level of acculturative hassles than the Hong Kong sample (t=4.62; p<0.001), as well as in all four domains of hassles (Table 2). They were also found to have a significantly higher level of negative affect than the Hong Kong sample (t=4.10; p<0.001). Also, they used significantly more acculturative strategy of separation (t=2.60; p<0.01) and marginalization (t=2.90; p<0.01) than the Hong Kong sample to cope with their acculturative hassles.
TABLE 1.Results of Independent t-tests Between the Hong Kong and Australian Samples
TABLE 2.Summary of Hierarchical Regression Analysis of Effects of Demographic Factors, Acculturative Stressors, and Acculturative Strategies on Negative Affect
Acculturative Hassles and Acculturative Strategies as Predictors of Negative Affect in the Hong Kong and Australian Samples
Table 2 illustrates the predictive effects of demographic factors, acculturative hassles, and acculturative strategies on negative affect in the Hong Kong and Australian samples. It shows that demographic factors had no significant predictive effect on negative affect within either sample. Four domains of acculturative hassles accounted for a significant 22% of the total variance in the Hong Kong (HK) sample and 18% in the Australian (A) sample. Among the four acculturative hassles, academic work significantly predicted negative affect in both samples (β[HK]=0.28, p<0.001; β[A]=0.38, p<0.001), and cultural difference significantly predicted negative affect in the Hong Kong sample (β[HK]=0.19; p<0.001). The four types of acculturative strategies accounted for another significant 4% and 6%, respectively, of the total variance in the Hong Kong and Australian samples. The strategy of marginalization made a significant contribution to prediction of negative affect in both samples (β[HK]=0.26, p<0.001; β[A]=0.28, p<0.001), whereas assimilation significantly predicted negative affect in the Australian sample (β[A] = –0.27; p<0.001).
Consistent with our hypothesis, Chinese students in Australia encountered greater acculturative hassles and experienced a higher level of negative affect than mainland students in Hong Kong. The findings support previous research finding that psychological adaptation problems were greater in sojourners who made large, versus small, cross-cultural transitions (11). Cultural distance between the host country and country of origin may explain the differences in the adaptation of these two groups of Chinese students. Australia is a country that is quite different in core values, lifestyle, and behavioral patterns from China. For example, moderation, ordering relationships by status, benevolent authority, being conservative, and having a sense of shame are basic to the core values of Chinese culture (18), which may not be so emphasized in Australian culture. Since the cultural distance between Australia and China is much greater than that between Hong Kong and Mainland China, it is not surprising that Chinese students who live in Australia experienced greater stress and poorer psychological outcomes than Chinese students in Hong Kong.
In this study, we found that demands of academic work were a strong risk factor for negative affect in both groups of Chinese students. As international students pursuing higher degrees, Chinese students might encounter a number of difficulties in their academic work. The education system in mainland China emphasizes students' ability to absorb, rather than develop knowledge, so that when students entered a Western university, they found they were not capable of doing research work as graduate students (Li YHA: Coping strategies and individual differences in adjustment and performance: a longitudinal analysis with Hong Kong college students. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hong Kong, 1999). They may also have difficulties engaging in group discussions and class presentations, since these are not emphasized in China's education system. Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong may face similar difficulties because universities in Hong Kong have followed the British tradition of university education for around 100 years. Moreover, Asian family values and expectations focus on educational success, which constitutes a source of academic stress for Asian students (19). As a result, academic issues become a potentially stress-inducing problem for Chinese international students in both Australia and Hong Kong.
Cultural difference as a stressor is found to exert a significantly predictive effect on negative affect in the Hong Kong sample, rather than in the Australian sample. One possible explanation may be related to their expectation toward cultural difference between host culture and culture of origin. For Chinese students in Australia, great cultural difference may be expected by most of them, given that China and Australia are quite different countries. On the other hand, many Chinese students in Hong Kong may not be psychologically prepared for the subtle cultural differences between Hong Kong and Mainland China, as they may not anticipate any such difference. The gap between expectation and reality of the sojourn is one contributor to adjustment stress (20).
In this study, we found that using the strategy of assimilation was associated with significantly less negative affect in the Australian sample, but no such effect was found in Hong Kong sample. As indicated by Berry (4), acculturating people who use the assimilation strategy have a strong intention to interact with the host society while having little interest in maintaining their own cultural identity. If migrants use assimilation strategy to cope with cross-cultural transition, they linger between two cultures. On the one hand, they try very hard to be accepted by the host culture; on the other hand, they try to cut off their cultural roots. As a result, it is very difficult for them to get social support from either side, which has been shown in the literature to be important in cross-cultural adaptation.
Theoretical and Practical Implications
This study has both theoretical and practical implications in the research on migration and mental health. Theoretically, first, migrants' mental health may be improved by reducing various acculturative hassles and avoiding the use of marginalization strategy to handle these problems. Second, multi-sample studies in two or more cultural settings may validate findings of research in one host country. Finally, it is also important to determine cultural-general and cultural-specific predictors of cross-cultural adaptation across different milieus. Practically, cross-cultural comparative study would be of great importance to design culturally-sensitive intervention programs for one group of migrants in two or more host societies. For example, although Chinese students in Australia and Hong Kong are both encouraged to maintain their own culture of origin, it is more important for Chinese students in Australia to interact with local Australian culture and establish connections with larger society by becoming involved in various social interactions and cultural activities with locals.
There are several limitations to the present study. First, because of the issue of ethical approval, the Australian sample in the present study included Chinese students who were studying at the University of Melbourne only. Generalization of the findings of the present study to the total population of Chinese international students in Australia is limited. Thus, the findings should be interpreted with caution. Second, the scale that was used in the present study to measure acculturative hassles was developed in the Hong Kong context for mainland Chinese students. Its application to Chinese international students in Australia needs further validation. Finally, the two samples were a bit different in their demographic characteristics in terms of gender, age, duration of residence in the host society, level of education, and marital status, so that they may not be entirely comparable.