We had been acquaintances before, but the words we exchanged never went beyond hello. I had been friends with her on Facebook, but I never even bothered to ask her how she writes her name in Chinese. Two weeks ago, I heard that she was departing for Germany to start her Semester at Sea, and I was immediately intrigued. We sat down and had the following conversation.
What do you think the Semester at Sea program will bring you?
Simply speaking, this program is designed so that you’d be on a cruise ship and go to many different countries. Even though you only stay for a short amount of time in each country, you still can see many different cultures. Since I’m doing the World Performing Art and Cultures major, I think a large part of my trip will be in learning about cultures and seeing the arts of the cities, be it visual or performing arts. I would definitely like to see performing arts more. My major is interdisciplinary, and that program is multicultural and interdisciplinary, so it’ll be a great fit and a unique way for me to see the world. The trip will mostly cover Europe, Africa, and South America. After I come back, I can take more classes that focus on Asia and Pacific Islander American so that I can get a very general perspective of what the world is like, and what art is like in different parts of the world.
What are some of the highlights that you are looking forward to in this trip?
So you have lots of options when you arrive at a port. You can either go explore the country by yourself, or you can go with Semester at Sea and they have their own field programs. There are several programs that are specifically related to performing arts. I think one of them is seeing African folk dance and having dinner with the locals, another one is doing an exchange program with local university students. I signed up for a lot of other programs as well. I usually chose programs that are more about interaction and seeing the culture through the locals.
Could you name the countries that you are going to?
Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Senegal, Brazil, Trinidad, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and we’ll finish in San Diego, California.
How many people will be on the same ship?
Five hundred. They are mostly American students but there are some international students.
I’m curious about every aspect of this trip. How many days do you spend in each country?
We’re staying for three to five days in a country depending on what country it is, and for the rest of the time we are on the boat. We have a schedule for what we do on the boat.
What’s the intention of the trip from the perspective of the organizer, if you could speak for them?
There are several parts of it. The most important part is cross-cultural understanding. It is a trip that goes to so many different countries, and just by seeing them you can compare all the cultures, or if you are studying a specific issue, you can see how this issue is represented or dealt with in each country. Globalization makes the world more united in some ways, but it impacts each country differently because of their individual characteristic. So it will be interesting to see how those similarities and differences interact. Another big thing they emphasis is community, not just the community on the ship. Since you are going to meet a lot of people in many countries, hopefully in a short amount of time, little communities can form. I believe all these experiences will be very memorable and could be my inspiration for my senior project.
Do you think it’d be too risky for you to claim any understanding of a culture by just being there for three to five days?
Well, It is a disadvantage of this trip because of how little the timeframe is for each country. We all know that we can’t know everything about a country from just getting a touch of it. We are taking a global studies class onboard the ship and I think in that class they’ll definitely tell us, since it is so short, it might be just one perspective of the culture. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it, but I’m definitely going to research more about each culture beforehand to get a better understanding of what it is like.
Tell me about this opportunity, how you learned about it, and what your mental state is right now anticipating this trip?
I had a friend who did it last year. She told me about it and it sounded really interesting, so I looked into it myself. The application process was a hassle for me because I was deciding between a lot of options. If I stay here on campus, I can get a job and finish my semester and graduate early. But it didn’t work out because I didn’t get my business major, which actually led me to pursue performing arts since it has always been a interest for me. [This turn of events] also gave me the opportunity to go on this trip since I am not in a rush to finish all my major requirements right now.
I applied and there was a whole bunch of stuff that you have to do after you get admitted. The visas are a big deal. Right now I’m still waiting on my last visa. It really gave me a headache before, because I didn’t have enough time to apply for all the visas. We also have to choose courses, field programs and pack for the voyage. I’m still working on everything but I’m super excited already.
It’s interesting that this was happening while you changed your major. What do you make of that change?
Business is what a lot of people, especially international students, are pursuing. I wanted to do it just because it was practical. People do practical things all the time just to ensure they can a job. But performing arts has always been my interest. I took a dance class each semester, while theater is also one of my favorite fields. At first, it was just for fun, but when I didn’t get my business major and I had to declare a major, my advisor looked through my transcript and saw that I’d done all these performing art classes. So he asked, “Why don’t you make theater or dance your major?” But I didn’t want to just do theater, so my advisor suggests me to do a self-designed interdisciplinary study. I had another friend who designed “World Performing Arts and Cultures” as her major. I thought it sounded really interesting, so I chose to combine theater, music, dance, global studies and Asia and Pacific Islander American studies together.
Do you think that would discount the practicality of your degree?
I heard a lot of people said that the undergraduate degree is really about what you like. If you really want to do something to get a job, you can get that from a more practical master’s program. I kinda agree. It did sound a little impractical—an art student. But still, I think if I want to go professional with theater or dance, I can do that, because I’ve learned all kinds of courses and skills on these subjects in college. A lot of people think it’s so hard to get a job with that. But if you really love it, there’s always a way you can work out.
What about your mind? I think a large part of education is about nourishing your mind and growing intellectually. Do you think switching to your major now gives you an advantage in that respect?
I am a visual learner, and I also like learning by doing. That’s why I like my theater and dance classes. We need to read books, but mostly it’s about applying things you learn to either movement or writing a script, doing set or costume designs and so on. This definitely gave me the opportunity to be more creative and think more. I do think I’ll like taking all the classes related to performing arts and grow intellectually.
Maybe business is just not the right path for me. Even though my grades are pretty good, I felt like I’m doing it because I’m doing it. I did not feel the desire to research more and learn more when I took my business classes.
Was there anything memorable in any of the theater or dance classes you took that defines the creative moment that you want to be in? What prompted you to believe that you are a visual learner?
Since I’m a dancer, I’ve always been good at copying movements. I can follow people very quickly if they dance a certain way, just like someone who’s good at literature can memorize all the literature they read. If I’m learning a new thing, I prefer to see people do it once instead of reading a description or just hearing some directions. But I never tried creating until I took a dance class here. Last year, I was taking the dance composition class. For each class you had to make a little dance. It was a little scary at first because I just didn’t know what I was doing. But it got better and I was impressed by how I can create something I never thought I could create before.
For my final project, I did a dance about myself, an autobiographical piece. It summarized my life from freshman to sophomore years, how I transformed from not really outgoing to an outgoing girl and the struggles in between. It dealt with the issue of identity. As international students, when we come here, we want to fit in. One thing I expressed in my dance was like, the more I want to be American, the more I find that I cannot and that I am more like myself. The most memorable moment during the process was when I did the music for my dance. I had never edited music before, and so I asked for help. I remembered clearly that I was using the piano version of Juhua Tai, which is a popular song in China.
My friend who was helping me edit the music added a reverb after a very emotional moment of my performance. It sounded so good and I almost started to cry in the studio. Of course he didn’t know why at that point of time. After he saw my dance along with the music he and I edited together, he said, “Oh my God, I do feel like crying right now.” I think this is the best moment of my creation, because it can move people, whether they have similar experiences or not. To international students, my piece reminded them of their experience and make them feel empathetic. I’m so glad that I can use my talent and creativity to speak for international students like myself.
How did you express this theme in dance? What kind of body language did you use?
You know what, I can send you the link so that you may watch the dance. That’ll help you understand. It’s hard to just talk about it.
You mentioned that, the more you want to become American, the more you find yourself to be not American. Could you elaborate on that?
When I was a freshman, my spoken English was not that great, so I made a lot of friends and talked to them just because I wanted to improve my spoken English. I took theater classes and debate classes also because I wanted to practice my English. That was the original purpose why I picked those classes. As the semesters went on, my English improved, but there is something that won’t change in your blood, like, I still want to get an umbrella if it’s sunny, and I still don’t like french fries and pizza if I have the choice between Chinese food and American food. I did challenge myself and tried a lot of different things that I would never do in China, like becoming a fitness instructor, going to frat parties, and then I found that I was able to do some of those things, but not the other ones. This process is confusing and sometimes frustrating, but all those experiences will tell you who you are, what you are good at and not good at, which is why I designed my ending to relate back to my beginning. If you watch the video, you will understand what I mean.
My piece focuses entirely on the experience of me as an international student. For us, it’s a little easier, because we are Chinese. We’re not like hyphenated American that is born with two identities. Actually I just did the Inside Out Theater project for all the freshmen this past weekend. It’s a spoken words performance which explains the issue of diversity on campus. One poem is about hyphenated Americans. I really liked one part from that poem, which says (and she paraphrases), “To drop the first part of the hyphen is dropping where I came from, and to drop the second part is like dropping who we are,” because they think of themselves as Americans. So that hyphen is not an or; it is an and. I think they have both parts of the identity and they’re certainly struggling between those two, while we’re struggling to fit into the society here and trying hard to not forget our roots. It is not easy for us as well. So in those two years, I did lost some part of my “Chinese self” and gain more of my “American self.” I would say my dance is about a girl trying to fit in, and discovering her strengths and weaknesses in the process. I choose Otherless as the title because I want to make people aware of how international students feel so that there’s less “othering” happening.
This process of reconciling with your identity is anyone with any experience in another culture would go through. It’s such a unique one for every single person. For me, a lot of it is less of a national identity, but more of an emotional identity. Language is such an important tool. It carries forth what you think and what you feel. When you have all your friends speaking to you in another language, you’re trying to gauge what really they are feeling, because there’s no baseline almost because you didn’t grow up around this culture and this language. You didn’t see the raw aspects of those emotions and the experiences they came out of. That was really hard for me. I wonder why you think national identity was such a big part of it, why you picked out being Chinese versus being America. What about being American is hard for you to fit into, and what is it about you that’s Chinese that’s hard to change?
Before I answer this question, let me bring up another experience. I was in Spain doing another study abroad program with eight American students. I was the only Chinese. We definitely became really good friends after the trip, but one thing I found I still couldn’t do well is that, when we are having dinner together and everyone starts to talk about their stories—like, some fun stories about their lives when they’re young— all their stories are so interesting! I wish I could tell them more, but…we have…the humor is different. If I tell my stories, they won’t laugh as hard, also, sometimes I still felt I could not catch up with their speed and find time to tell my story.
I was a little disappointed at first and thought, “I do have experiences but why couldn’t I tell good stories?” That upsets me because that makes me feel like I’m a person without stories. However, when I go back to China and see all my friends there, I talk about all kinds of fun things and they laughed really hard, and I realized, “Well, I have stories to tell. It’s just different when you’re in two different cultures.” Even when you are in America for so long, when you can communicate with each other fluently, there will always be those moments where your humor or experience is different, and you realize that you can’t change it because you were born in China. You don’t know what each other’s experiences are like for those eighteen years before college.
Going into a new country or new culture can change your personality, but you still can not change your national identity. Being in the US did change me in that I became more outgoing and more adventurous. However, I discovered that the party culture here is still a little hard for me to get used to.
The following part of the interview was conducted in Chinese and subsequently translated by the interviewer into English
Did you feel a sense of loss while your English was improving? You could certainly communicate better with others, but was it really enriching your mind and enabling you to express your thoughts? Was there a sense of disjunction? I think a connection between souls is something deeper than communication, so is it really possible to build that through learning a language?
I think language is the most basic tool of communication. In high school I was in a class named the Theory of Knowledge. It talked about the six areas of knowledge and fours ways of knowing. It lists emotion and language as being on par with each other, another one being reason, and there are more that I now don’t remember. Since they are on par, I think you can express some things directly through emotions. Things like dance and music doesn’t require any language to understand. You can convey what you feel through those media. But if everyone around you, everyone in this culture, speaks that language, then I think of course you need to learn the language, because communication comes first.
I don’t think I’m missing something deeper. Regarding language only, if I speak too much English, I will forget my Chinese. I really do. When I go back home and speak Chinese with someone, sometimes my first reaction would be in English. Then when I’m speaking too much Chinese, like I am today, I feel like my English is not smooth enough. However, if your English is so good and so natural to you that you don’t even need to think in Chinese when you are talking to someone in English, then language can help you. When I was in Spain—this is a personal story—I told a guy that I loved him and got rejected. I had to finish a paper on the same day, but I felt so sad that I couldn’t do it. I went to my roommate and asked her, “Can I tell you something?” Then I told her this whole situation in English, and she comforted me in English. In the past, if she comforted me in English, I probably wouldn’t feel as comforted as I would have if it had been in Chinese. But my English was good enough to understand her emotions. Their jokes too, jokes are a big part, because when you understand jokes in that language, then you really understand the language. I fully understood what she said to me, and I felt her emotions. I was truly moved.
I think this kind of experience is like a rite of passage for many of us who live abroad, not just Chinese people living in America. Once you’ve been through it, you are a different person. It doesn’t just add to your experience and open up your eyes, your way of thinking may be transformed. You suddenly go from being able to use a language to communicate with others to being able to forge real friendship with these people.
I think so too. Perhaps it’s also because of the constraints of their surroundings, many [Chinese] graduate students here don’t actively seek out opportunities for conversations. They don’t participate in as many extracurricular activities as we do. So even if their language skills are good, they are only limited to communication.
There’s another thing I want to mention. The program in Spain had two classes. One was Site-Specific Art, the other on happiness. It is a William & Mary program but it’s special and weird. It was one week of classes and two weeks of hiking, from Leon in Central Spain to Santiago in the West, and then one more week of classes at the end. Before we went on the hike, we read a lot of books and watched some movies. Every day during the hike, we were walking four to five hours a day, so there’s an extended period of time in which you are doing nothing. (In English) You do nothing and you walk. You have so much time to reflect on yourself. That really made me more emotional, more sensitive. If you are in school and you have all those finals to deal with, you don’t have time to think about different things in your life. I found myself become so sensitive, and that was why, when I was rejected by that guy, I was so sad. I had never felt that kind of sadness before. But that’s a good thing. It opens up my mind and tells me that I’m a person with emotions.