“A Mirror of America Through the Lens of Chinese Students”
If you want an example of how a growing tide of international students are changing the cultures and climates at American universities, look no further than Michigan State University.
Located in the quintessential Midwest college town of East Lansing, MSU sprawls over 5,200 acres and is home to over 49,000 students in 17 colleges. While MSU’s engineering and biological research programs have always drawn a large number of international graduate students, the same hasn’t always been so for its large undergraduate population.
But that’s changing fast. In 2006, there were fewer than 100 Chinese undergraduates studying at MSU. This fall, that number could rise to 4,000 or higher. That means that nearly 1 in every 8 undergraduates are Chinese nationals studying in the U.S.
This same pattern is being repeated at many U.S. colleges and universities, and that means a growing number of U.S. and international students are learning first-hand about the challenges and opportunities of a truly international classroom.
Tonight in East Lansing, a new documentary chronicling those struggles will debut on the MSU campus. “Imported From China” follows several Chinese students through all the same sorts of ups and downs of undergraduate life – everything from getting along with your roommate to learning the intricacies of modern American culture.
“The film captures a change in our ecosystem that is causing small and big adjustments,” says the film’s co-producer and MSU journalism professor Geri Zeldes. “The documentary covers just some of these transformations, but it’s a good snapshot of this ongoing breaking story.”
We caught up with Professor Zeldes by email a few hours before the movie’s premiere to learn more about the film and the stories it tells:
Student Union: Tell us about “Imported From China.” Where did the idea begin, and what was the story you wanted to tell?
Geri Zeldes: A couple years ago, a filmmaker approached the university about creating a film about MSU students studying abroad in China. I thought – an interesting film, a less expensive film to make, would center on the influx of Chinese students on campus. We would capture a mirror of America through the lens of Chinese students.
I wanted to tell a story that transmitted two messages: The U.S. has the best, if not one of the best institutions of higher learning. Hundreds of thousands of students travel thousands of miles for an American education. The second message is that Chinese international students face the same, universal issues as American college students: new food, new roommates, new friends, but these newness challenges for international students is compounded by 6627.5 miles (10666 kilometers!) – the distance by plane from Lansing to Beijing, by a pressure to succeed brought on by China’s one-child policy and a language barrier.
SU:What did you learn about the international student experience from putting this together that you might not have considered before?
Zeldes: I was aware of the blocks on social media and other online sites in China, but I sometime forget. For example, when I met with Jeff Li, one of the main characters in the film, I asked him if he kept in touch with his roommate. He said he keeps in touch with Jake via Facebook while he’s here, but he can’t in China because the government blocks Facebook.
SU: How did the students manage the challenge of fitting in at a large U.S. university while keeping their sense of who they are and where they came from?
Zeldes: The students managed well their acculturation challenges. We primarily feature two students: one, Jing Cui was the poster student for nurturing and creating friendships with non-Chinese students. (And two) Jeff, in his relationship with his roommate, faced language and cultural issues, but in the end, both Jake and Jeff are enriched by their experiences.
From this writer’s perspective, “Imported From China” looks like a genuinely honest and compelling look at the international student experience in the U.S. I only wish I could attend the premiere! For much more, check out their Facebook page, and when video clips or other media become available, we’ll post them here!