One young Tianjiner gets ready to celebrate his first Spring Festival away from home, and talks about the adjustments he’s faced during his first semester in America.
(Guāngyuǎn was profiled last May for the Regular Zhou column in a Tianjin expat magazine. Here he is nine months later, finishing his first semester in Iowa and looking forward to his first Spring Festival on foreign soil.)
Christmas can be one of the toughest times of the year for Tianjin’s foreigners. It’s at Christmas when we often miss our families the most, along with the friends, food, fun, and traditions that make Christmas one of the most meaningful dates on our calendars.
But Tianjin’s wàiguórén (外国人) aren’t the only ones missing out on the major family and cultural event of their year by living in a foreign land. For Tianjiners like Guāngyuǎn (光远), this winter also means passing the most meaningful time of year far away from home. Like us, he’ll be away from his family and closest friends, huddled together with a small group of fellow foreigners, trying to produce a traditional holiday meal without all the proper ingredients in a country that has no clue how to really celebrate the holiday he holds dear.
Spring Festival in the Excited States of America
When I first interviewed Guāngyuǎn early last year, he’d just received acceptance letters from several American university post-graduate engineering programs. He’s since moved to the U.S.A. and is just finishing his first semester at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. That means he’s gone from Big Brother to Uncle Sam; from Tianjin with its 7 or so million to Ames with its almost-51,000; from the Chinese exam-centered education system to America’s emphasis on independent thinking and self-expression. Once he finishes his first semester, it will be time to start preparing for Spring Festival. Here’s how he envisions it:
“In America, I have made a lot of new friends. I think at the first spring festival in USA, I plan to have a good time with my Chinese friends. Maybe to have a party is a great choice for us. Of course, we will invite some American friends and other international students for sure. In the party, I and my friends will cook Chinese foods for us and the customers. Considering that Ames, the location of Iowa State University, is in winter and just like the winter in Tianjin, the hotpot and dumpling, Chinese traditional food, is necessary. At that time, we will enjoy warm food and warm environment.
“Since I was born, I have celebrated every Spring Festival with my parents and relatives. There is no exception for this. I guess, to have Spring Festival is a great experience for me, although I have a little bit homesick. So as what I did (拜年；bài nián; call or visit to wish someone happy New Year) in the last Spring Festival, I will give the call to everyone who cares me and tell them that I am great in America and don’t need to worry about me. Maybe the people in my family will feel different… ‘Where is Guāngyuǎn?’ Haha.”
Living Life Elsewhere
Guāngyuǎn knew that adjusting life in the U.S. wouldn’t be easy, and he shared his feelings about it before he left:
“I worry about the absolutely strange environment, strange people, and strange culture that I will face after I land in the USA, which is full of challenges for me. Therefore I feel excited and nervous.
“I plan to live the community outside the campus, so my roommate and neighbor might be western people. …it is the first step for me to overcome language difficulty and get involve western culture and society. These are related to many living things, like buying the stuff, communicating with native people, and getting used to western living style. …I will face similar problems in the campus. To better understand what the professors talk about, I need not only to ask questions in class but also to communicate with other students after class positively. Other than these, there are great differences with class, homework and exams between American universities and Chinese ones. Above all… culture shock and language are great challenge for me and therefore make me a little bit nervous. But I believe I can do it better as soon as possible. Maybe one day I will feel comfortable to live outside the ‘Chinese culture bubble’ in the future. Every time I think that this day is coming, I am very excited.”
I caught up with Guāngyuǎn for a second time as he was preparing for his semester’s final exams. I asked him about his cross-cultural experience so far, and what sort of impression he’s getting of Americans and life in the States.
Tianjin, China vs. Ames, Iowa
“America’s big cities are noisy and bustling just like China’s, but I’m just at Ames, a small town [population 51,000]. In China this kind of place is considered a small town. It’s really peaceful, so much so that every day you can go out on the street and often not see anyone.”
Daily Life Differences
“When I was in Tianjin and Beijing, I didn’t need to rent house myself. Also students hardly ever needed to cook their own meals. But when I came to the U.S. it wasn’t the same. You have to go yourself and rent an apartment and purchase furniture. Here there are very few Chinese-style vegetable markets, outdoor markets and so on, so every week I have to go once to the supermarket and buy everything. And I still have to learn to cook. Since I’ve arrived here I’m already slowly learning how to cook some things.
“A lot of things are new to me, I’m learning how to go do them. Regular people in China don’t need to use credit cards and checks to make payments, instead they use cash, but in the U.S. it’s just the opposite. In China you very seldom see bills and such, but in one month in the U.S. you will receive every kind of bill (rent, electricity, gas, cell phone, credit card…). Anyway, in the U.S. these are all simple, you can pay everything online. It’s really quick and convenient. Also in the U.S. you have to learn how to find a good deal. Sometimes so many things are so cheap you just stand there amazed. A laptop valued at over 10,000 in China is only 5000 in the U.S. In the U.S., cars are as common as bicycles are in China. If you don’t have a car, you’ll feel it’s really inconvenient. But I’m fortunate to live in Ames where there’s good public transit. But even here driving a car is an essential skill.”
Living with the Yanks
“Americans like things simple and direct, not implicit like Chinese people. Americans first speak their mind and then try to explain themselves. Chinese people are just the opposite. The food American’s like is all simple to make, not like Chinese people who like to prepare meals pan-fried. Thus in the supermarket you can see a lot of half-finished food products (however China domestically now also has this kind of similar trend).
“Americans like to have ‘excuse me,’ ‘sorry’ ready on the tip of their tongue, if they feel they caused someone inconvenience the just blurt it out. In the U.S., grass is for people to walk on, sit on, or lay on – this is really different from China. In the U.S., pedestrians are ‘king’; cars all have to make way for you.”
Comparing the Chinese and American Classroom Experience
“American classroom atmosphere is more vigourous than in China. Students in class can ‘at any time’ ‘call out’ their own viewpoints, problems, and ideas. American education pays particular attention to making students learn to think independently but at the same time learn team cooperation. Here the homework and projects arranged by the teacher all make the students be part of a group to accomplish something. They also ask the students to elaborate on their own points of view, so in class student presentations are a common thing.”
Adjusting to a New Cultural Context
“In life, if you try to learn and imitate you’ll quickly be able to adapt. I feel that concerning the foreign students, the hardest thing to adapt to are the cultural and the educational issues. First of all, being able to use the language is a significant concern. Once you’re able to easily use English to communicate with others, then you’re really able to get over your culture and education shock. To make progress with cultural and educational differences, you also need to actively go with American classmates and communicate for a long period of time. Then you’ll naturally adapt.”
I asked Guāngyuǎn he feels he’s changed a little bit since he’s been in the U.S., but he doesn’t seem to think so: “Actually rather than say I’ve changed personally, it’s better to say I’m just gradually started getting used to American life and study.”
What Does a Tianjiner in America Miss the Most?
“Speaking about what I miss the most, it’s has to be Chinese food, especially the food my mom cooks. When I go back to China I’m going to gobble down special food, but at the same time I need to raise the level of my culinary skills.”
Favourite American Food
“My favourite American food is sweet potato, along with Mexican chicken burrito (seems like that’s Spanish food?). American home-baked cookies are also really good.”
“I think, every international student has the same feeling and experience. You and your wife live in China now and don’t come back to the motherland to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this is the life and it is changing. Therefore, we have to adapt and learn to enjoy it.”