A Tale of Two: Cantonese Girl in Wis. and Wis. Girl in Canton

On the surface, Cecilia Miao and Katherine Neshek don’t appear to share much in common.

Bridging the gap between two cultures

by Maddie Rish

On the surface, Cecilia Miao and Katherine Neshek don’t appear to share much in common. Growing up in Guangzhou, China, a bustling metropolis of 14 million people, Miao’s customs and demeanor stem from the traditional Chinese mentality. It’s difficult to imagine how her life just 70 miles from Hong Kong could bear any resemblance to that of Neshek, who grew up on cheese and beer in her northern Wisconsin hometown of 10,000 people.

A Chinese student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tries cheesehead hat on herself.

A Chinese student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tries cheesehead hat on herself.

Worlds apart in distance and culture, these two 21-year olds are bound by an experience far more powerful than the force that divides them. Both girls said goodbye to their own familiar world in order to embark on the unknown. For Miao, this meant four years of the all-American college experience at UW-Madison, the number two party school in the nation; for Neshek, it meant a summer abroad in Guangzhou, the sub-provincial city that Miao had so recently left behind. As one girl’s home became the other’s adventure, they would soon form different ideas of what it means to be a foreigner.

Even after nine weeks, Neshek’s first night in Guangzhou still sticks out as one of her most memorable experiences. After she and a group of other American students ventured away from the hostel to enjoy their first authentic Chinese dinner, they stumbled upon a restaurant which—to their relief—had a menu of mostly pictures. “I had zero experience speaking Cantonese or Mandarin,” Neshek said. “Luckily for us, pointing is a universal language.”

After eating an assortment of unknown animal organs “pointed out” to them by their server, the American students were approached by a group of excited and curious locals.

“We actually ended up combining tables with them, this group of strangers with whom we shared no mutual language,” Neshek said. “We’d be typing things out on our phones and using apps to translate. One of the girls even asked for my number so we could practice our Chinese and English together. It was really cool to feel like they were so interested in meeting us.”

While Neshek’s initial impression of China was marked by feelings of acceptance and excitement, Miao’s first experiences in Madison left her feeling alienated and lost. “I was not the cool kid, I did not speak the best English, and no one seemed interested in talking to me.” Miao explained. “I felt like people were intentionally disassociating from me, like they would try to stand far away from me in order to be closer to the people they felt similar to.”

This feeling of isolation and nostalgia for home led Miao to attend a conference last spring held by the Wisconsin China Initiative. At the conference, which highlighted UW-Madison’s relationship with China, Miao met two other Chinese students—Fangdi Pan and Muge Niu—with whom she could share her frustrations.

“At the conference, we realized there weren’t many American Wisconsin undergrads in attendance. It was mostly older faculty and a few Chinese students,” Miao said. “We wondered why there wasn’t any interest from non-Chinese students to understand China, when we were so interested in understanding America.”

In an attempt to make their frustrations heard, Miao and her new companions took to YouTube with a video series called Channel C, where they engage in open conversations about the cultural gap between Chinese and American students here on campus. “We wanted to talk about the culture shock of what it feels like to be a foreign student here, and we wanted to create more conversations between the two groups,” she said. “People should be able to celebratedifference, not avoid difference. That’s our main goal.”

What began as a small project has grown into an impressive accumulation of 14 different episodes—14 cultural conversations that would’ve remained buried under ignorance and indifference if not for these three courageous students. One of the episodes, called “Why Chinese Students Don’t Speak English,” has over 100,000 views and discusses how growing up with a different pop culture has left them on the outside of most everyday conversation.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying when you talk about Jimmy Kimmel or Tosh.0 or Breaking Bad, those things that are so normal to you as Americans,” Miao said. “ Just like we feel left out of those conversations, it’s hard for you to engage someone who is completely foreign because you don’t know what they’ve been watching and what they’re used to. It’s a knowledge black hole.”

Other episodes of Channel C range from light-hearted topics, like “Why Chinese Students Don’t Party,” to more serious discussions, like when they mourned the loss of a Chinese international student killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. The prevailing messages, however, stem from their confusion about why American students lack a curiosity for the Chinese culture when there are nearly 2,500 Chinese students enrolled at this school.

“Before you go abroad, you want a language partner or someone from that culture to keep you familiar with what you’re going to learn,” Miao explained. “Why not take advantage of the students who have offered themselves to be here?”

According to Neshek, the language barrier and cultural differences in China were the main factors preventing her from mingling with natives to the extent she had hoped. However, rather than feeling like a foreigner, on most days she felt like a special guest receiving preferential treatment. “You’re a spectacle for sure,” she said, “and I think that’s part of the reason people wanted to talk to you. You’re a story they bring home; you’re a picture they put up on their version of Facebook.”

While each girl’s experience abroad was different in many aspects, both opened their minds to a new appreciation for a culture beyond their own. The lessons and outlooks they bring home speak to the uniquely combined character of who they are and where they’ve been.

According to Miao, these past four years in Madison have resulted in the “Americanization” of certain parts of her personality. “One thing I’ve realized about Americans is that they release a very positive energy—they really appreciateconfidence,” she said. “So I do feel like I’m more confident now. I’ve become more sociableand I’ve learned to be able to connect with people of completely different backgrounds.”

On the other hand, after spending a summer in Guangzhou, Neshek is able to offer a new perspective on Chinese students on campus as well as a more complete understanding of why the gap exists.

“Being raised one way with certain ideals and certain values, there’s only so much you can understand about another culture until you get there,” she said. “And even then, the level of understanding only goes as deep as the language barrier allows. We were raised completely differently, but who’s to say we can’t find some beauty in that?”







Interview: Cecilia Miao, co-founder of Channel C and senior at UW-Madison

Interview: Katherine Neshek, Senior and UW-Madison

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