I met Diane Paik, a student at Michigan State University, because she was in a journalism class that was assigned to report on the increase in the Chinese student population at MSU (you might remember the class’s work from this post). As the year came to a close, I asked her what she had learned from doing the assignments. This was her response.
The recent influx of Chinese students in the United States has caught the attention of the press, and at Michigan State University, where I go to school, Chinese students are streaming into the university. Comparing my freshmen year to my current year (junior), the increase in Chinese students is noticeable just walking around campus. In some classes, I’ve even realized that my American classmates no longer dominate the international ones (depending on the class).
I received the opportunity through a journalism class this semester to report about the Chinese international students at MSU and to find out more about them.
Some of the other American students in my class seemed quick to attach stereotypes to the Chinese students when they learned about the assignment, and some even grouped any Asian as being a Chinese international student.
“They only hang out in groups and with each other” and “they drive really nice cars” were some of the comments I heard from American students.
[Blogger Qian talks about the tensions between Chinese and American students on her campus]
I felt strongly against writing off the Chinese students like that, maybe because I too am Asian (I’m Korean-American) and I know what it is like to be easily stereotyped or stigmatized.
I understand why Chinese students appear to exclusively hang out with each other, because quite honestly, I can’t imagine too many of the American students reaching out to spend time with them. Also, there is a level of comfort established when you’re with people who are familiar with your situation of being new to a country and possibly not speaking the language very well, so it makes sense that Chinese students stick together.
For the past 4 months, I have been contacting, speaking with, and even hanging out with some of MSU’s Chinese students as I worked on my assignments for class. Writing the articles became a vessel for my relationship and perspective change on the students.
Chinese student Lvyang Wan addressing the stereotypes
I have to admit that prior to being assigned stories about Chinese international students, I was not particularly interested in them nor did I really think twice about them. Not because they were international students, but more because I did not think of them as “the other” or any different. They were just another part of the student body.
Although I didn’t feel any negative bias against the Chinese students, I had to confront the fact that I hadn’t put in any effort to get to know them either. Now I had to be proactive and put myself out there.
For instance, there were times when I would actually hang around McDonel hall, a dorm heavily populated with international students, and approach students that appeared to be Chinese for an interview. It was not the most ideal situation, but I had to figure out some way to speak with them. I knew that it’s easy to fall into stereotypes and stigmas lingering around the international students, but to hide behind them is not productive.
Our final assignment for the course was a group project, and my group and I were struggling to come up with a topic to cover that included Chinese international students. We finally came up an idea to do something about sports and how sports are a common link between most people, regardless of race. My groupmate Jack and I roamed MSU’s fitness center hoping to find some Chinese students playing a game of basketball or something, when we came across the MSU Table Tennis Club.
After mustering up a bit of courage, we explained what we were writing about and hoped that they would be interested in participating. Tom, the vice president of the club, was eager to comply, saying, “Yeah, why not? It’s free publicity for the club!” We had our story.
We sat in during one of their practices and spoke with the participants during their breaks. I was really inspired by the club, and particularly by one Chinese-American student. When he joined the club he spoke little Chinese, but he learned from the Chinese international students and is now fluent. Aside from crossing language barriers, the club built real friendships – this Chinese-American student and a Chinese international student became close enough to become roommates.
Final report on the Table Tennis Club
It was through the discovery of these clubs and relationships that I was able to get to know the Chinese students on a deeper, individual level, rather than seeing them as a large, unidentifiable group. I also found out that there are indeed friendships made outside of the international students’ community and there is a comfortable level of assimilation.
The entire process of finding and telling the stories of Chinese international students has been quite the learning experience for me, both culturally and socially. I really had to put myself out there, and sometimes even put myself in socially uneasy environments to gain trust and build relationships. It was almost like being the new kid in class and trying to integrate myself among students who were already familiar with each other – or like being an international student in an unfamiliar culture.
“There has to be some common ground that we can reach” was constantly repeated in my head. The experience from the semester has taught me that there is always common ground and it only takes a moment of friendliness to get to know a stranger. I’m confident in knowing that I made an honest effort to get to know the Chinese international students and made friendships along the way.