Home is where I am

I felt extremely overwhelmed during the first few days when I was back in my hometown, Hangzhou. The streams of cars and seas of people made me want to go back to the peaceful Iowa. Now that I’ve stayed in Beijing for a month, which is 800  miles away from my hometown, I feel at home here, and Iowa is like a strange land in my memory.

The day after I had my wisdom teeth removed, I flew to Beijing with a bad headache due to toothache. Although I had been to this city several times and was familiar with it, I still felt a sense of lost the first night when I arrived.

It may sound funny but what made me feel at home in Beijing was the kitchen in my place. I went grocery shopping the next day and made myself a big meal. Once I realized that I could feed myself like elsewhere, I was settled.

My first meal in Beijing.

My first meal in Beijing.

Waidiren — people from other places

In order to get a pass to enter the Diplomatic Compound where I work, I was told that I had to have a temporary residence permit besides my ID. I asked why my ID wouldn’t work. The person who was busy issuing other people’s passes said without looking at me, “Because you are a Waidiren.”

Waidiren literally means people from other places or aliens.

I wasn’t born in Beijing and I’m not a resident here, which prevents me from getting lots of benefits that locals enjoy. I had known this already. But still it was surprising to me that my Chinese citizenship doesn’t work very well even in China. I had to prove that I was temporarily staying in Beijing to get the pass to work. To get the temporary residence permit, I had to go through another complicated process with the local police station, which was a pain.

This made me aware the first time in my life that I was excluded in China. I thought China was ridiculous, but wasn’t mad; it’s just so difficult to get certain things done here, and I’m just not used to the way it is anymore. I have been a foreigner (Waiguoren) in Iowa, and now I’m a Waidiren in Beijing. They are not very different.

Home is where I am

A famous saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.” It’s too abstract for me. I would say, home is where I am.

I have been away from “home”–the place where I had lived with my families for 20 years–for three years. And surprisingly, I don’t miss it a lot while I am away. It’s now my parents’ home.

I like to call the place where I stay home, no matter if it’s my parents’ house, an apartment in Iowa City, a hostel in Taiwan, or a rented room in Beijing, as long as I am with myself. If there is a kitchen, it’s an even better home. I don’t need a temporary residence permit, a household registration book, a green card or a passport to remind me where my home is.

At this point, my home is a comfy bedroom in central Beijing that I rented from a French guy who is back home for vacation, and a small kitchen that I share with 5 other people, which frustrates me a lot.

And I had friends over tonight just like what I always did in Iowa City.

My occasional homesickness was always specific about food, instead of "home."

My occasional homesickness was always specific about food, instead of “home.” (Photos by Siwen Wang and Alison Sullivan)



Introducing Tales from the Chinese Diaspora


Tales from the Chinese Diaspora is my work-in-progress honors project.

The theme of 留学——liuxue, or study abroad—was central to many of the stories I consumed while growing up in China in the 1990s. Fanciful tales of fiction, feature films and TV series and ostensibly true accounts in documentaries and memoirs alike planted in my mind all sorts of ideas about going to university in some peculiar foreign place. Thus, study abroad was an oddly familiar yet strange and exciting term to me, and not a reality until I came to experience it myself.

When I was younger, I saw study abroad as a mysterious privilege. This honored status went back to the 1870s, when the Qing Court sent 120 ordinary Chinese teen boys to the U.S. to learn Western skills; upon return, they were supposed to shoulder the responsibility of bringing the dying empire back to life. In the early 20th century, others subsidized by the government or by their affluent families carried on the tradition of going abroad and returning; many later became important figures in every field of modern Chinese life. Much later, in the early 1980s, those from well-connected families in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai began to find means to go abroad in a different sort of effort–to escape China’s seeming backwardness; and by the 1990s, the brightest students from top Chinese universities were leaving for graduate programs at prestigious Ivy League universities.

By the time I was preparing to go abroad for a college exchange year in 2011, study abroad was no longer a big deal. Pretty much everybody knew somebody studying in a foreign country. Now Chinese undergraduates, supported by parents of a rising middle class, were flooding into U.S. colleges, typically to burnish their credentials for a future career in business. After one term in the U.S., I decided to stay with the flood, and transferred from Arkansas to Iowa to complete my bachelor’s degree.

My project examines the varied results and repercussions of this influx of Chinese students to America, focusing mainly on the burgeoning population of Chinese undergraduates on the University of Iowa campus. Through a series of in-depth reports, I address issues of identity, freedom, the future plans of international students, the experiences of female students, the situation of wives of international students, and the misconceptions, misunderstandings, and structural and habitual barriers that tend to divide Chinese and U.S. students.

My TOEFL instructor back in Hangzhou, China, once commented that Chinese students going abroad these days are not as qualified as their predecessors. It used to be that only the brightest and best could study abroad—and only some of the best and brightest got the chance. Nowadays, it seems, anyone can manage to study abroad as long as family finances allow. Indeed, my generation of liuxuesheng – students studying abroad – has a somewhat shabby reputation. We are often seen as a spoiled group of fuerdai —rich baby boomers—living decadently off our newly affluent parents’ money.

In truth, the stereotype is just that – a gross and unfair overgeneralization. Today’s Chinese students abroad are far more diverse – economically, intellectually, geographically and personally – than those who have come before.

Over the course of a year of interviewing my fellow Chinese students across majors and classes, I’ve found that many are conscientious and high achieving. Most care a great deal about getting a good education and doing well. And while some have conventional outlooks and ambitions, among others there is no lack of idealism, curiosity and critical thinking. Motivations for coming to the U.S. are varied: some are seeking personal freedom, some a better quality of education and hopes for more mobility, many a combination, and some don’t know. A lot come just because their parents want them to. Some are academically ill prepared; some are brilliant in all respects. Certainly, there is that minority who drive BMWs or Maseratis, those who collect Louis Vuitton satchels or Roger Vivier shoes, some spoiled ones who can’t cook or do their own laundry and have no idea what they are in school for; but most are modest strivers struggling to grow up in an unfamiliar environment, and each one is an individual.

Being at Iowa and reporting on my peers has impressed upon me anew that people are complex. A gal with a collection of luxury designer bags worth a year of tuition at the same time may be intelligent and even profound. A Chinese who never talks to Americans isn’t necessarily a loner or a dolt. An ultra-Americanized Chinese can still be friendly and compassionate toward compatriots. And for all our stereotypes about U.S. students, they are no less complicated. Domestic students may ignore international students out of fear or ignorance rather than snobbery. Some academically successful students are socially awkward. Some who seem stupid or lazy may just be insecure. Some who party and drink hard may study a lot, too.

Such human complexity compelled me to continue writing about people and doings on the Iowa campus. And I felt it was meaningful to record the experiences of Chinese students at this stage—with the prestige and economy of China clearly on the rise and the U.S. seemingly on the decline.

We are the generation who grew up as coastal metropolitans when Chinese economic growth was skyrocketing. Unlike our parents and grandparents, we haven’t experienced traumatic political and social movements nor suffered painful dislocations that lodge in our memories. We don’t have the strong sense of national and cultural identity that motivated our forbears, and our feelings of obligation and patriotism are far more subdued. We don’t have to worry about feeding ourselves; we take studying abroad, and much else, for granted. Our attitudes, ambitions, intentions and experiences are far different than those of our predecessors.

Still, we face some of the same issues that Chinese abroad always have: language hurdles, cultural differences, the difficulty of developing meaningful connections with the locals.. We struggle between the push of wanting to leave China and the pull of wishing to return; the U.S. is not home, yet our sentiments for China are receding.

Doing this project has enriched my college experience. It has enabled me to meet new people, to understand more about both Chinese and Americans, and to think through issues that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Most importantly, the more I wrote about Chinese students, the stronger my sense of mission grew. By the time I was working on the last article, my purpose wasn’t simply to tell a good story; I want to be a good journalist, brutally honest and self-critical, while also expressing the needs and defend the interests of the misunderstood, often neglected and sometimes mistreated Chinese student community.

The challenges and quandaries facing Chinese students at Iowa have many causes, of course, and solutions lie with all involved. I hope Chinese students in the future will arrive better prepared both mentally and academically to engage and enjoy college life and gain an education worth the money their parents pay. I hope U.S. students can become more curious and open-minded, taking advantage of the proliferating international resources and global connections all around them.

I hope this university—and others facing similar circumstances—will come to practice and exhibit genuine concern for its international students that goes far beyond the revenue they generate. I hope the institution can develop and provide many more meaningful opportunities for conscious cross-cultural interaction and growth among all students.

And I hope that a century or so hence – presuming climate change does not preclude descendants – our successors will find much to learn, enjoy and cherish in reading our stories.

 Special thanks to Professor Judy Polumbaum who helped shape the introduction with assiduous editing.

From Michelle Obama’s China Tour to Sweet and Sour Chicken

Michelle Obama recently traveled to China to promote educational exchanges.

On Weibo, the most popular Chinese social media platform, Obama’s outfits, places  she visited, interaction that she had with China’s first lady Peng Liyuan, were the most talked-about topics. Had I not been studying abroad in the U.S., I would  have been more interested in those lighthearted topics.

This time, I rather paid more attention to the real purpose of the trip. Obama called on U.S. students to study abroad in China, learn Chinese, connect to people there and understand more about Chinese culture. The message behind her calling must have a broader meaning — China is on the rise, and it’s important for the U.S. to learn about the country, its people and culture.

However, from a Chinese student’ point of view, it will be helpful for a better campus climate for international students at U.S. universities. More American students going to China means more cross-cultural understanding. After they return to the U.S., they are going to be more globally-minded and have a better sense of cultural awareness, which will improve future interaction between U.S. and international students.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 1.12.26 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-08 at 12.26.53 PM

1,351 University of Iowa students study abroad during academic year 2011/12, according to the UI Study Abroad Statistics. Italy and Spain were the most popular destinations among undergrads. Only 3 percent studied abroad in China. With a large number of international students from China, while few U.S. students going to China, the educational exchange here is unbalanced.

There are of course some Chinese students who come to the U.S. just for a degree, not trying to learn about American culture. But most are trying hard to succeed academically and culturally. They come to this country half-way across the globe, at least stepped out with some degree of curiosity to explore.

It would be great if more U.S. students study in China in the future, so that when they come back, they would at least know that Sweet and Sour Chicken isn’t Chinese food.

Chinese students party, too

When we’re talking about international student integration here at Iowa, we should see what our peers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have done.

Three Chinese students saw the same issue of separation between Chinese and U.S. students at Wisconsin Madison. They launched Channel C — a series of talk show trying to demystify Chinese students and stereotypes associated with them and promoting integration. The C can stand for China, communication, conversation or cross-culture, as the creators say.

So far they have created 24 episodes with a wide range of topics. “Why Chinese Students Don’t Party,” for example, touches on the party culture on U.S. campuses, which fits our context as well — Wisconsin is the No.2 party school, and we’re the even better No.1.

Like the girl in the video, I never get the point of college student parties, either. I get the social part of it, but don’t understand why people have to get drunk and do crazy things afterward.

However, I like going to American “grownup” parties, where I learn a great deal of American culture. The “grownup” parties is a lot more like the party in my culture — friends get together, eating, talking and sometimes playing, with or without alcohol.

I had a dumpling party last week and successfully taught my vegetarian American friend Jaki to make veggie dumplings. After dinner, we had great conversations about food, culture, literature, freedom, feminism, loneliness, race… That’s the very best kind of party I would enjoy — exchanging ideas, trading gossip, of course with great food.

image_1 image_3 image

So, I would say, Chinese students also party and have fun, but in a much more different way.

My English no good

It drives me nuts when my interviewees end each sentence with “you know,” and fill their sentences with millions of “like” or “like, you know.” Because, like, taking the numerous fillers out when editing an audio clip takes, like, twice as much time, you know.

I was frustratedly editing an audio clip full of those fillers the other day when my roommate got home. I complained to her, “How come people are so obsessed with ‘like’ and ‘you know’?” She said, “Every time I hear people say ‘you know,’ I’d think to myself, ‘I wouldn’t have asked if I knew that.'”

I couldn’t help but laugh — some of us Chinglish speakers don’t get the art of fillers.

American hospitality — like the filler “like” — took me a long time to get used to. I was an exchange student down in Arkansas for four months in 2011. Every time I went to the school cafeteria, I was greeted by the old cashier ladies (Whoops, was I just being politically incorrect calling them old ladies?) with “sweetie,” “honey,” “baby,”  “sweetheart,” or “dear.” When I first heard the terms of endearment, my reaction was, “I’m not your sweetie.” But here in Iowa, I sometimes do miss the southern hospitality.

My upbringing in the implicit Chinese culture gave me yet another hard time using superlatives. “Very good” and “great” used to be the best comments I could make on people and things. Not that I didn’t know “excellent,” “extraordinary,” “amazing,” “super,”  “wonderful,” “awesome,”and whatever I call “big words,” they just felt exaggerating to me, and I thought it was uncool to express strong feelings. And when I got comments with those “big words,” I’d suspect, “Really? I’m not that good.” (I know i was cranky) I have always been amazed by the ability of Americans to use a wide variety of superlatives in daily conversations and email exchanges — they are just truly good at making people feel good — how marvelous!

See, now I’ve even learned to use the exclamation mark without hesitance. When in Rome…

Related article and video:
Like, Uh, You Know: Why Do Americans Say ‘You Know’ And Use Other Verbal Fillers So Often?
View How to Stop Saying “Like,” “Um” & “You Know” on Howcast

Racism Hurts

This past week was particularly hard for me — the theme of the whole week was racism.

Last Saturday night, I went to cover an event trying to raise the awareness of racism toward Asian students on campus. It was the day when the Kunming knife attack happened in China.

Last Thursday, I interviewed Sam Horne Van who works at the UI Assessment. He shared findings of the 2013 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey on the international student experiences. One of the key findings is that international students feel significantly less respected on campus and less belonging to campus than domestic students, which is similar at other universities. Discrimination against Asian students on campus is not just pieces of tweets against random people; it happens on a much larger scale.

Last night, a Chinese student told me that at a staff party, her drunk boss said, “I hate Asians” in front of her. He said he hated those Asians who drive luxury cars and those who laughed in the library. I asked her, “Did you feel angry?” She said she didn’t because he was drunk, and she knew that he was not talking about her. “He was talking about OTHER people,” she said. She left her work later because of all of the unhappy experiences  with people there and of the drunk statement that her boss made. I then asked, “Why didn’t you speak up?” She said that she didn’t think speaking up would make any difference because her boss wouldn’t change his mind anyway. Plus, she didn’t want to cause any trouble. I got really emotional, arguing with her that if none of us brought this issue up, nothing is going to be improved. It’s OTHERS today, but it could be YOU and ME tomorrow.

Chinese students didn’t growing up exposing to diverse races. Some wouldn’t realize when they are being discriminated against based on nationality or even look. Even if they do, they don’t know how to deal with it. The fact that we have been taught not to stand up and and speak out for whatever happens makes things worse — it seems no harm has been done on the surface. When hate speeches and racist tweets against Asian students are floating around and the university doesn’t take a firm stand, I as an international student feel unsupported.

By the way, scholars have defined discrimination based on culture and nationality as neo-racism:

“Neo-racism rationalises the subordination of people of colour on the basis of culture, which is of course acquired through acculturation within an ethnic group, while traditional racism rationalises it fundamentally in terms of biology. Neo-racism is still racism in that it functions to maintain racial hierarchies of oppression.” (JENNY J. LEE & CHARLES RICE, “Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination,” Higher Education (2007) 53: 381–409)

When you are being stereotyped…

Lu Shen - uiowa journalism  Lu Shen - university of iowa - journalism

I attended an event titled, “Breaking stereotypes” last night. The organizer invited a California-based blogger Phil Yu, aka Angry Asian Man, to give a speech on his experience of 13 years running the blog, writing little offensive things he observes and encounters in life and media.

The organizer, the University of Iowa Asian American Coalition, hoped to raise awareness of tolerance on campus, concerning about the derogatory and even discriminating tweets against Asian students on campus (see more details in this Daily Iowan article). The audience was a mix of Asian American, African American, Caucasian and international students.

Interestingly, when an Asian American student in the audience asked Yu, what the best way would be to break stereotypes, he said, “I’m not so much interested in breaking stereotypes; what I love is people being the truest version of themselves. And if that means you do fulfill some kind of stereotype by being yourself, being the Asian science geek guy, so be it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

A study shows that there are five groups of stereotypes of Chinese international students held by U.S. students:

  1. smart, good at math and science, intelligent, studious and hardworking
  2. kind, friendly, nice, and polite
  3. bad at speaking English, only friends with other Chinese students, not well assimilated to U.S. culture
  4. quiet, shy, a loner, and not very social
  5. oblivious, loud, intrusive on personal space, strange, and never speaks English

Not surprisingly, some are favorable to U.S. students and others not.

A lack of interaction between international and domestic students leads to misunderstanding and stereotyping. If everyone — no matter where you are from — tries to understand others and have more curiosity and cultural sensitivity, we may not even have to talk about stereotypes any more.