Written for the school newspaper, to be edited and published in a few weeks:
I grew up dreaming of China. “I love Chinese culture,” I would say, imagining dumplings and fireworks and chopsticks and people making a V with their fingers in every photo. Just out of high school, I shipped myself off to Beijing to teach English for the indefinite future. It was my dream come true. I didn’t expect that a week later, a month later, a year later I would be dreaming of home, counting the days until I could go back to Portland. It was my sudden introduction to the reality that cultures are different, and differences are challenges that most of us honestly don’t want to face. Coming to TWU, I’ve seen this reality played out in reverse in the many dorm rooms with strange names on the name plates whose doors rarely open. We are the generation that preaches multiculturalism, acceptance, and diversity, but international students are living among us feeling alienated and invisible. We want to travel and experience culture, we have world maps on our walls, but the world has come onto our very campus and we’re too uncomfortable to have a conversation. The good news is that if we can wade our way through the awkwardness and discomfort, we’ll discover a world both bigger and smaller than we ever dreamed.
I read the above sentences to some Chinese TWU students to hear their thoughts. At the word “invisible,” they all nodded and I asked why. One of the girls said that she’s in her lounge making food every day, but no one talks to her. Sometimes one dormmate says hi, but that’s it. “I feel like they don’t like talking to me, so I refuse to talking.” They related to me the stories of trying to connect to their dorm, but struggling to follow the conversations that were flying around them, conversations full of sarcasm and words like “YOLO” or “whaddup” or “lit AF” that have never been on their vocabulary lists. “People are laughing and we don’t know why.”
“But what can we do?” I asked them. Their response was automatic: “Be patient with us!” She explained that sometimes they’re just tired of trying to speak English, but they value every meaningful, intentional effort on our part. One of them gave the example a Canadian girl in her dorm who learned a few simple Chinese phrases and said them every day, or a girl who remembered Chinese New Year and put up some simple decorations. Often, international students feel unwanted in the instagram-perfect lives of their North American acquaintances, but simple gestures like these are a constant affirmation of inclusivity. Come do your homework in the Globe and hang out with whoever else comes in. Ask your international acquaintances about their cultural food or music or the most famous places in their country. Find a Chinese student and ask them to translate the title of this article for you. Let’s prepare ourselves to be facilitators of the diverse, culturally sensitive world we dream of. We won’t be able to love people across the world unless we can love them from across the hallway.