When Xinuo “Johnny” Zhao arrived in Pittsburg three semesters ago he didn’t know one of his soon-to-be best friends would be an American.

When Xinuo “Johnny” Zhao arrived in Pittsburg three semesters ago he didn’t know one of his soon-to-be best friends would be an American.

Zhao, 22, had completed a year of university in Harbin, China, a city with a metro population of nearly 11 million people. But he didn’t like the style of university life. There, he said, students spend all of their time studying, because grades depend almost entirely on year-end tests. And, anyway, he had wanted to come to the U.S. since he was a kid.

“In China we only had the two tests each semester and hardly any assignments. Everyone focused on the tests,” he said. “Not that I don’t get good study here, but I get time to enjoy life. I have more free time here.”

Shortly after he set foot on the Pittsburg State University campus in the fall of 2010, the electrical engineering major joined the Pitt Pals program, which pairs international students with Americans and is designed to help them acclimate to life in the United States.

“It’s just good to have an American peer on their level,” said BrendaHawkins, who started the program three years ago and matches students based on their shared interests.

At an initial meeting he was paired with Conner Paustian, a biology major from Lenexa who signed up at the urging of his then-girlfriend, who worked in the international programs and services office. At first they didn’t know what to expect.

“We were both kind of new in town and didn’t really know many people,” Paustian said.

Even thirty years ago the prospect of putting two people from such different cultures together and expecting them to immediately click would seem far-fetched. That’s often still the case, Hawkins said, and for whatever reason certain student pairs don’t bond. But the world is a much smaller and more connected place now, and students are far more likely to have been exposed to similar pop culture and other elements and have more in common. Such was the case with Zhao and Paustian.

“When he first came over he was looking through my DVD collection, and when he saw Jason Bourne (The Bourne Trilogy) his face just lit up,” Paustian said.

For Zhao, who is a movie buff, it was a special moment.

“At home people only know about Mission Impossible,” he sad. “He also likes Zombie movies, Bruce Lee movies, a lot of the same movies I like.”

Of course, they also like playing video games, going to parties and football games and other typical college rituals. For Zhao, one of those rituals was getting a car. He had a driver’s license in China, but had to get another one here.

“Conner helped me a lot with learning to adjust to life in the U.S.,” Zhao said.

There were other things to learn, too. On Friday, Paustian taught him how to change the oil on his car.

“It’s cheap to have it done in China, so everyone just takes it in to have it done,” Zhao said. “But if I want to save some money here I have to learn to do it myself.”

Friday afternoon as roommates and neighbors came and went, the two tinkered on Zhao’s white Suzuki in the chilly mist, Paustian pointing out where to set the jack, where to add new oil, and where the oil plug and filter are.

“See this?” Paustian said. “That’s the filter.”

“I can see the cap!” Zhao said excitedly.

The oil filter was in a remarkably difficult spot to reach and wasn’t being cooperative. Finally, they had to remove the wheel to get a good angle on it; a plus, because Zhao learned how to change a tire in the process.

No matter that they were doing mechanics work and getting dirty in the cold and rain. The fact that they were doing it as friends made the difference.

“This was easy, not hard at all,” Zhao said. “This is fun for me, really fun. I like it.”