By Lanxi Huang, Associate Professor Peggy Kern, and Professor Lindsay Oades

The University of Melbourne

When you think of the word “salad”, what comes to mind? Imagine that you think of a salad as a warm mixture of steamed rice, herbs, and vegetables. Instead, you are presented with a bowl of iceberg lettuce, bacon bits, croutons, and covered with a white creamy dressing. What has happened?  The word “salad” can have quite different meanings, depending on your cultural background. We have a mental schema of what a salad is, such that when someone uses the word, you have a particular understanding of what that means. When someone else uses it in a different way, it can cause confusion or miscommunication, but also disagreements and stigmatisation.

A word that is particularly prone to different schemas is the word “wellbeing”. What does wellbeing mean to you? How much might your definition of wellbeing impact upon your life? And what happens when your conceptualisation differs from the culture where you are living? Our study explored these questions with a particular focus on Chinese international students living in Australia.

Exploring Wellbeing Conceptualisations for Chinese International Students

In this PhD research project, we focused on Chinese international students who were studying at tertiary educational institutions in Australia. Unlike domestic students, Chinese international students must navigate through a foreign environment where the culture and language is very different to what they are used to. While Australian universities provide various services to support students, the services offered and the language used on websites and in other communications are generally based on Western experiences and perspectives, which may not match the understanding and needs of Chinese international students. As with the salad analogy, they might be offering a crispy mixture of lettuce and fresh vegetables while students are seeking a warm, herb-infused rice dish.

In the study, students completed an online survey, with a subset of students providing additional details through in-depth interviews. Students reflected on questions such as: “What does wellbeing mean to you?”, “how would you describe a person who is high in wellbeing” and “Is there any difference when you think about wellbeing in English and Chinese?”

Figure 1 (Huang et al., 2020) illustrates ways that students described a person with high versus low wellbeing. Students pointed to passion and involvement in life, financial security, and the key importance of family. Low wellbeing pointed to mental and physical illness, lack of achievement, and social rejection.

Figure 1: Words and phrases that participants used to describe a person with high (left) and low (right) wellbeing

We coded definitions of wellbeing into different themes. Five main themes appeared: mental health, physical health, security, relationship support, and prosperity. While mental, physical, and social health commonly appear in Western conceptualisations, students pointed to the importance of security and prosperity, and the frustration and challenge that occurs when these do not occur.

It was particularly interesting to consider the distinctions that respondents made in comparing their English and Chinese conceptions of wellbeing. As illustrated in Figure 2 (Huang et al., 2020), wellbeing was perceived as a broad, abstract, and long-term, oriented more towards the self. In contrast, in Chinese, it was seen as concrete, specific, short term, and oriented more towards others.

Figure 2: Chinese international students' different understandings of wellbeing in Chinese and English

For instance, one student noted: “I will think more about the interpersonal relationships, such as friends and family in Chinese. But if I think it in English, I will consider more about myself, like how to manage myself.” Another student commented: “when I think it in Chinese, I will think it to be more positive, but if I listen to the word in English, I will think it more neutral, which could possibly include both positive side and negative side”.

Implications for supporting student wellbeing

International education provides Australia opportunities to attract talented students who contribute to the intellectual, social, and economic fabric of society; strengthen Australia’s reputation as an accepting, inclusive, multiethnic nation; and contribute to economic success. Effectively supporting student wellbeing requires creativity and is a vital part of not only attracting students to Australia but also enhancing their experiences while studying abroad. Our study provides several creative strategies for how to do this well, effectively supporting Chinese international students’ wellbeing:

1. Find common ground. The same words can have different meanings, depending upon one’s cultural background and experiences. Before assuming that another person understands key words like we do, listen to their perspective and identify whether you are indeed describing the same thing.

2. Align rather than impose. The revealed language provides insights for delivering wellbeing messages in ways that align with students’ understanding, rather than imposing language that has little meaning.

3. Centre offerings around students’ values. Universities often provide a range of activities to support student wellbeing. The findings point to specific areas that universities could target to align with Chinese international students’ perspectives. For example, universities could offer healthy diet and lifestyle information for students (physical health), offer a series of activities that allow cross-cultural interaction (relational support) in a fun way (supportive positivity and optimism), enhance campus security with a respectful environment (security), and increase students’ employability (prosperity).

A person who asks for a salad might be disappointed to find that the dish is nothing like what they expect it to be. By understanding that diner’s expectation, you can cater to them and create a happy customer. By understanding students’ expectations about wellbeing, and working creatively with them, we can help create happy global citizens.


Huang, L., Kern, M. L., & Oades, L. G. (2020). Strengthening university student wellbeing: Language and perceptions of Chinese international students. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17: 5538.