WSJ: Hot Pot or Pizza: Chinese Students in the U.S. Aim to Bridge the Cultural Divide

Read the original story on WSJ here.

by: Debra Bruno

Chinese college students who come to the U.S. hope to learn about American culture, make foreign friends, and perfect their English.

Many times, though, they find themselves in a Mandarin bubble, speaking only Chinese and going out for hotpot while their American friends are hitting the pub for beers and pizza.

Cecilia Miao, a Guangzhou-born student who graduated last May from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wanted to do something to get the students to meet somewhere between the hotpot and the pizza.

“My ‘Foreign’ Roommate: Muge & Katherine,” is an 11-minute video produced by Ms. Miao and a few other Wisconsin students showing an imaginary but realistic first week in the life of two roommates, one Chinese and one American.

The video comes at the right time as the number of Chinese students studying at U.S. universities is increasing. Last year, according to a report from the Institute of International Education, 274,000 Chinese students studied at U.S. colleges, an increase of about 75 percent in the last three years.

Played by Muge Niu and Chicago acting student Brookelyn Hébert, the video is a light-hearted exploration of cultural differences, with subtitles in English and Chinese. Katherine, played by Ms. Hebert, can’t figure out how to pronounce Muge’s name, calling her “Meuj” and “Mooger.” The video switches back and forth from one to the other. Both call home: Muge tells her parents that college is not as hard as high school and Katherine says it’s much harder.

Katherine comes upon Muge hanging up her laundry in the room, much to Katherine’s consternation. – Cecilia Miao

Both girls get dressed for a night out, with Katherine wearing a midriff-revealing top and heavy makeup, while Muge puts on a more modest outfit. Katherine goes to a party with plenty of drinking followed by pizza with a friend, and Muge goes out for hotpot and then karaoke, singing Chinese pop songs with her Chinese friends.

At the end, though, the two roommates bond when Katherine later tells Muge about a cute boy she met that night, and then invites Muge to her home for Thanksgiving dinner.

The video is part of a larger project called Channel C, which seeks to improve communication between Chinese international students and Americans overall. Ms. Miao, the producer, says she came up with the idea when she was invited to a conference in Wisconsin discussing university relations with China, and the turnout was mainly faculty members and a handful of Chinese students.

“We realized there was a big divide between Chinese students and American students,” says Ms. Miao by phone from Beijing, where she now lives. Some of the divide is a kind of self-segregation, and some represents real exclusion of foreign students on campus. “All expats have adjustments,” she says.

The video has already drawn dozens of positive comments. One student wrote, “The situations that Muge encountered were just so true. Being a FOB [fresh off the boat] just isn’t that easy.”

The roommates bond at the end of the video over a cute boy that Katherine meets at a party. – Cecilia Miao

Ms. Niu, who plays Muge in the video, says several of the scenes in the video were drawn from her own life as a new University of Wisconsin student. “The awkwardness was certainly true. That greeting was exactly how I greeted people when I got to the States.”

And a scene in a laundromat in which she gapes at a young man preparing to wash two pairs of sneakers and a rug was also authentic. “I think I have never gotten used to trusting public washing machines and dryers,” she says. “It doesn’t help when I see people putting in dirty shoes and rugs and everything.”

Ms. Niu is now a graduate journalism student in New York. She says because her new school has fewer Chinese students, she’s had to push herself to make more non-Chinese friends. In Wisconsin, her closest friends were Chinese.

She did make one cultural leap in her four years in Madison. She forced herself to go to a Badgers football game “to check out what it was about,” she says. Even so, “I didn’t pay much attention to the football game.”

Ms. Miao says that the friendships she cherished the most ended up being with “people who met me halfway. They asked me questions about where I’m from, they were interested in my background and my efforts in coming here.”

But the really funny thing, she says, is that she didn’t realize “everyone was struggling with fitting in and finding their own group of friends.”

The Channel C videos are temporarily on hold as Ms. Miao seeks additional funding to make more. “My ‘Foreign’ Roommate” has had a few screenings on the Madison campus. The Wisconsin China Initiative posted an item about the channel on its website, noting that the video, “Why Chinese Students Don’t Speak English,” got a big reaction on YouTube. (To date, it’s had 264,646 hits.)

Their answer: many schools take the time to prepare Chinese students for standardized tests in English. As far as conversational talk, there’s little mention of slang terms like “peeps” or “chillax” in English training, so Chinese students are shy about using them.

Even so, Ms. Miao would like her video to be used in college dorms to help pave the way for better roommate relationships. “I hope it can serve as a reminder for people to think about, if you live with someone from a completely different culture,” she says.

 

Debra Bruno is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who recently completed a three-year stint in Beijing.

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