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Interview: a graduate student from China makes her way at Boston University

Posted by Your Town  October 23, 2013 12:34 PM

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Alex Shi is a Boston University broadcast journalism graduate student. She is originally from northeast China. Her family now lives in Beijing. Shi came here one year ago to study journalism.

Carolyn Bick: So, what did you expect to find in America, when you first came over here a year ago?

Alex Shi: I knew I would have a lot more male attention. [Laughs]
I wanted to be the best of the Chinese group. I thought I have a better personality, more easygoing, easier to reach out to. I didn’t really have an expectation in terms of getting a best American friend. I just had a goal of being the top in my own group in my field of studying.
Personal relationship-wise … for some of the really stupid things that happened, I didn’t expect those to happen. I don’t know what I was expecting when I first came here.

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CB: What about what you would find in America? What did you think you would hear, taste, or see?

AS: I don’t know. I lived a really internationalized life in Beijing. I didn’t have too much of a culture shock. I wouldn’t have to adjust myself to the life here. That I knew.
It’s really just the loneliness that caught me by surprise. I never thought I would be alone. I never thought I would be as lonely as I was.

CB: Can you tell me about coming here?

AS: I set my expectation rate very low. I knew it was going to be hard. I knew academic-wise, there was going to be a lot of challenges. I knew about discrimination, like racism.

I was very clear that I was not going to the States to have a perfect life. I might be able to have a perfect life, but I need to earn it, and that’s going to be hard.

When school started, I felt clueless in the beginning. Although I had worked with CNN in Beijing, I was a news assistant. I didn’t really know much about broadcast news. Also, basic news training -- that’s what I was lacking. Also … I was writing and speaking in my second language. That was hard. And my writing was a lot worse than my spoken English, for some reason. [Laughs.]
My professor had that conversation with me. He was like, “This is something I’ve never seen before. Most of the Chinese students in my class are better at writing than at speaking.”
That was kind of a dump for me. I got a D on one of my first [assignments]. I was so confused! I didn’t know there was [a grade of] ‘D’. I thought it was just, ‘A, B, C, and Fail!’
There are still difficulties and problems, but I’m getting more comfortable … detecting my problems, and then solving them. That’s the process.

Personal relationship … that’s more complicated. I don’t have a conclusion on that. I still get confused sometimes, [with] my American friends. Sometimes, they’ll just sit down and talk to me. Or they want to listen to me. And after that, they’re just gone.
I don’t go after people. I would try to be like, ‘Hey, do you want to grab a drink, or do you want to have dinner?’ But, if I don’t get any response, or a very positive response, two or three times, I stop. If that person doesn’t contact me, I’m just going to sit here. I’m not going to do anything on my end, ‘cause I don’t want to be annoying.
I’d like to think I am a really good person, but it doesn’t mean people like me. It’s more of a me problem in terms of my mentality, I guess. A lot of people come to me, and will be like, ‘Are you American? Did you go to an international school?’ And it’s a no to both questions. But I talk in certain way that people might forget I’m an international student, sometimes, and I don’t know if that’s a blessing or not.

In terms of guys, that might not be a good thing that they forget that I’m not American. … Maybe they’re nicer to international girls? I assume sometimes they are.
When people get comfortable, they don’t pay attention to you, or appreciate you as much as when getting to know you. But I am still international. I’m still Chinese. I’m very Chinese. I spent the first 23 years of my life in China!
I feel like the biggest problem[s] are all personal. My Chinese fellows … they assume that I hang out with Americans the whole time, which is so not true! I am mostly by myself, or with other international students.

CB: How do you feel that you don’t -- that your Chinese peers assume one thing, and American students assume you hang out with all the international students?

AS: That used to make me feel really terrible.
There are three Chinese girls in the same program -- we’re all in journalism -- and they were going to the buffet thing on [Boston University’s George Sherman Union’s] third floor. We used to do that a lot during the first semester. That kind of became a tradition, among Chinese students.
I might look bubbly and happy and outgoing, but I am really kind of shy, in terms of -- I don’t like inviting myself to things. But I kind of looked at those girls as really close friends. We came out of class, and I was walking with them. They were ready to cross the street to GSU, and I forget what happened, but they were like, ‘Oh, have a nice one, bye,’ and they just took off to the GSU for the buffet, without asking me, or inviting me. That’s a really small thing, but those small things get me really bad.
There was something else that was happening at the same time, as well, in terms of guys, and stuff, and I was already having a hard time. I couldn’t find people to talk to, because that’s the kind of thing you don’t want to … talk [about] to people you can’t trust. So, I was keeping that to myself, and then my own people walked away from me for something we always do as a group.
I just felt so bad. I missed my parents back in Beijing. You know, when something hits you, I think you just try to hit yourself with other stuff that hurt you.
I texted my mom, ‘I want to go home.’ She got really concerned, and called. I picked up the phone, heard her voice, and just started crying on the T. I didn’t even care.
I was just like, ‘Mom, I don’t know why they don’t like me.’ I was popular, in a way, back in China, because I sing, I perform. I have a good personality. I am really bubbly! My group, my circle [of friends in China], they love me! That’s how it was back in China. But here, I am mostly alone.

CB: So, how has your reception been in America?

AS: Oh, guys-wise? Awesome! At first, when some guy would say to me, ‘You’re really beautiful,’ I would say, ‘You’re just saying that because I’m Asian, or you’re trying to be nice.’ But then one guy says that -- two, three -- and you’re like, ‘All right.’

CB: What about other relationships you’ve had? Not necessarily romantic.

AS: I have a lot of nice, awesome people around me. I just don’t have anyone close.
That’s what I [need] most. If I have that special someone, be it a best friend, or a boyfriend, I literally don’t [care] about other people. That’s how I function. When I don’t have that person, it’s going to be me versus large groups, the different circles in my life.

[The Allston bar] The Avenue is my place.
I feel safe there. I know everyone -- the waitresses, the bartenders, the bouncers. They talk to you like they care about you, but I don’t care whether they care or not, whether they’re just saying it, or they’re being genuinely caring. I come here, pay a small amount of money, get a conversation, get a comfortable space.
Whenever I am feeling like … I don’t have anyone to turn to, but I don’t want to spend time at home, I just go to The Avenue, because it’s really just right down the street.
I am not anyone’s best friend right now, I think -- the people who are in Boston. That’s kind of sad, but it is what it is.
I think I am at a point where I have kind of stopped trying.

CB: What is your favorite food, drink, or experience you’ve had here that you didn’t have in China?

AS: Really good fried chicken from Soulfire! Soulfire fried chicken is so good, and their mashed potatoes on the side are really good, as well. And they have fried mac ‘n’ cheese. It sounds so calorie-thick, so heavy, but it’s so good!
Although I do complain, I love living here. One thing, for the air. It’s so clear and fresh. Beijing is so polluted right now! I went back [to Beijing] for a month, and I got sick by the end of it.
I kind of love living alone right now. You got through everything on your own, which is kind of an achievement. I’ve been cooking a lot.
I am more in control. Back in China, my parents were trying to take control of everything. I can do whatever I want. That’s just … the taste of freedom from my parents! I love that. Even if this is what it’s going to be like in the future, for a while -- being alone -- that’s all right. I still enjoy life, being on my own.

Carolyn Bick is a photojournalism graduate student at Boston University. The interviewed has been edited.

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