by Xiaoqian Zhu | Voices | Spring 2020
A Chinese Student in polarized America.
On a steamy August day in 2011, my classmates were preparing to go back to heavy loads of schoolwork and face the ticking clock in each classroom counting down to Gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. I was boarding a plane at Hong Kong International Airport, grasping a file folder with my passport, documents, exchange student guide, a map of San Francisco International Airport and a few pages of introduction to Louisiana. I knew Louisiana would be different from the America I saw on TV—skyscrapers, bridges, busy streets with burger joints and dim bars. “Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the US,” I read. What would that look like?, I thought to myself. Surely still better than the poorest parts of China? Words from Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Chicago, which I learned about on my Casio electronic dictionary as English practice, began to sound in my memory: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
I landed in America as part of a high school exchange program. Before that, I was studying at one of the most selective public high schools in Guangzhou. I cried on the phone to my mother for feeling dumb in math and physics classes, and felt small while my classmates were running Student Union, winning national academic awards, traveling globally and performing on world-class stages. I wanted to keep up with my peers, and that included studying abroad—roughly 150–200 out of the 1,000 students in my class ended up getting a Western college education. I thought by going to America, I’d shake off all these pressures of always achieving and be appreciated for my personality, finally be free and happy. The magic words Obama spoke were soon to be met with a completely different, cold, harsh reality. The true America was about to unfold in front of me.
For the first 3 months in Louisiana, I struggled to fully understand English spoken with a Southern accent. But that did not stop me from doing many things for the first time: I read a corny English love novel, attended a dance party, taught my classmates Chinese history, performed a monologue in drama club—things I could not do in China due to the intense focus on studying. But there were also many nights I spent tackling American history, a much thicker textbook than my Chinese history textbook despite America’s significantly shorter history. I was mesmerized by what America was “about.”
Talking to Americans was just as eye-opening, in its own way. My rich, spoiled, white host sister rolled her eyes at friends I made: poor white girls who liked coloring and math, a daughter of two lesbians, Pentecostals who always covered their bodies fully, a Black teen mom, and other Asian exchange students.
I was determined to blend in as an equal to American kids. I wanted to break the smart, studious, nerdy Asian stereotype. However, my determination was not rewarded. Instead, I had my first taste of racism. As the only Chinese girl in town, I thought “exotic” was good. It was rare, after all. I even prepared myself for loads of eccentric questions. But at a point they stopped being just eccentric. The words I was looking for to describe questions like “Does China have internet?” were “racist” and “ignorant.” But I was 16 and in a foreign country for 3 months. I didn’t know how to use those words as weapons to fight back. So I kept the injury to myself.
It got worse when my white host sister started calling me “Chi” and laughed boisterously at me for looking “Chinese” during a Chinese circus show on a holiday trip to Nashville. “Is that your brother, Chi?” She burst into laughter. It was the first time I felt that being “different” meant “inferior” to some people. Nothing prepared me for this. Not High School Musical, Friends, or Titanic, the few exposures I’d had to the idea of “America.” Not even the early warnings about racism from people back home. I didn’t know then what it is like in reality.
It took me many nights of tears to swallow my fear and finally be brave enough to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” When I transferred to another host family—a young white Baptist couple fond of the Southern conservative lifestyle—and a private Christian school, things were a little bit better. However, while she treated me politely, my second host mom still considered it “rude” of me to not attend church with them on Sunday mornings, despite my explicit disbelief in Christianity. Later I realized that they took me in to “educate” me about God. My difference made my classmates, teachers and host family all the more eager to spread the Gospel—the “good news”—to save me from “ignorance.”
Secretly, I had wished my anxiety for the future could be resolved by believing in Jesus. But I knew the brutal competition of American college applications awaited upon my return to China. A white friend didn’t understand why I had to go to some so-called “elite” and expensive college in the US rather than attend the local University of Louisiana campus like her. I could try to explain to her what education meant to a Chinese family like mine, that it was worth it for my parents to send me across the ocean to seek a better, perhaps “elite,” alternative. But instead I said, “I just have to.”
Naturally, my college search became a search for the very opposite of Louisiana. I was looking for a crowd that would value diversity and champion tolerance, inclusivity, and love as well as empathy for the “different.” With that spirit, I was immediately drawn to an online post about an elite liberal arts college in the heart of Ohio.
Oberlin stood out as my curiosity for the “other side” of America grew—an all-accepting sanctuary for marginalized, left-leaning intellectuals. It seemed that if I attended Oberlin, I would be surrounded by educated people from metropolitan areas who would have had interactions with Chinese people and also possess a fair amount of knowledge about my culture. I wouldn’t feel unsafe because minorities like me, a Chinese international student, would be heard and seen. Being different would not only be accepted but celebrated.
For anyone who’s idealized a romantic relationship and gotten their heart broken later, it is not hard to guess that my love story at Oberlin didn’t exactly go well.
It started with my observations of the heated campus political climate. Quickly, I picked up the vernacular that students used in discussions and protests: POC, institution, status quo, colonialism, white supremacy. Activism moved me with its passion. It is something that Chinese society would never allow. Growing up being the “good” student, I naturally was attracted to the rebellious nature of activism in various forms—writing, protesting, slam poetry, visual arts, you name it. Politics changed the way I think about my relationships with others and the society I live in. I became a politics major and a news writer for the Oberlin Review, through which I could learn about people of different communities.
Yet it also didn’t take long for me to sense that something didn’t seem quite right. Oberlin’s student body is 64% white, has a median family income of $178,000, and is predominately liberal. While often openly siding with POC, some white students told me they felt silenced as the POC community grew radical and shut down conversations with “it is not my responsibility to educate you.”
People were afraid to speak their minds and confined themselves to their own experiences in public discussions. In my Intro to the Black Experience class, few white students participated in the discussion because it seemed to be intruding on the “safe space” for black students. I was the only Asian student and I also didn’t raise my hand to speak. Not even once. I thought my job was to listen and learn, since I never lived that experience.
If I was honest then and did not worry about what Oberlin activists thought of my unpopular opinion, I would shout out that I didn’t like all this one-sided self-righteous loud-as-hell noise. I was overwhelmed by the arrogant “it is not my responsibility to educate you”-type of rhetoric that filled my interactions with liberal-minded Oberlin students. As an international student, I was not aware of the racial dynamics in the US at the beginning of college, and that is precisely why I wanted to learn. If you don’t tell me what the issues are, I will never know. And the truth is, I WANT to know.
As opposed to the negative stereotypes of Chinese students and scholars imposed by conservatives—job-stealing immigrants or untrustworthy spies—the liberal students at Oberlin seem to have their own issues with Chinese students: Chinese students are seen as a wealthy and privileged crowd; they are the new “whites,” compared to the struggling first-generation, low-income, and undocumented American students, who are often people of color. Indeed, most Chinese students at Oberlin pay full tuition and often come from affluent cities in China. Even at other US universities, Chinese students are often seen as “cash cows” or “walking ATMs” that “fix” the financial situation, contributing about $13 billion to the US economy in 2017–2018.
Chinese, from time to time, is spoken and heard on campus. Oberlin has a campus culture where friendship stems from allyship, especially when it comes to how students find community through identity. Some Chinese students tend to cling together and share similar political views. It wasn’t that I didn’t have opinions; I simply tried to keep them within my Chinese-speaking community or close friends, rather than discuss them publicly, because I felt safer with those who were similar to me and might not challenge me.
When the tension between the US and China started to grow because of Trump’s trade war and cybersecurity concerns, more negative rhetoric about Chinese students, pushed by American mainstream media, began flooding US college campuses. Chinese students were labeled in international newspapers like the New York Times as academically unqualified “cheaters,” or “communists,” unassimilable into liberal democracy, and “intelligence thieves” with ulterior motives. An East Asian Studies professor and advisor to the Oberlin Chinese Student Association suggested that Chinese students “break up” the “gangs” to avoid unnecessary and sometimes even unconscious hostility from our American peers, students and professors alike. Being a politics major, I was already hyper-sensitive to the political atmosphere on campus. I couldn’t figure out why my very own existence at Oberlin had to be challenged this way, as if I didn’t belong. It brought me down on many days.
Freshmen year, my mental health started to deteriorate due to academic pressure, and I was suffering the emotional distress of an unhealthy relationship which lasted into my junior year. When I finally got out of it, I was drained. My coping mechanisms completely crashed when I failed an economics class due to extreme pressure and fear of ruining my transcript.
My health went into a downward spiral. It was dangerously optimistic of me to think that medication could fix it all. I thought, naively, that I could go on taking challenging courses, until finally I lost all energy to keep up with schoolwork and struggled every single day to go to class. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, counting the seconds, was my loneliest moment at Oberlin. I remember feeling so helpless that I was reaching out everywhere to friends and professors and talking nonsense. Eventually, I was hospitalized and my father flew in from China to accompany me home after taking medical leave.
What was awaiting me at home, however, were questions, confusion, doubts and disappointments from my parents, relatives and even friends about the reason I “became” ill. A psychology textbook will tell you it was a combination of genetic and environmental factors. No one in my family had been “diagnosed”, though my mother and her side of the family tend to be ill-tempered. So my parents leaned into the environmental factors after I tried to explain what happened to me: “You are too engaged with other people’s businesses.” “You lacked boundaries.” “You are not a fit for politics and you shouldn’t study it, it’s too controversial and you cannot handle it.” “You should not have gone to America, their epidemics of mental illness made you sick.” “You are not able to manage your emotions.”
The worst and most hurtful comment I received was from my aunt: “you are ill because you are too spoiled.” I don’t know what that means. Is it that in my aunt’s eyes, getting everything I wanted, Oberlin and a major in politics, was too expensive and unrealistic for my parents to bear? She never said. My father called my mental illness a “rich person’s disease,” and claimed that no one could save me, not doctors, therapists, friends or God, if I didn’t have the will to “power through”. I felt deep frustration from my mother, who had always advocated for me to study abroad, as she began to murmur, “If I had known you were ill, I’d never let you go overseas.”
How do you expect the native to feel the alien when they’ve never set foot on another continent? It has never been equal. In conservative Louisiana, people saw me as this strange Asian girl who was far more interested in getting an A+ in American history than in knowing how to chill and drink at a party. They asked me unbearably funny questions about China and my ethnicity. I was made to feel that being Chinese was out of place, foreign. Yet at Oberlin, a liberal paradise, I was expected, as an international student, to know everything about both national and local political and racial discourse. No one wanted to slow down and explain anything to me. These perceptions and expectations are not the same, but in the end both made me feel that I simply could not fit in in America.
So I left America, a place where both conservatives and liberals alienated me for my Chinese-ness, only to come home to another kind of alienation from my own family, my own people.
Acceptance, empathy, understanding, respect, love… These are the things I crave, not just on a personal level but in the environment I live in. I am aware that these things don’t come easily. Collectively, as humans, we have to learn to practice them together, across differences. It is unknown, scary sometimes. But I am not giving in.