The International Student Experience

Emma Chung

“Let’s go around and say our name, pronoun, and where we’re from,” said the resident assistant.

“My name is Michelle, I use she/her/hers, and I’m from Seattle”

“I’m Rachel, I use she/her/hers, and I’m from the Bay area.”

“Hi my name is Emma Chung – she/her/hers – I was born in Sydney, grew up in Shanghai, and I’m from Hong Kong,” I blurted in one breath.

All eyes were on me. I might as well have said I was an elf. My height would fit the description and that’s something that people were more familiar with. An elf is from the Arctic. Easy.

At Whitman, I’m an international student because I hold a foreign passport and received schooling outside of the United States. Back home in Shanghai, I attended an international school so I was just another student. Like most of my peers, I hold dual citizenship, speak multiple languages, and live in a country I wasn’t born in.

The story begins in 1997. It is the year my parents moved to Australia to escape political unrest in Hong Kong. It is the year I was born on April 2nd, in Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sydney. And it is the year Hong Kong was ceded back to Mainland China after one hundred and fifty-five years of British colonial rule.

My father almost missed my birth because he ordered one of the more extravagant steamed fish dishes in a Chinese restaurant near the hospital. My parents moved to Sydney because they wanted me to have foreign citizenship in case political tensions in Hong Kong became dangerous. Despite local opposition against the handover, it was still set to happen on July 1st, 1997. At the time, my mom’s sister was working in Sydney as a nurse. It was there, down under, that I was born and would never return. One month after I was born, we moved back to Hong Kong to be with my older brother and the rest of our extended family.

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. However, recent mass protests for independence from Mainland China have strained the relationship. People from Hong Kong, especially the younger generations, no longer want to be identified as Chinese. This has caused problems of its own, like the simple question of what people from Hong Kong should be called. Not Chinese, but maybe Cantonese? Hong Kong people? Hong Kongnese?

My parents were part of a wave of young middle class workers who moved to Mainland China  to seize business opportunities in the early 2000’s. A booming economic center of China, Shanghai was close enough to Hong Kong that we could return frequently. So, with our belongings already packed from frequently having to move from rising housing costs, we moved to a city where none of us fluently spoke the local language. The Cantonese are not known for their language acquisition skills. Just watch any Bruce Lee movie.

At age five, I began attending Shanghai American School, an international school that only accepts students with foreign passports. My brother failed his English examination and had to attend another international school. Eleven years in a Hong Kong public school system had not adequately developed his English skills up to the school’s standards. I was entering as a kindergartner so an English examination wasn’t required.

The primary language of instruction was English. Though I lived in Shanghai, I took Mandarin as a second language my entire life. Growing up, it was normal to meet people from different ethnic, racial, and socio-cultural backgrounds. We listened  to J-Pop, K-Pop, Bollywood, Chinese pop, and American hip-hop. Many of us consumed alcohol before the legal drinking age of 18. Most students spoke more than two languages fluently and without an “accent”. We were encouraged to speak English in and outside of the classroom but more so, we spoke English because it was the language we all shared.

We were introduced to American holidays and celebrations like Halloween, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day. When my Chinese American friend invited me over for Thanksgiving, we ate steamed buns dipped in gravy instead of stuffing, spicy stir-fried green beans instead of green bean casserole, and fried rice instead of mash potatoes. She, like many of my friends, were born and partially raised in the US to Chinese/Taiwanese parents, and then later returned to China.

I knew I was going to attend a university away from home. My cousins all went abroad for university. My brother left home when he was 16 years-old for boarding school in the UK, then stayed there for another four years to study art at university.  When it came time to decide on which schools to apply to, it wasn’t a question of how far or close to home I wanted to be. It was a question of which city, in which country.

I found out about Whitman College at a liberal arts college fair in high school. An admissions counselor from Whitman, along with tens of other representatives from schools across the US, enthusiastically spoke of their schools. I liked how a liberal arts education allowed me to explore all my interests. It was also the polar opposite of the environment that I was used to, and eagerly wanted to escape. A small school in a college town rather than a large school in a city of 24 million. Like many aimless and overzealous 18 year-olds, I wanted to get the fuck out. I needed to be in a place where I knew no one, and no one knew me.

My Whitman career began at international student orientation, almost a week before domestic students arrived. We received new student packets equipped with forms on orientation events, residence life, and a letter from President Kathleen Murray. In addition, as international students we also received visa acquisition instructions, ELF (English Language Fellow) information, visa fee payment instructions, and a questionnaire for international students, and a few more visa forms.

The program aimed to help international students acclimate and integrate to college life in the US. We participated in activities that taught us about American culture norms, academic expectations, and the logistics of being an international student. We stayed in Douglas Hall and spent two nights in college cabin. In my cabin, we stayed up late talking about our different high school experiences. We learned how when someone asks “how are you,” it doesn’t necessitate a response. Rather, it is another way of saying “hello”. Or when someone asks to hang out, it doesn’t necessarily mean in a romantic way. We even met some of the students from SCORE trips to help us start making connections with domestic students.

I have no doubt that learning about American customs that differ greatly from their own was helpful for many of the international students. But for me, it made me feel like more of an outcast than I already was. Before I arrived at Whitman, I was “Americanized”. My family in Hong Kong considered me a Westerner because I spoke English most of the time and with an American accent (my teachers were mostly American). I dressed like most Westerners because, quite frankly, the aesthetic appeals to me. I’m in touch with American popular culture because like many people in the world, I listen to American music.

That isn’t to say the cultural adjustment wasn’t difficult for me. I lived in China for 18 years yet I have never felt more Chinese than when I am in the US. Simple, mundane interactions remind me of where I come from.

I prefer to drink hot water rather than ice cold water because in most Chinese restaurants, water is served close to boiling point so it’s ready to brew tea. When I catch a cold, I immediately attribute my symptoms to not wearing enough layers before I go outside. whenever I’m stressed, you can find me eating a bowl of steaming white rice in the kitchen to calm down. Rice is my vice.

As a junior now in college, there are still people I interact with often that don’t know I’m an international student. I’ve never consciously hidden where my background, it’s just that no one ever assumed I was anything other than an Asian American. Which Asian, they weren’t sure. I often got Japanese or Korean, and sometimes Chinese.

If they have figured out that I was an international student, perhaps from my stories of reckless underage clubbing or haggling with vendors in food markets, they assume that I’ve spent a few years in the US. They assume that I attended a boarding school, and that is where where I “fixed” my Chinese accent and my style of dress changed. Truth of the matter is, the first time I visited the US was my junior year of high school when I was college touring.

I never thought about the identity of Hong Kong as one that parallels my own. An identity caught between nations, cultures, and languages. Hong Kong has its own government and immigration laws, but it’s not a city-state. It is an island geographically isolated from Mainland China, yet still associated through Chinese culture. The complex language policy which is biliterate and trilingual. The official written language is English and Chinese with traditional script (same as Taiwan different from the mainland), but people mostly speak Cantonese (a dialect of Hong Kong mutually unintelligible from Mandarin, spoken in Mainland China). The population is composed of locals and transients, specifically expats who have immigrated to live in an arguably more lax, westernized China.

When I’m in Australia I’m not considered Australian because I grew up in China. When I’m in Hong Kong I’m not considered a Hong Konger because I live in Mainland China. When I’m in Shanghai I’m not considered Shanghainese because I’m from Hong Kong. The socio-political contention between the Cantonese/Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese doesn’t help. But when I’m in United States, I’m no specific ethnicity of Chinese and there is no mention of Cantonese. Honestly, it’s a relief. I’m just Chinese.