Helen is a Chinese student finishing up her studies in New York. She takes us on her international education journey, from fostering her early interest in gender studies to reconciling her heritage in a Catholic university.
Samantha: Would you like to start by just telling me about yourself?
Helen: I'll start with my background. I'm born and raised in Shanghai, and I spent the first eight years of my life in Shanghai. I came to the U.S. for college, currently a rising junior, and I'm studying Econ and Gender Studies at college. Currently, I'm interning at a firm for that. Regarding college, I actually spent the first year of my college in Boston, and then I transferred.
Samantha: What prompted your choice to come here for school?
Helen: I guess there are three contributing factors to it. The first would be that I really wanted to experience different things for college. In the U.S., I would really be able to get exposed to that diverse, diverse culture, and people from various different backgrounds. So I think that's really the first reason.
Another would be the fact that, especially for Gender Studies, the U.S. really offers a lot more of choices than China. There's no gender major or minor in China at this point. So from an academic academic perspective, coming to the U.S. would just offer me better exposure to whatever I'm interested in.
Lastly, this is also kind of related to academics: I think in the U.S. the class size is usually smaller, so I would be able to really share my thoughts in a class and really interact with my classmates. In that sense, I can really get to develop a lot of my critical thinking skills. So yeah, I'd say those three things would be the three big pieces that that made me make this choice.
Samantha: That makes perfect sense. So I'm curious about the second point, because perspectives about gender studies aren't the most popular study in China. How did you come to be interested in that?
Helen: That's a good question. I think that's related to my experience in middle school and high school. So in Shanghai, I actually spent both my middle school and high school in an all-girls school, so that's basically seven years spent at the only all-girls school in Shanghai. During my time there, I was able to really think about the role of gender in education. I think that experience itself really prompted me to explore more on gender and made me decide to major in Gender Studies.
Another thing that related to this decision would be one of my interactions in high school, where I really got to see that your gender can really change people's perception about you. So this when we are in a competition. And because we're in an all-girls school, so all of our team members are actually girls, we're just moving stuff and chairs and everything, by ourselves, that's needed for that competition. But then, when a group of boys saw us doing that, they will say things like, "See that group of girls, how pitiful they are. They have to move everything themselves."
I think that interaction also makes me think more about the role of gender and how gender can actually influence people's perception about an individual. And I think that's also a big thing that makes me want to major in gender studies.
Samantha: Do you think there was ever pushback for that, especially in China, where I know they really do like to define gender roles?
Helen: In China, there's definitely there's pushback, and I think there're really two aspects here. The first aspect is that I think the Communist Party really wants to push that conflict or increase that tension between different genders, and especially men and women, so that through making all the individuals in a society kind of worse through really increasing opposition, they will be able to strengthen the regime. So I think that's really one big reason for pushback.
And I think another really has something to do with China history. And especially when you look back at, you know, the past 1000 years, it's basically a patriarchy. I think, really, gender equality comes into play in 1950s, with the new marriage law, so I think that cultural factor also has a lot of has a lot to do with the pushback or the inequality that we still see in Chinese society.
Samantha: How was it like for you then to come into America, where there's such a radically different culture around independence, especially for a woman?
Helen: I've always been surprised by Gender Studies. And also, as you mentioned, modern feminism in the US. I think one thing that struck me the most is actually the role of race in feminism. Because when I was taking gender or feminist classes, what I would imagine is that most of the classes will be on gender, or thinking about power relations through the lens of gender. But what I found out is that a lot of it has to do with racial theories and also just politics of race itself. So I think especially in the U.S. context, it's very interesting to see that when you're talking about feminism, you are essentially also talking about race. And I just think that close relation between feminism and race is very interesting.
Samantha: Can you elaborate more on that?
Helen: For race, looking at African-Americans is definitely a large part of it. Due to U.S. history, that race, that specific race is really a big part of that. But my guess is that gender studies is essentially about power relations. In the U.S., besides gender, race is actually a huge expression of power relations in society, if not the biggest. And I think that's why, especially in the US, maybe compared to Europe or other parts of the world, when you're studying gender studies, race would essentially come into play and actually has a very big role.
Samantha: You also mentioned that you changed schools, right? Can you talk about that?
Helen: Yeah, of course. I think, similar to what makes me make the decision to come to the U.S. for college, those are kind of the same factors on why I want to switch schools. Maybe especially the first two factors.
One, I really want to get exposed to a more diverse student body. So when I was at my first college, it was essentially a Catholic school. And what I found out is that 90% of the students in class actually have very similar backgrounds. In essence, it doesn't really give me that diverse expectation that I had for college.
I think another big reason is, as i mentioned, I'm really interested in gender studies. And that college, at that time, didn't really have a lot of course offerings and a very strong gender studies department. I think at a time they even only had a minor for it, and they didn't even offer a major.
Samantha: What do you really mean about there not being immediate racial or even economic diversity? Was there like a feeling that you were just different? Or was it perpetuated by the students?
Helen: That's a great question. I think it's both. So, for being physically different, I think 81% or 80% of the students are white at that College. Of course, at first I just call it difference. But also, I would say, physically, you can feel that why students tend to actually take more space, whether it's in classes or in other settings. So I would say, physically, oh, there's this racial difference. And then I would say besides that physical aspect, I think culturally, there's this divide. I'm foreign to the U.S. Of course, I don't have a lot of knowledge about the culture and everything. I just feel it's very difficult to actually engage in deeper conversations with the students, especially given that they grew up in an environment that probably doesn't have a lot of diversity.
Samantha: Yeah, that's interesting. What I've always found interesting about being Asian American is that nobody intends to be mean to you, or to exclude you. Obviously, you don't face that overt racism that African-Americans face. But I think people automatically categorize us as different, and you just don't have like that cultural link to be able to share certain qualities.
Now, why don't you tell me about maybe what's different at your new college. What're you actually seeing as a result of the diversity of your setting?
Helen: One of the most important things for me is that I'm actually a lot more confident. At my old school, because of that lack of physical diversity, as well as diversity in thought, I know my voice might not be clearly heard in class or other settings. And then, I tend to be quiet or silent. But after I transferred, because I know that diversity is welcomed here, that actually makes me more confident and more likely to speak up in class and also in interactions outside of class. It's just very interesting to think about how your environment can change your perception about yourself.
Samantha: Did you ever feel like any sense of hostility or like outsiderism put upon you?
Helen: I don't think I have really encountered any racist incident when I'm working on street or when I'm interacting with other people. But I do think I've had a feeling of being an outsider. That comes from me feeling like someone not born in the U.S., not able to really be part of this society. In other words, I think it has more to do with how you perceive your self than the external things.
Samantha: Was there ever a specific moment or incident that you can recall, just being struck by that feeling? Or do you think it's always just kind of like, hung around?
Helen: If I'm to think about a moment, it would be when I was at my old college, and when I was on a school bus one day. A bunch of students probably just finished partying, and there's a group of five or six of them, just then, that came onto the bus. They were all like talking to each other and laughing. At that point, I did feel a sense of loneliness that they were all having fun while, myself, I was just very quiet, just sitting there. But again, there's no racist comments or anything. It's just building this internal feeling of an outsider and loneliness.
Samantha: Looking forward at your current college, making new friends, do most of your new friends happen to be international students or other Asian-Americans?
Helen: When I'm just meeting with people, I do tend to interact more with international students and Asian Americans. And that's really interesting, because it relates to our previous discussion on how, it's more about your internal perceptions about yourself. Because of this long history of racism that in the U.S., it's something very specific that we feel, as potential students or people of color coming to this country. I feel like we are internalizing that, and we perceive ourselves as outsiders, and that makes us pick friends who are also Chinese international students or people of the same race and ethnicity. I think that's just one example of this lasting implication of racism.
Samantha: Do you wish it were different?
Helen: That's a great question. It makes me imagine, maybe, a different society. I do hope for a society where there's no such thing called racism. Where everyone can be friends and be perceived as who they really are, instead of their race or their color. But in the society we live in I don't think I want to intentionally meet or have more white friends. At the end of the day, I want to be friends with people like me and feel happy with that. I'm very happy and comfortable with my current circle of friends.
Samantha: Now on a broader scale, just from being in America for three years now, what kind of values have you adopted? Do you think you've grown apart from any of the traditions you were raised with?
Helen: The biggest thing is a cliche, but I would say I developed critical thinking skills. These are more important than any value, because it allows me to question everything. Of course, it's the first time I've been challenged to question my knowledge about China, its government, its communism. But it also makes me question capitalism, the current model that the U.S. is adopting, the underlying structure of Western civilization. If there's one value I really appreciate, it would be the critical thinking skills I developed in the U.S. Because at the end of the day, my learning journey is really about asking better questions, instead of finding all the answers.