By Lu Shen
In this three-part series for The Daily Iowan, Lu Shen, an international student from China, shares her reflections on being an international student at the University of Iowa.
World Citizen: Where is home?
I like going to New York City, because I don’t feel like a foreigner there; I think I’m no different from anybody hurrying by me on the street. When the subway arrives on a station, passengers take their phones out of their pockets, and you can hear “Hello” in seven languages. However, the feeling of being a foreigner floods back when I return to Iowa City. I’m not saying I am excluded or alienated by natives; I’m just different. I think I don’t really mind being a foreigner, or an outsider — though it certainly contributes to an often overwhelming sense of loneliness, even when I’m surrounded by people.
In the meanwhile, however, I have also felt much less connected to home and to my country since I journeyed to the United States two years ago. So I began wondering if my predecessors who are now U.S. citizens feel at home in this country, or if they have ever felt alienated from their home country. I want to know if being ethnically Chinese while holding American passports means that they have to compromise or to struggle with their national identity.
The people I spoke with while pursuing this project all told me that they are world citizens, that after years of obtaining U.S. citizenship, they have taken their national identity less seriously, because only in this way can they survive without any inner conflicts and struggles.
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World Citizen: Getting somewhere
Like every international student, I have been asked a million times: do you want to stay in the States or do you want to return to your home country after graduation?
It’s a difficult question for me — and, as it turns out, for a lot of other Chinese students as well. From my perspective, I would love to stay in the United States. But at the same time it’s difficult for tens of thousands of international students such as me to secure jobs and working visas.
Since my arrival in the United States, the conventional wisdom is that for foreign nationals, the likelihood of getting a job in this country with a degree in journalism is slim. And yet, the idea of going back to China and working as a journalist there had terrified me so much that I didn’t want to think about it.
So the answer simply became: “I want to go to graduate school here.” But truthfully, I was never sure how much I really wanted to continue studying right after college. And so despite the tough decisions ahead, I simply chose avoidance. Until now – because I’m a senior and will finally have to make the choice: do I look for a job, or do I prepare for the GRE?
I’m not the only person worrying about securing a job in the United States and, more importantly, obtaining a working visa.
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World Citizen: Freedom
The first time I left China for the U.S. was in the summer of 2011. My destination was Conway, Ark., to spend four months in an exchange program organized by my university in Hangzhou, China. A sense of elation washed over me the moment I landed on the new foreign soil. I remember that the first word out of my mouth, when people asked why I liked it here, was “freedom.”
Being simple and naïve, the then-20-year-old girl thought her host country — known for being a civil and democratic society — would offer all the freedom she had always yearned for. But after my “honeymoon phase” with America cooled off, I started to realize that it was the social pressures in China that mostly contributed to my feeling restricted back home rather than the lack of civil and political rights. I mean, politics had been too far away from my everyday life. As simple as it was, my definition of freedom meant feeling comfortable not fitting into social norms and having more choices.
If you open up the China page on the Freedom House website, you will see an evil China: This is not a Western-style democracy; it does not have a comprehensive legal system. Chinese people do not have the freedom to vote, the freedom of press, the freedom of speech; they do not enjoy lots of civil liberties that Americans think everybody should be born with … But guess what? The lack of political freedom and civil liberties is not the sole cause of people feeling restricted in China. Moreover, there are people who say they enjoy the freedom they have in China.
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