One of my favorite parts of our program here in Beijing has been all of the Chinese students I've gotten the chance to become friends with. Here's a profile of one of them.
“I don’t think she has any fun at all! I’ve known her three years now, and not once has she stayed out anywhere past 8 pm. Not even the library!” Li You is gesturing emphatically as she describes a roommate who she finds particularly boring, laughing at how dull the girl is.
Li talks rapidly in perfect, unaccented English, with no trace of hesitation or uncertainty. Her silver Tiffany’s bracelet jangles as she adjusts her green flannel shirt; both are souvenirs from her recent trip to America. Her black hair is cut in a sleek, stylish bob that sways with her as she explains how different she is from her roommates at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics.
“I’m not normal, I don’t want you to think all Chinese students are like me or that they all think like I do,” she said. “I’m different from most UIBE students.” It’s true that Li seems to have little in common with some of her classmates. They’re majoring in engineering while she dreams of being a journalist; they are homesick for their parents while she longs for American adventures; they refuse to even go out to a bar for one drink while Li loves going clubbing on occasion.
Even at birth, Li was already different from her future classmates. In a country of only children, she was born in the Fujian province as the second daughter to a Xiamen businessman and his wife. “My parents really wanted a son, so they had to pay large fines for violating the one-child policy when both my younger brother and I were born,” Li explained. She spent much of her childhood fighting with her older sister and younger brother, an experience very different from her northern roommates’ solitary upbringing.
Once she started school, Li’s gift for academics continued to differentiate her from others. Even in elementary school, her teachers recognized her exceptional intelligence and eagerness to learn; she was constantly being encouraged to consider more advanced classes. She was only in primary school her father gave her a biography of a Chinese girl who had traveled all the way to America to study at Harvard. Even as a child, Li was a voracious reader and finished the book in a matter of days. From then on, she said, America was her dream.
Knowing that she would need top grades to do all that she wanted to, Li continued to impress her teachers. She tested into her province’s most prestigious middle school and high school, which was more than an hour away from her family’s house. Because she lived on a boarding school campus from the age of 13, she said she became used to being away from her family at a young age.
Neither of her parents went to college, because they grew up during the Cultural Revolution when all schools were shut down. Though her father became a successful businessman even without university training, Li said, “My parents made it a priority to give me and my siblings the opportunity to attend university.”
When it came time to pick a university to attend, she knew she wanted to go even farther away from home than her high school. She had originally wanted to go to a university in America, but her dad deemed that to be a bit too far, so she settled on Beijing instead. Li loves her family, but like many 21 year-olds, she appreciates the freedom that being so far from home gave her. “If I had stayed by my family, I still would’ve had a curfew,” she said. “They would have their own opinions about people I was dating and everything else I was doing.”
Out of the realm of her parents’ supervision, freshman year of college was a time of exploration for Li. “That was my first taste of freedom, so I did a lot of rebellious things I would never have done in high school,” she said. “I even learned how to smoke cigarettes, though I only do that every once in a while. I enjoy my life here in Beijing, I can do what I want.”
It was her junior year of college when Li finally got to fulfill her dreams of visiting America. She spent half a year doing a study abroad program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale that broadened her views of the world. It didn’t take her long to adjust to American culture. Shortly after her arrival in Illinois, Li was learning American idioms, partying with American friends, and even dating an American boy. She said she found that some of her views changed during her time in America.
Li said, “I began to question small parts of Chinese life that I’d never thought of before.” In China, it’s fairly common to see a guy walking around carrying his girlfriend’s purse; it’s simply considered the polite thing to do, similar to the American tradition of men holding doors open for women. Li was confused at first when the American boy she was dating didn’t carry her purse, but her roommate explained to her that American boys didn’t really do that. Li said, “I got used to it, and now I just think it’s so weird when I see boys carrying their girlfriend’s purses here in China. I never would have thought that before.”
That was a minor example, but Li found her perspective on bigger issues changing as well. Her whole life, she was taught that proper Chinese girls follow certain societal rules. In America though, Li discovered that it’s hard to have any fun if you follow all of those rules. Her face flushed and she became visibly irritated as she lists off things her roommates and most Chinese girls consider taboo. “They won’t drink any alcohol, not even one drink,” she explained. “They would never ever get drunk. They don’t dance. They don’t wear makeup. They don’t stay out late. They don’t have sex before marriage. They won’t do anything fun!”
Although she had been starting to feel annoyed with her “boring” roommates even before she went to America, Li’s time in Illinois solidified any doubt she had. “I want to continue to travel and learn more about the world outside of China now,” Li said. She is currently studying for the GRE and plans on applying to American schools for graduate programs in journalism. Her father was hoping that she would use her accounting major to move back home to Xiamen and get a job there after graduation, but that is not what Li has in mind.
“He didn’t want me to pursue journalism because he doesn’t think I can make money in that,” she said, but Li said she told him that she was determined to do it and wouldn’t change her mind. Finally, her father relented, saying that if she was set on doing it, he wanted her to “try her best” at it.
Although she wants to go to graduate school in America, Li says that she plans on returning to China after graduating. Unless of course, “I fall in love with an American or something crazy like that.” Then for a moment, Li’s perpetual cheer turned serious and she said, “China will always be my home. I want to see the world, but I know I’ll still want to come home in the end.”
*Note: The student's name has been changed to protect her privacy.