Beyond Words: Studying Abroad in a Place That Should Be Called HOME

I was so excited to go back to where I was born. Maybe nervous was a better word, as I was adopted and brought over to the United States when I was 7 months old. Studying in China was going to be a new experience, filled with feelings of being welcomed into the Chinese culture that I had longed to be a part of for the past 19 years!

However, when I arrived in China for my 10 week summer semester, I felt far from welcomed or accepted in the way I expected. I watched Caucasian American and African American students get doted on by our ‘Chinese partners’, who were students we were paired up with at our Chinese university. In public, the locals asked me to take the photos of them with my fellow American students, and wanted to ask REAL American students about life in America!
I felt completely out of the loop, until I realized that this actually was acceptance. I was treated as though I was truly Chinese: no one gave me a second glance, storekeepers wouldn’t look up when I walked in, and people would come up to the street and ask me for directions as if I lived there. That was the first relief; but then I encountered a bigger issue: communication.
I was at the highest Mandarin level of all of the American students because I had been fortunate enough to go to a high school that offered a strong Chinese language program. However, one hour of class, Monday through Friday, can only teach you so much…
Being Asian, many storekeepers and security guards would speak Chinese to me, and then expect me to translate to my American counterparts. At first, it was terrifying. I would be mortified every time I would have to reply in Chinese with “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry, I’m adopted – I’m American.” But I quickly realized that this is why I opted for study abroad in the first place; I wanted to learn the language that was ripped away from me as an infant. In class, I talked a lot because that’s what MSU-James Madison-Social Justice kids do.
It was when other international students invited me out to eat that I would begin to lose confidence.
The first day I entered Chinese language class I met fifteen international students from all over the world (from Spain to Mongolia). I managed to do fine in class, and was thrilled when the international students invited me out to eat with them afterwards. I soon understood that Chinese was the common language used for social interaction on campus. I could recite dialogues out of the textbooks like a pro, but when it came to talking about “What’s life like in America?”, “Does everyone eat fried Snickers?”, or “Tell us about yourself!” I got tongue-tied and stuttered. It was easy for the teachers to understand us – they were used to a variety of international accents. International students were not used to each other’s accents.
C Class
My wonderful and amazing class for the first semester I was in Harbin

The other students had no idea what I was saying, and I was trying my hardest to get my points across in a language I was barely competent in. On the flip side, other international students would speak Chinese with a Korean or Spanish accent; it would take me about thirty seconds to figure out what they had just said in Chinese, and then another thirty to translate it into English.

As my study abroad trip went on, I slowly realized an extremely important culture point: English is actually known worldwide. At my school, teachers taught us it was “普通语” (Pǔtōng yǔ), or the “standard language [of the world]”. I’m a huge proponent of “understand your privilege!” but not once did I ever think that language could be a privilege.

One day, a 6’3” Korean kid named Hemu who intimidated me mightily, walked up and said “Hello, how are you?” in English. Speaking English was banned in the classroom, and I was so startled that I forgot to be nervous and replied, “I’m alright, and why are YOU speaking English?”

One of his friends explained that Hemu was going to move to Canada soon and he wanted to practice his English. Hemu asked me to dinner and said he’d pay; how could I turn down free food and a conversation in a comfortable language?

It turns out that using Chinese to teach English is actually quite difficult. The dinner was great, but consisted mostly of us using Pleco (a widely known Chinese-English dictionary app) and his Korean-Chinese-English dictionary app to learn new words and explain articles of speech (which don’t exist in Chinese). Hemu turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met, as well as caring and funny. As we walked back to my dorm, he asked if I could translate his Korean name into English and I told him sure. I looked down at my screen for a second before smiling: “Harmony. Your name means ‘Harmony’.” I explained that it was considered a feminine name, but I still thought it was a great name for him. Harmony is in Canada now, and we’re still in touch. Sometimes he asks me to help him with his English homework.
Students weren’t the only people I had to speak to in the language I was actually studying. At the cafeteria, all of the workers spoke only Chinese. On the first morning of classes there were only two food stations open at the cafeteria. One looked like you had to tell the man what ingredients you wanted in the breakfast burrito, the other had fresh egg pies sitting out. That meant that we would be able to get served by gesturing, so day one started out great by pointing at what my friends and I thought looked decent. A middle-aged couple was working the station, and they smiled and tried to speak to us; we replied with nods and smiles, and with not a clue to what they were saying.
I went back for breakfast every day after that. Sometimes I went with others, but mostly by myself. I’m an early bird, and the rest of the American students weren’t willing to get up any time before 7:50 AM for our 8:00 AM classes. I was in Harbin for eight weeks, and for seven of those weeks, my only communication with 阿姨 (auntie) and 叔叔 (uncle) were “Two, please” and “Thank you.”
Three days before I left, I wrote them a note.
It was so much easier (and less scary) to write in Chinese and check for mistakes than to speak and be caught off guard when they tried to ask me questions. I wrote a thank you letter, saying that I know I didn’t say much, but I appreciated them a lot and considered them my first friends at my Chinese university. I gave it to them the next morning before leaving for class. When I checked my phone during break, I found that Uncle from the breakfast place had added me on WeChat (a combination of texting and Facebook that is widely used in China). He texted me to come get dinner later, so I did.
Miscommunication struck me down again!
I bought dinner because I thought he said to come visit for dinner, but I later realized that the text had said we’ll make you dinner. And they did. They put the special breakfast mix that was usually in the egg pies (scrambled eggs, leeks, and bok choy) into dumplings, and gave them to me for free. I decided that if they could take the time to make me a special dinner, I could take the time to ask them about their lives, despite the fact I was pretty sure they couldn’t understand me. However, we talked for awhile and I found out how they worked from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM every single day, and all about their two children who were now adults. I found out how much they loved to cook and how much they loved watching college students grow up and graduate. I found out that they weren’t so different from the adults in my life.
Before I left, I mentioned that the other American students and I would only be in Harbin for a little while longer before we left for Shanghai, and eventually the USA. For the next two days, Auntie and Uncle gave me breakfast for free, and on the day I left they gave me fresh dumplings and two hard boiled eggs to take with me to the airport. I’m still in contact with them; they ask me about America and when I’m going to come back to China…
shanghai art
Shanghai Art Museum
The language barrier is huge on study abroad trips. It’s scary to speak to a native speaker. Trying to pay for things at the grocery store in China gave me a new perspective on what it must be like for non-native English speakers when they try to navigate America.
Being surrounded by a language that you are not confident in is absolutely terrifying, but if you push yourself through the language barrier, you’ll find that we’re all human. People understand emotion, they understand smiles – and embarrassed laughs. Communication and empathy bypass language and culture and personal histories, because we’re all just trying to fit into a community that is bigger than ourselves.
And it goes far beyond words.

White Rice (with Soy Sauce)


I was a high school junior who was going to our rival school’s prom. I guess rival school wasn’t the best term; it was my close family friend’s private school’s junior/senior prom. My date was one of her good friends who we had hung out with, along with my friend’s boyfriend. My family friend’s name was Bianca, her boyfriend was a first generation Korean senior named Jason, and my date was an international Chinese-Canadian student named James. The four of us went with another couple who were both international students from South Korea: Kira and Nick.

The six of us of ready at Bianca’s house and then went to a Korean owned sushi restaurant for our “prom dinner.” Of course, they served us small bowls of rice as appetizers. I will never forget the five sets of eyes that stared me down as I asked for the soy sauce. I was adopted from China when I was 8 months old and grew up in the Midwest with a wonderful, white family who puts soy sauce on their white rice. However, soy sauce was not made for dumping on rice

Bianca, who was also adopted, looked mortified that I was asking; Kira and Nick just looked genuinely confused, and asked why I wanted soy sauce. Jason and James both thought it was amusing, but definitely strange. Jason eventually handed me the soy sauce and I poured it on my rice. Kira and Nick looked scandalized.

I remember wanting to melt into my seat and disappear as I was eating my (delicious) rice. How was I supposed to know that soy sauce on rice was a “white person thing” (as Bianca so elegantly put it)? The rest of the night went on without a hitch. The private school had good food, and the prom was outside in an extremely aesthetically pleasing courtyard. We went back to Bianca’s house after and watched movies until we all fell asleep on her basement floor.

For the next couple of months, I was self-conscious whenever I ate rice. Even if it was leftover rice that I was microwaving to eat for lunch the next day. I would sometimes stop with the soy sauce bottle in my hand and have a mild identity crisis. In the middle of my recently-painted-teal kitchen in a suburbia neighborhood, I would put my soy sauce bottle down and tell myself to be “more Asian” and act how I “was supposed to.” Looking back, I don’t even know why I thought I needed to prove to myself in my 1950s-esque kitchen that I was “really Asian,” but it was a big deal to me.

Now, four years later, I pour soy sauce all over my rice. It’s delicious. I was back in China this past summer for a study abroad trip to finish up my Chinese major. I never put soy sauce on the rice there because of cultural understanding. However, now that I’m back at Michigan State University, and finally living in my own apartment, I use my Kikkoman Soy Sauce all the time. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be “white,” after all, that’s how I grew up. I did not grow up in China on a rice farm, where soy sauce was used to cook with and not as a condiment. I grew up in Michigan where Chinese takeout gives soy sauce packages with all meals.

I’m still coping with what it means to “be white” but “look (and kind of sort of be) Asian,” but at least I’m confident with my white rice and soy sauce.

**All names have been changed



A Late Thanksgiving Gratitude


So today was Thanksgiving, which is already a super problematic holiday; however, my family tries to focus on the fact that we all get a break off of work to be together with the ones we love. My family is pretty great; we’re all liberal democrats who are well-read and well-traveled. A middle-class, Midwest, bad humored group of people…that’s my family.

Of course, we were going around the table (there were only 9 of us) and saying what we are all thankful for; this year, my oldest cousin decided to add the rule “you can’t repeat what anyone before has said.” My uncle then proceeds to start with “I am thankful for all of the wonderful friends and family that I have who support and love me.”

Well, then, guess that one’s taken.

My oldest cousin’s husband was next (he was thankful for death metal) and then my oldest cousin (who was thankful for technology and how much it allows us to globalize our information sources and stay connected), but then it was me and I was scrambling to come up with something to be thankful for. I could have said something cheesy like “I’m thankful for Pokémon” – which isn’t a lie – but I knew that’s not what I needed to say; I needed to say something that was meaningful and was seriously thankful for.

The words were out of my mouth before I had a full comprehension of what I was saying: I was thankful for the unspoken language of humanness.

The language of smiles and laughter, or tears and broken hearts; emotions are universal. Again, my therapist recently enlightened me on the differences between emotions and feelings:

Emotions are physiological responses to situations; they are universal and felt by every single person on this planet. Feelings are the subjective responses to situations; they are very individual and can be felt very differently.”

Emotions and the physiological responses are built into human biology: we cry when we’re sad, we radiate joy when we’re happy, we raise our voices or try to assert dominance when we’re angry – these are natural responses that serve three different functions:

  1. To communicate to others
  2. To communicate to ourselves
  3. To motivate ourselves

Let’s ignore the second two; those will be for another day. The first reason for emotions: to communicate to others – that’s so cool. We literally have responses built so that others around us can better understand how we’re feeling. Crying has been socialized to be perceived as weakness (don’t even get me started), but everyone knows that if someone is crying, they need help; something has happened that has broken this person down. If someone is yelling or lunging towards us, we can assume that they are defending themselves because they feel attacked; it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, these physical responses are the same for all emotions.

Smiling at someone on the street is a kind thing to do, and it is meant as a welcoming hello; when someone is sitting on the apartment complex’s steps crying, something is probably wrong; and if someone says something in class with a raised voice as a response, they probably felt attacked. These are true around the world – as in, these are things that I have seen throughout my life in the US, but are also things that I saw and experienced in China.

I would smile at the older couple serving dinner, and they would slip in an extra dumpling or two. There was one night when a group of us (American students and their Chinese partners) went out, and the noise was too much and the number of people in the club was too high, so I started crying. My roommate took me outside, and one of our Chinese friends came out to ask if I was okay. I said I was fine, but he looked at me and said, “You are crying. I do not know why, but I know that you are not okay.” I was so taken aback that I actually stopped crying. It seems dumb, of course someone crying is upset, but it was as if I suddenly understood how instinctual emotions truly are.

Showing emotion does not make you weak or vulnerable; and I can’t stand people who think that. Showing emotion makes you human, it makes you relatable, and it allows people to help you. Showing emotion is something that so many people think of as helpless or immature; however, the exact opposite is true.

By expressing your true emotions, you are putting yourself out into the world and asking humanity for support, or showing your own support for others. A kind smile to a stranger can make their day, and you know it to be true because someone has smiled at you, and it made your heart a little lighter. Seeing someone crying on the phone makes your heart ache, because you have felt their sorrow, too.

So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the human language of emotions and everything that they have to offer: the good and the bad, the ups and the downs; emotions have been there to help me express my need for support, and express my love for others.