A new route to – and from – China

Getting in touch with Chinese culture with the help of an international student.


As a Chinese-born, naturalized American citizen who grew up in Ames, Iowa, Chinese traditions were as elusive to me as getting a full-ride scholarship to play football. I was the son of a Chinese international student who was seeking a doctorate in electrical engineering.

When I came to America at age four, I didnâÄôt understand any English, nor had I mastered the gazillion-character language called Mandarin. So accordingly, not only did I have a language hurdle to deal with, I had to learn American cultures and traditions,both of which hurdles I can now proudly proclaim IâÄôve cleared for the most part, given years of public schooling and cable television.

After spending the last decade of my life living in suburbia, I couldnâÄôt be further away from my roots. But at the University of Minnesota, IâÄôve been able to work on clearing another hurdle âÄî my personal struggle to understand Chinese culture and traditions.

On campus, there are more than 1,00 international Chinese students, which the University thinks may be the most in the country.

Many have noticed the Chinese international students on campus âÄî some are our teaching assistants, classmates and neighbors. But while we see and interact with these students, we donâÄôt know very much about them or their culture.

I was the same way until I moved into my current apartment. While I live with three Caucasian roommates, my neighbor, Bruce Ye, is a Chinese international student who lives with four other Chinese students.

For Ye, who will be a third-year student this fall, both language and cultural barriers still persist on a daily basis. But the large Chinese student population on campus has made life somewhat similar to homeland China.

Ye agrees with me that a Chinese student can get away with speaking limited English around campus, especially socially, but to have friends outside of the Chinese student circle is rare.

“The language barrier is very tough,” Ye said, as we spoke Chinglish âÄî what I couldnâÄôt say or understand in Chinese we would say in English.

Ye has been practicing his networking skills, taking advantage of opportunities on campus to try to overcome the language barrier, and he believes it will make or break his chance of finding a job in the U.S. after graduation.

As I sat across from Ye in his apartment, I wondered if I could have been the one sitting where Ye was now if I hadnâÄôt come to America at such a young age.

I learned that Bruce fishes a lot, like my father and I do. Fishing is something that simply isnâÄôt possible in the heavily polluted waters of China.

Ye pointed out to me that Americans âÄî he included me in this stereotype too âÄî rely on the microwave as the staple method of preparing food, while he and his roommates always set aside time to cook a traditional Chinese meal.

Ye also introduced me to a Chinese social networking site. ItâÄôs not Facebook; itâÄôs called Renren, or literally “everyoneâÄôs network.”

YeâÄôs roommate made me a profile on Renren, but since I canâÄôt read Chinese well enough, it sits idle.

But since moving in next door, not only has my Chinglish improved, I have had more opportunities to practice my Chinese, surprising my parents with my new vocabulary.

My understanding of the culture that should come naturally to me has also improved. And in Ye, I see a reflection of my parentsâÄô own struggles with cultural barriers after they arrived in this country, as I observe and learn from both sides.

Frank Bi welcomes comments at [email protected].