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Diverse City: Cultural connections at a Chinese dinner table

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


I was speaking to my friend, Lucy Lu ’12, during a Chinese Dinner Table meeting when she mentioned something very interesting about her experience as an international student at Brandeis. She said that, prior to coming to the United States, she had a very limited knowledge of global history and politics, and her education in China brought her only one view of the world. Since coming to Brandeis, however, Lucy has taken courses in International and Global Studies and met students from a variety of different countries, an experience she describes as having her “eyes opened.”

I love how college can be an eye-opening experience in so many ways. Not enough people realize that one of the best resources at Brandeis lies within the diversity of our own student body. The people I’ve met in our weekly Chinese language gatherings in Upper Usdan, for example, are all interested in China, and most plan to study there in order to better learn the language and culture. Discussion leaders, such as Lucy, were born and raised in China and want to help students improve their Mandarin and their understanding of Chinese culture. All of us, either from China or the United States, want to have our eyes opened to another country’s way of living and thinking. By having these conversations, we see all the similarities and differences between this country and China. Putting two cultures together and comparing them is always interesting because sometimes, there are subtle differences that change how you act in each culture.

Speaking with each other at dinner, we realize that everyone has their own story. When my parents came from Taiwan to the United States, they decided that their children would have a culture that was not theirs. My parents are Taiwanese, but I am American and my children will most likely be American and not Taiwanese. Because of my parents’ decision to move here, my family will always tackle questions concerning cultural identity and cultural preservation.

Joanne Qiao ’12, who is an Asian-American like me, told me a fascinating story about how her parents ended up in the United States. Both her mother and father lived during China’s tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, when the country underwent mass political, social and economic changes.

During that chaotic time of revolution and upheaval, middle and high school graduates like Joanne’s parents were required to work as farmers in the countryside instead of pursuing undergraduate education.

However, in 1977, the end of the Cultural Revolution made higher education possible through a highly selective entrance examination. Joanne’s parents were among the few who scored high enough for admittance to a Western university, a result that landed them in Albany, NY, where Joanne was born and raised.

The story of her parents working their way from the countryside to the world of academia is, to Joanne, both inspiring and intimidating. She mentioned it being difficult to compete with her parents, a feeling that I think many first-generation Asian-Americans share. But I think another issue Joanne and I both struggle with is that our parents come from a culture that we have never truly come in contact with.

Every time we talk about our cultures, we are telling a story that is unique to us. No one has the same exact story of why they are interested in learning about China, or want to learn to speak Chinese.

In the end, though, all of us do share something in common, which is the desire to connect with another way of life. Even if it starts with practicing Mandarin in Upper Usdan, it’s a step towards a bigger goal of broadening our world and having our eyes opened.