By Wyatt Bush

Authentic Chongquing hotpot. Even in Chinese restaurants, in the U.S., hot pot is a relative unknown.

A pungent aroma of Oriental spices encompasses the air and strangles the senses of those unaccustomed. Situated in the kitchenette/laundry room of Herrig Hall’s third floor at Central Michigan University, sit half a dozen Chinese international students, uninhibited by the sharp, stabbing scent, enjoying a meal unlike any other in Mount Pleasant.

It is here where Zhengzhou native Yukun Wang prepares the customary Chinese cuisine of winter known as “hot pot.” Consisting of a boiling stew and a variety of food sides including beef, tofu, broccoli, crab, and a metric ton of scorching spices, the meal is prepared and consumed in a fashion entirely alien to American eyes.

Each ingredient is plopped into the stew one at a time, and placed in a community bowl. From this common bowl, each of the dinner’s attendees grabs with chopsticks one or two of the foodstuffs at a time, either eating them or placing them in their own personal bowl, which contains even more spices and condiments depending on individual preference. As all this dining occurs, increasing quantities and variants of foods are placed into the stew. To properly experience hot pot, one must cook while consuming.

Within solely the manner these students eat, a communal affair of constant crossing and forced interactivity, the cultural contrasts between China and the United States are apparent. Also apparent is despite the scene occurring on American university soil, the de facto language of this small gathering is Chinese, not English.

Adjustment has not been exactly easy for Wang, a 20-year-old junior studying graphic design in her first semester in the States. She is unlikely to finish the year with a final grade score greater than a C, in at least one of her three ELI courses. As such, she must take these classes once again before she is permitted unrestricted entrance into the general student body, delaying her expected integration by a full semester. Wang said a contributing factor of her postponement was the inability to interact with enough fluent English speakers in an environment as friends. According to the Office of International Affairs, since 2009, the number of international English Language Institute/undergraduate students attending campus increased 171 percent, from 260 to 445 students, 337 of which are currently enrolled in the ELI. While the ELI has significantly expanded its operations, many students face similar struggles as Wang.

Students by Country of Origin

The number of international students has increased dramatically in recent years. Indian graduate students and Saudi Arabians have been the two largest contributors to this change. The total number of Indians and Saudi Arabians increased from 106 to 222 and 42 to 340 respectively in the past five years.

Meanwhile for Wang, hot pot remains one of many activities she has been unable to fully enjoy while abroad. However, that was a sacrifice she was willing to make in order to study at CMU, the only American university the Guangxi Arts Institute would allow her to transfer her two years of credits.

“You don’t know what hot pot means to me, for me, it is like a sandwich,” Wang said. “I was excited I was coming to another different country, and still see it as a chance to travel and to open my eyes.”

To graduate from the ELI, internationals must pass a language reading, writing, listening and grammar fluency test administered the Monday before classes start in the fall semester, to begin their college career at CMU. ELI director Richard Forest said about half are able to do so. Otherwise, they are placed into one of five steps of the ELI program, depending on their individual language proficiency.

These steps are divided into the Intensive Program and Dual Program. The Intensive Program consists of four levels, each requiring a semester to complete, and students are not permitted to enroll in classes outside the ELI. Next, there is the Dual Program, which students enter upon either placement or completion of the Intensive Program. Though the Dual Program consists of only one level, it may take two semesters to complete, as students are deemed able to enroll in general university courses in addition to the ELI’s. In order to complete each level of both programs, students must complete all the language courses with a minimal grade of a C. Though it depends individually on the student, the ELI may take anywhere from one to six semesters to complete.

International Student Body Composition 2009

International Student Body Composition 2014

In addition to the demographics undergoing dramatic change in the past half decade, the number of students underwent great change as well. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of total internationals students on campus increased 88 percent, from 564 to 1062. The 2014 fall semester saw a record high of 386 new students attending the university.


Since Wang was placed in the Dual Program of the English Language Institute, it was expected for her to take one year of English-language courses, which would be relative equivalents to 400 level foreign language classes for English speakers, as well as a few general curriculum courses open to any students attending the university.

On the recommendation of a professor, Wang recently enrolled in the ELI’s Conversation Partner program, in order to be paired with an American student to act as a friend and casual guide to the English language. After waiting more than a week, just prior to Thanksgiving break, Wang was relieved to be paired with a conversation partner.

Some students are forced to endure waits far longer than Wang’s. Mohammed Almushajrah is a 24-year-old Saudi Arabian student attempting to learn the English language while his wife pursues graduate studies at CMU. He said he waited more than a month before he was at last paired with a partner.

“I love American films, most of the English I know comes from (movies) that I have watched,” Almushajrah said. “I have been waiting for a (conversation partner) so I can improve my English, it has been (hard) finding an American friend who I can talk with and help my English.”

Though international students face long queues for conversation partners, the in-demand English speakers they need have encountered long waits as well.

Lansing senior Jennifer Vandenhaute said she waited at least eight weeks between registering for the program at the beginning of the semester and being paired her partner, Wang.

Vandenhaute said after she registered, there was no contact from the ELI to let her know she was a part of the program when she applied in September.

“I heard nothing, then was assigned with Yukun in November,” Vandenhaute said. “I was excited, but really surprised.”

Forest said he was unsure of the cause in discrepancy between the wait times of English-speaking and international alike, but that it may in part be the result of its regular program coordinator, ELI associate director Caitlin Hamstra’s, leave for the semester.

Maria McNeel, her temporary replacement as head of the program by the ELI, did not comment.

Regardless, Forest said the ELI has expanded its role across campus to better assist with increasing numbers of international students lacking English fluency.

In addition to the invention of programs such as the conversation partners, Forest said within roughly the past half-decade, the department increased faculty members 250 percent, from 10 to 25. Furthermore, the ELI courses themselves expanded from its origins of being contained within solely Ronan Hall, to Anspach, Moore, Wightman and almost every academic hall on campus.

Still, some students are falling through the cracks and are unable to discover or be paired with English speakers in a timely manner.

“Language is the most important thing when you make friends,” Wang said. “If my English super sucks, we won’t become friends.”

For those dining on hot pot in Herrig, the only English speaker to be found is the occasional stray that comes to do laundry on a Sunday night.

Social Media

Facebook: Imagine trying to study abroad in a foreign land where nobody speaks English. Click here to find out more about one university program that helps such students and whether it is readily available for those in need.

For Yukun Wang, eating hot pot is like eating sandwiches. She also doesn’t fully speak English. Check out what it’s like for her and her struggles while she studies in the States.

Twitter: Learning a language is tough for anybody, find out what the university does to help its surging international population.

International students need help from American students to learn English. Why do some wait months before getting an English partner?